Interactive Science Notebooks For The NGSS

The term “interactive science notebooks” is most likely not entirely foreign to you.  It’s been around for years now, and I think for most teachers, it conjures up images of cutting and pasting, flaps and foldables.  While those CAN be a part of your science notebooking (and there’s nothing particularly wrong with incorporating these tasks), interactive science notebooks are much MORE than cut and paste art projects.  I first learned about ISNs in the text, Teaching Science With Interactive Notebooks by Kellie Marcarelli.  I would say it is a text worth checking out for sure, although it has been years since I read it.

The interactivity of ISNs comes from the simple fact that students are working with information inside the notebook.  It is not simply a record of notes, questions and answers, and vocabulary terms that you as the teacher assign. While these may be a part of the notebook, the value of ISNs is in the content that STUDENTS create. 


To learn about digital notebooking, check out this training I held inside the NGSS For Middle And Science Teachers Facebook Group.

Structuring Your Traditional Interactive Science Notebooks

Standard Approach:

There are a lot of different ways you can approach this, and in the end, you need to choose what works best for you and your students.

The most popular method involves using composition books, creating a table of contents, and numbering all pages immediately.  Then, teachers and students use right-hand pages for INPUTS and left-hand pages for OUTPUTS.

With this setup, students will record the INPUTS on the right side. Inputs are taken from lectures, videos, labs, textbooks, other readings, so on.  Inputs are essentially teacher-driven.  

On the left side, students record their output.  They DO something with the material on the right-hand side.  Perhaps it is a mind map, a reflection paragraph, a diagram, a graph, a word web, pictures or drawings, 3-2-1 reviews, summaries, so on.  Students take the information from the right side and process it – creating something new with it.

If a student needs more space on a page, teachers who use this method often rely on “flaps” glued or stapled into the notebook to essentially extend the page.

I started my career in Interactive Science Notebooks utilizing this method.  However, I found the “flaps” became cumbersome and wasted class time and the right side/left side method didn’t quite work as well with the discovery-style of instruction I was transitioning to.

So I switched it up.


My NGSS Approach:

First, I used spiral notebooks.  While I agree that composition notebooks are hardier for sure, I was in a situation where I chose to provide the notebooks to my students, and composition notebooks don’t go on sale for 10 cents at Walmart every fall! Yes, some notebooks did get pretty beat up.  On the other hand, my students’ notebooks stayed in the classroom, so it wasn’t as bad as it probably would have been if they were carried back and forth regularly. These details are just personal preference, so you do you — I just wanted to share with you my experience.  These are all decisions you will make based on YOU and YOUR STUDENTS, and I don’t think there is a right or wrong way. Just be sure to consider your rules and expectations around your science notebooks before you get started. 

I asked my students to decorate their covers (pictures of themselves, magazine clippings, drawings, whatever) and then we wrapped it in contact paper.  This activity was an opportunity to get to know a little bit more about my students and get buy-in. These notebooks were THEIRS, they were important, and I wanted them to see it that way. 

We created a (blank!) Table of Contents on the very first page and left a few pages afterward in case we needed it. I did NOT have students number their notebook pages in advance.

When we were ready, we went to the first working page and created our Aha! A page for the unit (a right-hand side page).  The Aha! page is where students compile their understandings throughout a unit, tying it to the big idea (or in the case of the NGSS, the anchoring phenomenon).  At this point, students don’t have any understandings (haha), so they simply numbered page 1 and put the heading format I had created.  

For my class, I asked students to put a small heading in the top right-hand corner of the page.  It included the title (whatever I said it was) and the date.  

Then, students went to the next working page — and this is where the real learning started. 

On these day-to-day working pages, students would record the heading and date as usual — something quick and easy like “Atoms and Molecules” or “Interactions in Ecosystems.”  They put a page number – 2, in this case. I also had students record a question they would be working toward answering and/or the Success Criteria (a statement of what they could do at the end of the lesson). (Side Note: With Success Criteria, be sure to craft the statement so that it does NOT give away the content you are guiding them to discover!)


Using Your Interactive Notebooks

Notebooking for Meaning Making: Explore and Explain

We then got to work on whatever tasks that lesson included.  I did NOT do a right side/left side approach. I couldn’t really because the teacher INPUT usually came after the student’s work… and it just didn’t jive well.  So what did I do instead? 

For one, because I use guiding questions during Explore activities, I often provided my students with worksheets for these tasks (if it was something I wanted to collect immediately). Alternatively, I might provide the list of questions condensed “skinny-wise” with instructions to glue these questions right into their notebooks.  Then, as they worked, they could answer the questions right in the notebook (without spending unnecessary time copying questions). These questions are all about the process of exploring, so while it was nice to have this work in the notebook to see their understanding develop question by question… it also wasn’t entirely necessary.  The following meaning-making activities synthesized what students ended up with at the end of the Explore task.

If the Explore task involved collecting data somewhere that wasn’t directly in the notebook (on a diagram, a map, a table or graph, etc.), I always had students cut and glue this into their notebook.  That way, they could do the meaning-making with the data RIGHT THERE.

Moving on to the Explain portion of the lesson, students were given a prompt or question (or maybe several) to process their experience — maybe it was to draw a model, maybe it was to make sense of the data they had collected.  These tasks often involved individual work, then partner discussion, and then ultimately whole group discussion and instruction.

This is typically where the traditional “notes” came in — maybe it was vocabulary terms (alternatively, you could have a “log” for each unit after your Aha! page that you build as students encounter the terms), maybe it was a diagram, maybe it was just simple notes, whatever you typically do here.

Lastly, any additional activities relevant to this topic may also go into the notebook following this. This is where you can focus on tasks that can model approaches to studying — those mind maps or concept maps, vocabulary organizers, rewriting notes, constructing summaries, reflecting on a learning experience, applying to a new situation, so on and so forth. 


Extending Pages In The Notebook

You may be wondering, how did you fit all of that on one page? I didn’t.  Instead of using actual page numbers (where one student may take 2 pages for a topic and another take 5), I used “topic numbers.” Atoms and Molecules is “page 1.” It is in the Table of Contents with the #1.  But it may be more than one page, and I simply asked students to number each page relevant to that topic with the same number. So yes, students had several page 1’s… but this process worked for me.

I did always ask students to start the next topic on a right-hand page.  This was just an organization thing that helped us find the topics easily. 


Three Dimensional Science Notebooks

Science notebooking is such a valuable way to engage students in literacy practices, but it’s important that we consider how we are using our science notebooks. We want to make sure all of our instructional strategies are shifting to meet the rigor and relevance of three dimensional instruction. This means rethinking the cut and paste approaches we have used in the past, and instead using notebooking to support student thinking throughout your NGSS storylines.