On writing it down

Feb 20 2013 Published by under Academia

It never fails. Every semester I train new students, and every semester, the same thing happens. I hand them a sheet of my guidelines for students. Listed in there is the following:

4. Write things down. You will be getting so much new information at first it will feel like drinking out of a fire hose. Here is a good rule of thumb: if I am explaining something, you should be writing it down. Also, if something is unclear to you, interrupt and ask for clarification.

Every semester I give out these sheets. They must go unread, because the first time that student learns anything from me...they don't write anything down. Usually the new, shiny lab notebook is closed. Often they don't even have a pen.

Look, kids. I do real good by you. I hold your hand through a protocol through at least two iterations (and let me tell you, watching someone sloooooowly pipette, or freak out trying to pick up a rodent by its tail for the 40th time, takes the patience of a saint). I not only write down protocols, I put them where you can find them. I hand them to you, printed out, physically, before each experiment. But even a printed out protocol a monkey could follow will not have things like "go to file: protocols: save as" written in it, it'll just say "save". That's why you need to WRITE IT DOWN. Even a written protocol will not have everything.

Write it down. Yeah, you say, no worries, I'll remember.

No you won't. NO YOU WON'T. Three days later? Sure. But three months later when you finally run the experiment again and need to remember whether it was red light or white light? You won't remember. Heck, most of you won't even have printed out the protocol again, because you won't have written down or read my careful instructions on how to keep a good lab notebook. And then you will come wailing to me about how you didn't KNOW where to save. How you didn't REMEMBER. And sometimes, when I tell you...you still don't write it down.

So don't look at me and get angry and defensive when I ask why you don't have a pen. Don't grump at me about how you won't need it. Shut up, swallow your pride. Write it down. Then when you forget something, and there it is in your lab notebook, all written down, and won't you feel clever? And won't I be relieved over not having to hold your hand? I beg you, students. Think of your postdocs. Write it down.

10 responses so far

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    Hear, hear. I just had to run off an undergrad who couldn't run a western unsupervised after a year of doing it weekly. Pre-meds, yeesh.

    Though can we extend this to grad students and post docs too? There's nothing worse getting a project that works for the person before you and all their notes say is to do protocol X? What does that even mean? Is this according to the manufacturer's instructions? What buffers did you use? Did this only work if you stood on one leg and clucked like a chicken between steps 3 and 4? Why did you not mention the clucking? I suppose if they didn't learn how to keep a decent lab notebook from the start then they have no incentive to do it properly later but why do I have to be the one who suffers.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    After I retired, I was around for a year, shutting down my operation, etc. My replacement and I talked a good bit. He always took notes. I was impressed.

  • eeke says:

    I find that when I give the kids an actual notebook that is made of PAPER, they don't know what to do with it. And they certainly don't like writing in it. They prefer their electronic devices, tablets, etc. But they don't seem to use them to record seemingly trivial notes (step 1: wash the glass plates; step 2, etc) that are so important for doing hands-on bench work.

  • Hermitage says:

    I just stop what I'm doing and say "If I'm talking, you should be writing." And then I sit there...until they give me the 'what a bitch' face and scamper off to find a pen/paper/notebook. And then they do a half-assed job and come asking me for help and I ask them why they didn't write it down. And then they insist that I never told them. Gahhhhh...

  • Prosopopea says:

    Ok, I'll admit it, I'm guilty.
    But, if I can say something in defence of all the undergrads in the world, you have to keep in mind that we have been trained for years thru high school and uni in separating the wheat from the chaff while taking notes to keep up with whoever is talking, and most of the really basic practical information don't really seem useful when you're used to studying without a real application in mind.
    " Why should I write down where do we keep reagent X ? It's not really a important concept or anything, it's just boring day-to-day stuff "

    And you come to regret this decision only when the post-doc is abroad, you're halfway thru the most important experiment for your graduate thesis and you can't remember where the heck reagent X was last time you used it, 3 months ago.

    Then you learn.

  • EBO says:

    A suggestion that works well for me:

    create a standard operating procedure (SOP) for your technical task

    give the SOP to your trainee personally/or make accessible (we currently have >20 on a cloud) prior to hands-on training

    their note-taking at this point should only facilitate comprehension of your SOP and hands-on training will be more efficient, saving you valuable time

    tell him/her to try to improve the SOP as they are learning the new task to improve their comprehension and make SOP more novice-friendly (they never are on first draft when the technical expert writes them)

  • Elizabeth says:

    I wish I were even at that stage with my undergrads. I have 2 that were assigned to feed our animals the last 4 days and they didn't show up (they don't even have to do it at a particular time, they just have to get it done sometime that day). Also, both of them are requesting the next 3 weekends and spring break off of feeding duties.

  • In a way, reading this discussion makes me feel good. I taught science classes gr. 5-8 for several years. Starting with 5th grade, I taught students how to take lab notes and write lab reports. I've heard from several formers, over the years, that learning these skills was the most important thing they learned. By the time students reach university class level, you're fighting a losing battle. Maybe colleges need to make a pre-lab class on these skills a prerequite.

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