Record keeping to support inquiry

By Heather King - July 2013


Garcia-Mila, M., Anderson, C., & Rojo, N. E. (2011). Elementary students’ laboratory record keeping during scientific inquiry. International Journal of Science Education, 33(7), 915–942.

When engaging in inquiry, learners find it difficult to control variables, design appropriate experiments, and maintain continuity across inquiry sessions. To support learners, researchers developed an inquiry task that promoted record keeping. The aim was to highlight the role that record keeping can play in metacognition and, ultimately, in successful inquiry.

Prior studies have noted the metacognitive value of record keeping: writing notes can help learners to remember data (the mnemonic function), manage data (the organizational function), and make meaning and draw interpretations from data (the epistemic function). However, previous research has also found that students rarely integrate their notes with subsequent experiments, that the majority of notes are irrelevant, and that spontaneous record keeping is rare without prompts and scaffolding.

Research Design and Findings 

In an attempt to promote record keeping, the researchers designed an inquiry task that explicitly encouraged the use of note taking. The task involved comparing variables affecting plant growth: which type of seed, with either natural or artificial light and with either organic or chemical fertilizer, would grow best. The students were told that they could make a total of 10 different experiments to test these variables. By setting a maximum of 10 experiments, a degree of slack was built into the task allowing space for students to make mistakes in their experimentation of the eight possible combinations of variables. Since the results of each experiment would take at least a few days to become evident, the task was scheduled to last for four weeks.

The extended time frame, along with the need to gather data repeatedly, coordinate the experiments, and record findings, arguably made cumulative note taking essential.

The study involved 34 sixth graders at a public school in Barcelona. The research data comprised students’ notes and oral interviews in which the researchers encouraged the students to comment on their notes and on their progress with the inquiry.

The researchers were unable to establish a direct cause-effect relationship between the children’s record keeping and their efficiency in investigating the problem. However, they did find that the students who completed the task by testing all eight combinations of the variables had a significantly higher number of complete notes than those who did not. Furthermore, students made more notes in the final session of the task than in the first. The researchers also found that any inferences students made were more likely to be valid if the students had reviewed their notes. In other words, simply recording data was not enough; students needed to review the data as well.

In their conclusion, the authors claim that record keeping made the inquiry strategies visible. Not taking notes, by contrast, placed an additional burden both on working memory, which enabled students to coordinate the variables, and on long-term memory, which helped them recall findings.

Implications for Practice 

It would be fair to say that the process of recording data and reviewing findings is not a common feature of programming in most hands-on science centres. Other informal settings may also eschew writing-based tasks because they resemble school practice. However, keeping written records supports metacognition, and metacognition is crucial for learning.

The task in this study was designed to elicit spontaneous record keeping; it highlighted for students the importance of keeping notes. As the researchers point out, the iterative nature of the task also facilitated the back-and-forth process of examining data and making interpretations—a key aspect of inquiry.

With imagination, informal science educators could similarly design activities to facilitate record keeping, thus promoting richer metacognition and, ultimately, more effective inquiry.