March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Sensemaking Notebooks: Making Thinking Visible for Both Students and Teachers!

Posted: Friday, August 19th, 2016

by Karen Cerwin

“Students can’t yet write independently without basic sentence frames.  Their thoughts are usually bigger than what they can put on paper.” – Kindergarten Teacher

This quote works for everyone; our thoughts are usually bigger than what anyone can put on paper! Yet, our job as educators is to help students learn to communicate their thinking in meaningful ways. One strategy is to use science notebooks in the classroom in a way that aligns with how scientists use their notebooks in their daily work.

Scientists use notebooks as a “thinking journal” in which they record observations and thoughts about a phenomenon they are investigating. They propose ideas, research how others have thought about the phenomenon, do original investigations, edit and refine their thinking as they gather more data, generate more questions for further study. Scientist notebooks are living documents that reflect the author’s thinking.  Thus their notebooks are unique and individual to that scientist’s ideas.

How can we translate this use of notebooks into our classrooms? Contrary to some people’s practice, it’s not about format!  It is about student thinking! The K-12 Alliance has had many “think tank” discussions to find the balance for classroom use of notebooks that offers a space for documenting thinking like a scientist while maintaining guidance towards developing student autonomy.

“All major aspects of inquiry, including managing the process, making sense of data, and discussion and reflection on the results, may require guidance.

In the absence of instruction or prompts, students may not routinely ask questions of themselves, such as What are you going to do next? What outcome do you predict? What did you Learn? How do you know”

-Taking Science to School, National Research Council, 2007

Our focus on developing a “thoughtful notebook practice” for our classrooms has resulted in naming Four Essences of Science Notebooks. We intentionally avoided the term “types” or “parts” of notebook entries as those words are often reduced to formulaic notebook entries. Essences embody how student thinking is present throughout the notebook!

Description of Notebook Essences:
The Four Essences of Science Notebooking align learning experiences with tenets of “How People Learn”: Accessing Prior Knowledge, Developing Conceptual Frameworks and Metacognition about what is learned (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). In the science notebook, students share their prior knowledge about the phenomenon, collect data and make sense of it (conceptual framework) to explain the phenomenon and metacognate about their understanding.

Essence of Prior Knowledge
All learners bring prior knowledge about a topic or phenomenon. It is much like turning on your computer and waiting for the computer to load information and the screen lights up! Prior knowledge notebooking entries provide a measure of what the student knows to both the teacher and the student. It provides a starting point to build conceptual understanding of the phenomenon.

Essence of Collecting Data
The NGSS shift to collecting data is the expectation that students use the practice of plan and conduct an investigation to collect data. In this practice, students identify what qualifies as evidence to answer a question. Instead of telling students the variable in an experiment, NGSS requires students to have a clear understanding of the phenomenon on which they are collecting data, as well as why the data should or should not be collected in a particular format. Encourage students to think about how to display their data. If students understand what data to collect, and how to display it, there is little or no need for a worksheet.

Essence of Making Sense of the Data
Making sense of the data aligns with how scientists establish or revise their understanding about a phenomenon. It is the crux of student thinking where they are able to make sense of data in terms of trends, causal or correlation relationships, validity and reliability of the evidence. It is where students can argue from evidence about methodology, results, and conclusions to support or rebut claims and explanations. Making sense includes using the Science and Engineering Practices and Crossutting Concepts in concert with Disciplinary Core Ideas.

Protecting time in the classroom for sense making of the data is essential to building student understanding.

Essence of Metacognition
Expert learners know what they have learned and how new information fits into prior conceptual frameworks. Teachers working on developing metacognition with students carefully design prompts such as: What do you know for sure? What are you not sure of? I used to think ____; now I think___; What are three things I know about this phenomenon, two things I learned and one thing I am wondering about.

Voices from the Field: Student Benefits
These summary statements come from K-8th grade teachers in the CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative:

  • “Students have a safe place to record thoughts about prior knowledge or making sense of data before speaking them aloud.” Along with a safe place to record, students quickly learn they can edit and are expected to revise their thinking about the phenomenon. “Students can see their own thinking and use the data collected as evidence for claims or altering a claim.” Notebooks become tools to record original ideas, collect data, summarize, edit explanations or models and reflect on how the world works.
  • Students have multiple ways to record their thinking. The very youngest K students might draw and write images integrating print with pictures. Older students continue to draw images but include connections between and among ideas through their use of models to explain. “Having my students include arrows in their models helped them and me recognize how they were visualizing the relationships in the model.”
  • Students are caught knowing what they know (rather than “gotcha” at what they don’t know). By encouraging students to use their notebooks to answer prompts, students recognize the importance of making notebook entries to help them with their understanding. “As a teacher it now makes sense to me that students use the information they gathered to explain what they now understand. At first, it seemed unnatural to allow them to use notebooks, but in reality, it is more natural for kids to see their progression in order to show what they have learned.”

Voices from the Field: Teacher Benefits
These summary statements come from K-8th grade teachers in the CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative:

  • Notebook entries provide a window into the minds of their students, enabling teachers to “coach” what is visible about student thinking. Notebook entries quickly read can give a sense of the intervention(s) needed to deepen conceptual understanding through the next selection of learning experience. “In twenty years I have not found a better tool for shedding light on student thinking.”
  • Effective notebook prompts have to be planned! Prompts need to be very carefully constructed to encourage students to meet the learning goals. “This is a high-level teaching skill and encourages me to work with colleagues to reflect on my practice.” Teachers often have to change their thinking in designing prompts. “I had to learn to move from assessing understanding to interacting with their understanding.”  This moves teaching and learning to a whole new level. 

Notebook Samples Below:
The K-12 Alliance is looking to help teachers collect more notebook samples that feature one or more of the four essences and demonstrate student sensemaking. Please contribute by using this form:

Click on the image below to open a full-screen slide show of the samples with commentary.

Karen Cerwin is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance @WestEd and is a member of CSTA. She will be presenting a short course at the 2016 CSTA Conference on Saturday, October 22: Science and Literacy in Primary Grades (K-2): A Win-Win for both NGSS 3-D Science and CCSS ELA. Information and registration is available online.


Bransford, J., A. Brown, and R. Cocking, eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school committee on developments in the science of learning. With additional materials from The Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino, editors. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, eds. (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Leave a Reply


California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: