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Using an Observation Log to enhance studies in biology

Kathy Yorks

Type of entry:

  • project

Type of activity:

  • hands-on activity
  • authentic assessment
  • community outreach/off-site activity
  • review/reinforcement
  • application of concepts in real world setting

Target audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Advanced/AP Biology
  • Integrated science (all levels)
  • Environmental studies
  • Special needs
  • Special education

Background information:

What question does this activity help students to answer

Students have been known to ask the question, "Why do we have to learn this?" This year-long activity can help answer this question by allowing and requiring students to relate concepts that they learn in the classroom to some aspect of their personal environment. Stated another way, students must apply the biology that they learn to a self-selected organism or site in or around their home. In doing so, they may begin to understand the relevance and value of the information discussed in their biology class and other science classes as well.

Notes for teacher
While this activity can be very worthwhile and meaningful for students, it requires a substantial investment of time on the part of the teacher. Reading, providing written feedback and evaluating the journals each nine weeks can be very time-consuming. However, the many objectives that can be realized make it well worth the effort.

Required of students
The most important thing required of students is their willingness to make an honest commitment to a nine month observation period of an organism or setting in or around their home. It is important that they choose a "topic" that is not only feasible for long-term observation, but interesting as well.

Preparation time needed
This activity requires little preparation time. It is important for students to understand the assignment and specifically what is required of them, and thus a detailed description (handout) should be provided. As it is helpful to students to see examples of log observations, copies can be prepared and provided.

Class time needed
This activity can take as little or much class time as the teacher is willing to invest. Initially, it is important to have students "practice" making observations and receive feedback on their observations. This can be done individually, but it is often more instructive to have students share their observations with each other/the class. A minimum of 2 class periods (45 minutes each) is recommended. Throughout the school year, it may be useful to integrate students' observations into relevant class discussions.

Abstract of Activity:

Logs and journals are a common component of scientific endeavors and an observation log, kept over a long period of time, can be a useful tool that enables students to make important connections between the classroom world and the real world and to develop a more biophilic attitude.

At the beginning of the school year, students choose a subject or setting that will be suitable for them to observe for the entire school year. Students are encouraged to pick a site that they will have ready access to and that they believe will be interesting to them. Outdoor settings are recommended but indoor topics (such as pets, fish tanks) are permitted. Over the course of the school year, students must complete a total of eight hours of observations, two hours per nine week period. Each observation period must be short (10 to 15 minutes) and not exceed 20 minutes.

This can be a very worthwhile and rewarding experience for students. Students "act like" scientists as they record details of their organism(s) appearance and behavior. Teacher-provided feedback provides guidance and helps direct future observations. The individual nature of the activity allows each student to participate within the range of his abilities, and adaptations and allowances can easily be made for special needs students. As teacher-facilitated connections are made between classroom topics and log observations, students gain a deeper understanding and new appreciation for the science of biology.


An observation log is a year-long activity carried out on an individual basis concurrent with the study of biology. This is a very adaptable activity that can be tailored to the needs and objectives of the course, the teacher and the ability level of the students. The description that follows is intended to serve as a philosophical framework and provide guidelines for implementation.


At the beginning of the school year, and in conjunction with discussions of 'what scientists do' and 'how they do it,' students are introduced to the topic of logs and journals as tools of the scientist. Another early topic of discussion is the relevance and importance of studying biology. Students are then required to choose a subject that will be suitable for them to observe for the entire school year and this becomes their observation log topic. They are given approximately a week to look around their homes to find a site or individual organism that is appropriate for study and, more importantly, interesting to the student. Outdoor sites are recommended and could include a tree (or trees), with or without a bird feeder, or a feeder by itself. Other outdoor settings include a vegetable or flower garden, a nearby stream or an anthill. Indoor organisms such as pets and fish are permitted. Some less common and challenging topics that can be observed are compost piles, house plants and even an infant sibling. It is important for the student to choose a site or organism that he will have continued access to and, as previously stated, that he believes will be interesting.

While students go about the process of choosing a site, they need to be given the opportunity to begin practicing making observations. As this may be the first time students have participated in an activity such as this, it is important to provide some guided practice and feedback. This can be done on an individual or group basis. Real and/or fictional log excerpts can be very useful and instructive. For example, Jane Goodall's observations, such as can be found in Through A Window, can provide an inspiring model.

Once a topic has been approved, the real "observing" begin. Students are not required to use technical language and scientific names, but they must make their observations as specific and descriptive as possible. Further, they are encouraged to "think out loud" as they begin to question what they see and attempt to hypothesize answers to their questions. For example, a student observing a deciduous tree in the fall may begin to notice a pattern of leaf loss. He would then be encouraged to suggest a possible explanation. As the year progresses, students are challenged to find new, yet undescribed characteristics and phenomena and their observation skills evolve.

Over the course of the school year, it is recommended that students complete a total of eight hours of observations, two hours per nine week period. Each observation period must be short (10 to 15 minutes) and should not exceed 20 minutes. The length of the recorded observations should be consistent with the amount of time spent observing. Each nine week period can have one or more emphases, such as requiring evidence of a pattern in appearance or behavior, conducting a very simple experiment or incorporating information from an "expert." An expert can be a reference book, a veterinarian or a knowledgeable family member or neighbor. Logs are submitted for evaluation periodically and so that written feedback can be provided. This is an important opportunity for the teacher to encourage and challenge the student and guide future observations.

This activity can be integrated into the curriculum as much or as little as desired. Students can be encouraged to relate what they have learned about their organism(s) to concepts being discussed in class. Often, students' individual observations can provide meaningful and relevant examples. As a result of keeping the log, students develop not only an understanding but an appreciation for many of the things they observe. This biophilic attitude builds throughout the year and can be capitalized on such as during ecology studies that may occur in the spring. It is also possible to make connections with other sciences, particularly earth science, by requiring observations relating to weather and seasonal changes.

Due to its individualized nature, this activity can be completed by all students, regardless of their ability levels or special needs. Students who have difficulty writing may audio tape their observations and, with assistance, then transcribe the tape. Students can be encouraged to make sketches, take photographs or include other physical evidence in support of and/or to enhance their observations. However, it is the process of writing that provides the under-appreciated, yet important, opportunity for quiet, personal reflection that is often followed by an understanding and appreciation of the log topic.


Recommended: notebook or journal, bound or loose-leaf

Optional: tools/equipment to gather more detailed observations such as thermometers, compasses, field guides, tape measures, magnifying tools, etc.


This activity can be assessed in a variety of ways, and to varying degrees, depending on the individual teacher. The observations from each observation period can be graded very generally, using a holistic scoring scale (such as 1-6) or an A, B, C, etc. scale. A scoring rubric can be useful once minimum criteria have been established. It is recommended that students be permitted to offer input in establishing grading criteria as they are often not only more aware, but more accepting of and committed to satisfactorily completing the requirements of the assignment. Minimum criteria could include completion of the required minutes of observation and evidence of completion of the emphasis assigned. The true value of this activity is what students learn and experience while doing it, not what grade they earn by completing it, and thus grading in the traditional sense may not be as necessary or even advised. The discussion which follows (Extension/Reinforcement) includes a strategy for incorporating log observations into an assessment tool. If portfolios are used, the log easily could be included.

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

As stated previously, this activity is highly adaptable and can be easily modified to meet the varying needs of students. For example, gifted students can be required to make longer, more detailed observations. While there is value in long-term observations, students could be required to change their log topic. Students could observe an outdoor setting for one semester and have the option of observing an indoor organism for the second semester.

One way to ensure that students are relating their observations to the topics and concepts discussed in class is by using questions on quizzes and tests. For example, instead of a more traditional final exam, students can be given a take-home exam consisting of questions relating to the topics discussed throughout the year that must be answered based on their log topic. They could be asked to describe an adaptation that their organism(s) has, how their organism(s) fits into the phosphorus cycle, or when the modern ancestor of their organism evolved. Thus, students have an opportunity to review the concepts studied throughout the year in a very meaningful and familiar context.

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