Science, art, and personal reflection: Field journals as an assessment tool in higher education

I am a big fan of note-taking and list-making; whether it's keeping track of birds that I see, writing in a journal, or writing down observations of spiders living on the tundra. I'm a firm believer that if you write about (or draw) things, you will remember the events more vividly, and in turn, the experience will live longer in your memory. I don't often go back and read all of these notes or journal entries, but I think they help me with the history of my own life. As a field ecologist, this act of keeping track of what you see (...and when), is critical to success. Field notebooks contain data!  This is well explored in Canfield et al.'s (2011) book "Field Notes on Science & Nature". Gaining insights about the natural world is intimately linked to observing and note-taking, in situ.

Two of my field notebooks, from during my PhD research

Two of my field notebooks, from during my PhD research

Learning how to take field notes, however, is like any other skill: it needs to be learned and practiced. Therefore, 'field journals' have become part of how I assess students in my field biology class at McGill University. One of the goals of this class is for undergraduate students to hone their observation skills, and recognize that a 'good eye' is one  of the most powerful tools in field biology. There are certainly examples in the literature, and example of course outlines that include 'field notes' or 'journals' or 'diaries' as a method of assessment. For example, A quick chat with twitter-pals suggests "field notes" are quite common in specific courses, especially in ornithology classes (here's an example from North Carolina State, and another from the University of Saskatchewan). Bug Girl told me about a great entomology journaling activity in which students (daily) watched caterpillars hatch, feed and develop: frass and all!

'Field journals' can be thought of as a type of 'reflective diary' sensu Dummer et al. (2008), although such diaries are perhaps meant to be more personal and reflective rather that an objective series of observations in an ecologist's field book. Reflective diaries are recognized as helping to facilitate deep learning, i.e., "... learning that encompasses the acquisition and application of higher order skills, such as analysing, interpreting and evaluating information" (Dummer et al. 2008).  Brandt & Manley (2002) provide an in-depth assessment of a 'Fieldbook' assignment; this differs somewhat from a field journal or reflective diary in that it is quite structured, detailed, and rather more intensive than a typical 'field journal' assignment. Regardless, the fundamental ideas are similar whether it's called a journal, notebook or diary: students to put pen-to-paper, while in the field, and through this process develop scientific skills.

Here's how the assignment worked in my class: students were required to purchase some kind of journal/notebook into which natural history observations could be recorded, including observations and experiences from outside the in-class field laboratories. The goal of this assignment was for students to discover and observe nature, record these observations, their relevance, and provide context to the observations – do they lead to more questions about natural history? Do the observations relate to content from one of the field laboratories?  (as I think more about it, the assignment really falls somewhere in-between a straight species-count or inventory (what might be called a field book), and a reflective journal).

One page of a student's field journal (reproduced here, with permission). Reflections on getting to know mushrooms.

One page of a student's field journal (reproduced here, with permission). Reflections on getting to know mushrooms.

Students were graded on the following criteria:

1) Observations: Series of recorded observations related to natural history, taken from (minimally) all field laboratories in the course, and from any other outdoor trips.

2) Quality (depth): Observations are recorded carefully, with an eye for consistency. Efforts are made to reduce bias/preconceptions and strive for objectivity.

3) Scope (breadth): Observations were made on a range of organisms; efforts are made to reduce any taxonomic, temporal, or spatial/scale biases.

4) Metadata: Observations are time- and date-stamped, and other metadata such as location, weather, prevailing conditions, environment/habitat, etc. are recorded.

5) Creativity: Evidence of creative thinking, integration of ideas and concepts, evidence of personal approach (and anecdotes) to the journal.

I also provided the following hints to students:

-Get in the habit of providing a time and date stamp for each observation.

-Whenever you travel outside, whether for lab or on an evening walk, take your field book.

-Look everywhere, and on multiple scales: from small insects to canadian geese, from geological foundations to diverse stands of trees.

-Context is critical: a list of bird species you see (by itself) is of very little value if given without context. A list of birds related to key habitat features and time of day becomes interesting.  Try to draw connections to other things you are seeing and doing.

-Number of pages or number of observations is not important: it’s about quality rather than quantity.

-Be creative! The goal is for you to discover and hone your observation skills – if it’s quicker and easier for you to draw or sketch, do so!

-The journal is a journey, and you should approach it that way: it will never be finished. It should always be a ‘work in progress’, and should be thought of as a dynamic assignment

-Mistakes and errors are expected, and normal. Do not try to get things ‘right’ – get things ‘right’ from your own perspective.

I was truly amazed and stunned at the quality of the field journals. As I had hoped, the students provided much more than an inventory of species. They looked at at more than the assassin bug, tree frog or blue jay: they wrote about where they were when they saw these species, what the weather was like, and the main habitat features. They provided context. As was found by Dummer et al. (2008), I believe deep learning was achieved with this field journal assignment. There was synthesis, integration, reflection and personal anecdotes.


A student's field notes about aquatic inverts (reproduced here with permission)

A student's field notes about aquatic inverts (reproduced here with permission)

Perhaps my biggest surprise was how the students expressed their creative and artistic abilities (note: students in the class are majoring in biology). Most journals included drawings of plants or animals, and expressions of wonder and curiosity. We are all multi-talented, and I would argue that one of the drawbacks of many (most?) biology degrees is that creative expression is not embraced. A typical biology degree forces students to become proficient at memorizing facts, reading scientific literature, learning anatomy and physiology of plants and animals, writing formal term papers, etc.. These are all important things, but do not allow students to express the creative sides of their personalities, and perhaps dissuade these kinds of expressions.  Some students can perhaps better express their natural history observations through drawing rather than through words. As Farnsworth & Beaty (2012) describe (pointing to an example from a primatologist in Costa Rica) "...sketching was an important method for recording field observations".

An example of the artwork in a student's field journal (reproduced here with permission)

An example of the artwork in a student's field journal (reproduced here with permission)

Let's work to find ways for science students to be more reflective in their writing, express their artistic sides, and have some of our assessment tools embrace more creative outlets. The world needs people with a range of skill sets, and I believe our academic programs should facilitate and embrace this.  And, more 'observers and recorders' of nature is a very, very good thing.

(Note: a HUGH thanks to Graham Scott and my twitter friends for pointing me to some literature and case studies about the use of field journals in higher education)


Brandt & Manley (2002) The practice of the fieldbook: Facilitating and evaluating field-based learning. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad (Volume 8)

Dummer et al. 2008) Promoting and Assessing ‘Deep Learning’ in Geography Fieldwork: An Evaluation of Reflective Field Diaries, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 32:3, 459-479

Farnsworth & Beaty (2012) The Journal’s the Thing: Teaching Natural History and Nature Writing in Baja California Sur. Journal of Natural History Education and Experience (Volume 6)


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