The Engineering Notebook as a Learning Tool

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Engineering notebooks are a vital part of VEX Robotics competitions. They are also an important learning tool that when effectively utilized can lead to a number of positive student outcomes.

The Need for Engineering Notebooks

In 2020, The National Science Teachers Association drafted a position statement on STEM teaching and learning. The position statement included the following declaration:

STEM education programs should be grounded in the tenets of constructivism supported by the findings of three decades of cognitive science. Integrated STEM education occurs when

  • learning is viewed as an active, constructive process, and not a receptive one;
  • student motivation and beliefs are integral to cognition;
  • social interaction is fundamental to cognitive development; and
  • knowledge, strategies, and expertise are contextualized in the learning experience.

The following will identify how Engineering Notebooks support each of these tenets of integrated STEM education.

Promoting Active Learning

In classrooms that utilize active learning, students engage with information along with their teacher and their peers. Engaging with information includes connecting new information with prior knowledge via a variety of methods such as reading, writing, discussing, explaining, and problem-solving. Research has shown that using tools like engineering notebooks can help students make sense of concepts while participating in active learning.1

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An engineering notebook also serves as an ongoing record of student learning over a period of time. Having students record their thoughts and ideas is important because:

  • learning is often a slow, deliberate process2, and an engineering notebook is a reflection of that process; and
  • applying grades to the deliberate process of learning can inhibit subsequent learning and student motivation.3

Revisiting an engineering notebook can promote student reflection and sense-making, allowing students to be active participants in their learning process.

Motivating Students

Engineering notebooks are written in each student’s own language and voice. This ownership is highly motivating for students.4 The engineering notebook also allows students to choose what they are documenting, how they are documenting, and what conclusions can be drawn from the documentation. This process allows students to become participants in the assessment process. When students are included in the assessment process, they are more engaged in their learning and teachers are presented with a more accurate representation of student learning.3

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Engineering Notebooks Promote Student Interaction

Engineering notebooks are a collaborative tool. Students collaborate in both the documentation process and also using the documentation to guide future activities. Because engineering notebooks are involved in each aspect of the engineering design process, they promote student interaction beyond documentation. Students will collaborate as they decide on improvements to make based upon the information contained in the engineering notebook. The engineering notebook can be used to help students that miss class, because students can refer to the documentation and then ask questions of their peers. Students can also share their engineering notebooks with students outside of their group. This can activate students as instructional resources for one another, which research shows is a very effective way to deliver formative assessment.5

Engineering notebooks also allow students to interact with their teachers. These conversations, in which students report their learning to their teacher, have been shown to have a positive impact on student learning.6

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Engineering Notebooks Contextualize Learning Experiences

Contextualized learning means that student learning experiences are embedded in an authentic context. When learning is authentic7, it:

  • is personally relevant;
  • provides connections to the real world; and
  • has assessment that is reflective of the learning process.

As was previously identified, each of the characteristics of authentic learning are amplified by engineering notebooks.

Getting Started in your Classroom

VEX IQ and EXP STEM Labs provide the perfect platform to utilize engineering notebooks in your classroom. Engineering notebooks are embedded throughout each STEM Lab, and STEM Labs include a video for students that discusses what engineering notebooks are and how they should be used.


1 Fries-Gaither, J. (2021). Science Notebooks in Student-centered Classrooms. National Science Teaching Association.

2 Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176–199. 

3 Dueck, Myron. Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage. ASCD, 2021.

4 Katz, Idit, and Avi Assor. "When choice motivates and when it does not." Educational Psychology Review 19.4 (2007): 429-442.

5 Wiliam, Dylan. Embedded formative assessment. Solution tree press, 2011.

6 Hattie, John. Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge, 2012.

7Shaffer, David Williamson, and Mitchel Resnick. "" Thick" authenticity: New media and authentic learning." Journal of interactive learning research 10.2 (1999): 195-216.

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