A Lab Notebook for Teaching

Chemists are trained to use lab notebooks, whether paper or digital, to record their observations, measurements and preliminary conclusions. Good lab notebooks include not just what you tried, but why you tried it and even what expectations you had for the outcome. Lab notebooks are a record; reading over previous entries can help you notice patterns and plan future experiments. Someone else should be able to read your notebook and understand what, why & how you did everything. Ideally, they could reproduce your work with that knowledge.

Teaching involves a lot of experimentation: choosing examples, refining explanations, developing ways to address misconceptions, rearranging the order of topics, yet few professors I know keep a teaching notebook, even among scientists who would surely defend the importance of a notebook in lab.

It frustrates me that scientists can obsess over data about the craziest and most incredible things, but science professors do not often apply the same data-centric attitude to their teaching. (In many chemistry departments, education research doesn't "count" like bench research, either.)

About a year ago, I began my own “lab notebook” to collect data about my teaching. I keep it in Day One, with each entry tagged1 “teachingReflection.” At first, I was a bit haphazard in what I recorded and how often. It started as a way to record my successes as a reminder for days when nothing seemed to work. It was also a place to mull over my failures and think about ways to improve. Now I’m thinking of the notebook more as my records from “teaching lab,” and I’m taking more cues from my experience with chemistry lab notebooks.

Every day that I teach (currently every weekday), I take some time (usually at the end of the day) to write a bit about my teaching. I have a TextExpander snippet (;dtrf) that expands to create a template for my entries. Since Day One and TextExpander can sync between my Mac and my iOS devices (I’m a huge fan of the iPad Air!), I can call up the template and create an entry anywhere. (On iOS I do the initial writing in Drafts and then send it to Day One when I’m done.)

Here’s my current template2:

[MMM DD, YYYY] Teaching reflection
# [class]
## What went well
## What could use improvement
# Office Hours
# Meetings
# Other

I’m already considering changing the sections to include specific prompts for the class topic, methods & examples, and things like timing. I'm collecting information that, like temperatures or concentrations in a chemistry lab, could be useful for future me to know, and track, and adjust to make my next teaching "experiment" run better.

Education research abounds on the usefulness of techniques like journaling and writing about the “muddiest point.” Why assign such tasks to students and not apply them to oneself? Yet my (very preliminary) search of education literature has turned up few results for encouraging faculty to write about their teaching on a regular basis. Teaching portfolios and statements of teaching philosophy, yes. Weekly or daily reflection on teaching, not so much. Teaching reflections are presented mostly as a way to train pre-service teachers, and I've come across few articles about continuing the practice later in one's teaching career.

If you are familiar with literature on daily teaching reflections, I'd love to hear about it.

And if not, perhaps I've just found a new research topic.

1: I use Day One app to record other things, like Casual Science drafts, and since there’s no easy way I know of to switch between separate journals, I keep it all in one journal and use the tags to differentiate.

2: MMM DD, YYYY is the current date (which I have TextExpander generate). I put the classes I taught that day in [class]. The # and ## are Markdown headers, since Day One recognizes Markdown formatting.