Field Notes Scavenger Hunt

Field Notes is a lesson plan created by 2000 HOST Teacher Jim Johnson.  


Students will observe and describe their surroundings in an outdoor environment using a standard field note format.

Grade level:  8 to 12


Science is not just a collection of facts or even just an intellectual process, but rather a combination of intellectual, personal and emotional processes. Ideally, good science learning activities will awaken and develop students’ natural curiosity, creativity and discovery while simultaneously developing their intellectual competence. The purpose of this activity is to engage students in observing and describing their outdoor environment. In addition, students will practice and improve their skills in observation of facts (not opinions), collecting information, quantifying information, and observing patterns in nature. Hopefully, this activity will also stimulate students’ curiosity, discipline and wonder about their environment.

Learning to make and record observations is an enormously important skill for biologists. These skills need to be practiced and improved through frequent use. Field biologists need to keep accurate, factual records of their field observations, so that they can refer back to them in the future. This activity introduces a particular format for recording field notes which may be used for a variety of future activities.

Joseph Grinnell was an accomplished zoologist at the University of California at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Grinnell developed a format for field notes which has served as a standard for biologists all across the country. Grinnell divided his field notes into three sections: a Journal, Species Accounts, and a Catalog. The catalog is used for collecting specimens in the field, and will not be used in this activity. Instructions on how to take field notes in the proper format are given in the student page of this activity.

A field biologist’s field notes are commonly written on smaller sized (about 9 x 6 1/2 inches or so) lined paper, and kept in a three ring binder. For this exercise, field notes may be written on a regular 8.5 x 11 sheet of lined paper. 

Location and Time


Time required:  One or more 45 minute periods

Teacher Preparation

Before the trip, spend some class time talking about ecology and other concepts, such as carrying capacity and competition.  The expected results are that there is a difference between the sizes of the shells on the graph as the bell curve of the occupied shells is shifted to the right (as values get larger).  The distribution of the shells graph should be discovered by the students themselves and a discussion of the results can follow.


Review the handout on how to make good field notes. Teach the format, emphasizing that though they may include sketches and impressions, a biologists’ field notes need to be objective and quantitative. For example, an animal’s behaviors can be described without guessing what it thinks or feels.  Some examples of good field notes are on the handout. Pass out copies of grading rubric and review the items, using examples.


Students will go outside to a nearby natural area (NRS reserve, park, ditch, garden, or other natural area). They need to find a spot where they are not distracted by anyone else to do some observing. Students should observe carefully, and try to describe as well as they can the following “items” in the Journal portion of their field notes:
3 sounds
3 smells
3 large-scale patterns
3 small-scale patterns
3 species distributions

In addition, in the Species Account section of their journal, they should describe, for at least one species:
3 morphological features
3 behaviors, and how much time is spent doing each behavior

Homework for the evening will be to finish the field notes.

As a whole, this activity should be repeated, hopefully at a different location, with some changes in the list of scavenger hunt items.


Field notes will be graded according to a 4-point rubric. 


Students should compare their own field notes to the rubric developed. They should complete an evaluation of their own field notes, listing what they did well, what their favorite part was, and what they could improve. Then students should exchange notes with someone else, and complete another evaluation. Ideally, students should read and evaluate their own field notes and those of three other students. The primary purpose for doing this is for students to read each others’ field notes and benefit from insights their classmates make. Secondly, it is important for students to receive some feedback on their notes as soon as possible. Students should be encouraged to look for positive comments to make, not just criticize mistakes!

Field notes should be turned in with all the evaluations stapled to them. Ideally, the instructor can select some good examples to share with the class as soon as possible. 

It would also be beneficial to identify “anchor papers”- papers which are model examples of each level on the grading rubric. These “anchor papers” should be shared with the class (either read aloud, displayed on the overhead, or photocopied and distributed) to help students evaluate their work and improve in the future.

It is helpful to students to have some form to evaluate their own notes and their classmates’ notes. A miniature version of the actual rubric would be ideal, but requires an awful lot of paper. A simplified evaluation sheet may be substituted as long as students have a rubric at hand to use. A very simple evaluation form might include the following items and could be photocopied so that four evaluations fit on one piece of paper.

Field Notes taken by _____________________
Field Notes reviewed by _________________________

My favorite part:

Things they did well:

Things they could improve on:

Suggested grade: _____
Reasons for the grade:
(Refer to the grading rubric)

Teacher Materials

  • paper
  • pen
  • Field Notes Instruction Handout