Field journals are the most important tool for any biologist. Like artists, field biologists have definite opinions about what their journals should be like. I was taught how to keep a field journal in a 8.5” x 5.5” format. My field journal still has the Celsius/Farenheit temperature conversion chart I taped to it almost 30 years ago, as well as a graph of soil surface temperatures at which foraging occurs in three seed-eating ants (this is from my days of identifying ant heads in lizard scat).
In today’s world, gadgets with touch screens seem to be the new note taking tools while the handwritten journal is presented as more of a novelty. Today we give paper and pencil some well-deserved attention and learn how biologists teach students the value of learning from field journals.
What is the value of old-school style field journals?
This topic is discussed by professors John Farnsworth, Lyn Baldwin and Michelle Bezanson in An Invitation for Engagement: Assigning and Assessing Field Notes to Promote Deeper Levels of Observation. In their paper, the authors explore how their colleagues use field journals in college-level natural history classes. The authors also make a case for the inclusion of creative writing and drawing in science journals.
Within the meditative lines of a landscape drawing or a contour drawing of a plant, the marks on a page can move beyond a visual image to celebration. The science of ecology needs the joy of art.
— John Farnsworth, Lyn Baldwin and Michelle Bezanson
Farnsworth et al. (2014) believe field notebooks should be a component of all natural history courses because they help students pay attention to their surroundings, encourage deeper understanding and provide learners with a place to record their experiences with the natural world.
The authors suggest instructors use a rubric to help assess student journals and offer two examples of scoring rubrics in their paper. One of the rubrics is a straight-forward scoring guide and the second rubric is a scoring guide showing instructors how they can engage students in journaling on a deeper level. This second rubric is especially good and I recommend taking a look at it to see how it may contribute to what you do in your own classrooms or programs.
Natural History is About Connections, Not Memorization
With so much information coming at them, students often resort to memorization to “learn” in their classes. Farnsworth et al. (2014) propose correcting this behavior with field journals so students can better observe Nature’s patterns and processes. To help them provide examples of how journals can be used as tools for more meaningful learning, they contacted colleagues at the Natural History Network and invited them to send examples of journaling assignments and rubrics they use in their own classrooms. Using the materials they received, Farnsworth et al. (2014) created a list of best practices. This list of best practices includes ideas to help students record Nature’s patterns and to interpret what they observe. It also includes suggestions about how to encourage students to write for future generations and how to encourage students to draw what they see.
To read all of the best practices and to view the rubrics described above,
view An Invitation for Engagement online or download a copy. This article is available for free from the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience.
Farnsworth, J.S., L. Baldwin, and M. Bezanson. 2014. An invitation for engagement: Assigning and assessing field notes to promote deeper levels of observation. Journal of Natural History Education and Experience. 8:12-20
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