The “Checks”/”Emails” lab: a good start to the semester

[This post was updated on 9/10/2020 to repair broken links.]

Checks and their corresponding emails, side by side. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.
Checks and their corresponding emails, side by side. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

We just finished our first week of classes at the University of Oklahoma, and my nonmajors students trooped dutifully into lab on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. To get them talking to each other, one of the icebreaker activities we have done for many years is the “Checks lab,” a lesson on the nature of science. (Note that this website has been archived. After clicking the link above, you’ll have to scroll down to “Social Context” and click the “Checks Lab” link.) According to the Checks lab page, the activity was originally developed in 1992 by Steve Randak and was modified in 1999 by Judy Loundagin.

In case you’re not familiar with this activity, here’s a summary. Each team of students is given an envelope containing copies of 16-17 checks that are made out to various payees. Students are told to withdraw four checks at random and propose a scenario that could account for the checks. They then withdraw four more and revise their scenario to account for the new information. After one more round of withdrawing two more checks, they aren’t allowed to see any more checks. At that point, the class as a whole comes together to figure out what actually happened to the people writing the checks.

Since each team sees a different subset of the checks, and no one sees them all, students may not agree on what happened and when. Depending on how deep the instructor wants to go into the nature of science, the ensuing discussion can go in any number of directions. To me, the main points are that scientists never get 100% complete information, that other researchers may have information that your group doesn’t have, and that collaboration is a valuable way to get as much of the story as possible. The website where I found this activity has a huge number of ideas for expanding on these and many others when teaching about the nature of science; I recommend it.

Over the summer, however, I got to thinking about whether students these days actually write checks (or know what they are). I did some asking around, and it turns out that they do—but they don’t write nearly as many as we did in our youth. They buy a lot of things online, and even when they pay for something in person, they are likely to use a debit or credit card. So the trusty old “checks lab” seems a bit outdated.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so, because Judith Lederman and her colleagues published an updated version in The Science Teacher for September 2015, 82(6):57-61. This new version includes copies of emails instead of checks. Hurray! The emails themselves have been posted to NSTA’s The Science Teacher Connections, Sept. 2015 edition (scroll down to Sept. 2015 and use the link below “The E-mail Lab”); here’s a direct link to the Word document they provide at that site.

Matt Taylor has upped the ante a little bit more: He turned the Word document into a PowerPoint (to be printed at four slides per sheet) that has a reduced emphasis on the AOL and hotmail logos. We used these mock emails in our labs last week, and they worked great; if you would like me to email you a copy, please write a comment in this blog post. In the meantime, kudos to all who developed, modified, and shared this activity.

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173 Responses to The “Checks”/”Emails” lab: a good start to the semester

  1. Kirsten Kapp says:

    Hello! I would love to see a copy of the email version you used for the activity. Thanks! My email, in case it doesn’t display, is Thanks again!
    -Kirsten Kapp
    Central Wyoming College

  2. Kelly West says:

    I would love a copy of the Powerpoint. Thank you!

  3. I was looking for a new way to start lab and this sounds really cool! May I have a copy please? My summer non-majors biology lab starts Wed and I wanted to find something that would be easy to set up. Sharon Standridge, Middle Georgia State University

  4. lizardc says:

    Could you please email a copy of this lab? I would love to use it with my AP Bio students.

  5. Laurie Clarke says:

    I would love a copy of the lab!

  6. Kaleigh says:

    I would love a copy of this lab! Could I please have the Power Point version as well? Thank you!

  7. Corina Wack says:

    Hello, if you could send me the documents you have for this lab, I would love to use it for a new nonmajors biology course I am teaching this fall. Thanks! My email is

  8. Stephanie Berryman says:

    I was just about to recreate the checks lab into the “texts lab,” but stumbled on your blog post. Would you be able to send me the handout as well as the powerpoint? Thank you!

  9. Cheryl Dunham says:

    I would love a copy of the revised email version / powerpoint too.

  10. Mindy Porter says:

    I would love a copy of the email lab/powerpoint.

  11. Jared says:

    I would love a copy of the email lab/powerpoint.

  12. Erin says:

    I would also love a copy of the email lab/powerpoint! I’ve been looking for a new way to start off my chemistry class!

  13. Kristen says:

    Could you please share a copy of the email lab sheet and powerpoint with me too? I did this lab years ago using the checks and would love a more updated/relevant version! Thanks!

  14. Meli Lopez says:

    This is great! I would love a copy of the lab please.

  15. Jason Nicholson says:

    Fantastic adaptation of this activity! Can I please have a copy of the lab?

  16. Isabel Barros says:

    Hello! I would love to see a copy of the email version you used for the activity. Thanks! My email, in case is Thank you!

  17. I have used the checks lab for years and love it! Thank you for the update, wouuld love the PP link. Do you then cut the four slides into individual pieces of paper?

  18. Chelsea Harvey says:

    can i have a copy of the emails and can you do it in a powerpoint presentation

  19. Krista Bellis says:

    This sounds great! Can you please share with me also.

  20. Amanda Mims says:

    Can I get this lab too?

  21. Meg Gebert says:

    I would love to have the updated version using emails instead of checks! Thank you!

  22. Carrie says:

    I have used the checks activity for the last 7 years (love it) and just stumbled onto your blog. Would love to get the updated powerpoint version and documents. Thanks!

  23. Angela says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I would love to have the updated version using emails! Thanks so much for your willingness to share.

  24. Emily Meyer says:

    Hello, thank you so much for this post! I’m looking to update my trusty checks lab, so if you could please send me the power point slides you have I’d appreciate it! Thanks so much.

  25. Shannata Ravenell says:

    Can I please have a copy of the emails lab worksheets and powerpoints?

  26. Laura Sass says:

    I would love a copy of the updated version! Thank you!

  27. Gareth says:

    I too would love an updated version of the lab. Thanks so much!

  28. Michele Piatt says:

    I would love a copy of the updated version as well! Thanks!

  29. I would love a copy of the updated version too! Thanks!

  30. Catherine Howard says:

    I would really appreciate a copy! Thank you!

  31. Brandy Hartley says:

    Can you email me the updated lab? Thanks!

  32. Mohammed Rafey says:

    Hello, can I get a copy of the updated lab please? Thank you!

  33. Jordan Sisel says:

    Can you email me a copy of the updated lab? Thanks so much!

  34. Shelly Cooper says:

    I would love a copy of the updated lab. Thanks!

  35. Melanie M. says:

    I’d appreciate a copy! I don’t even use checks/cheques anymore : )

  36. Tom Brooks says:

    I’ve been using the checks for a few years and I love it. I would like to transition over to emails as it is more relevant. Please send me the Powerpoint version to [email address]. Thank you so much!

  37. Amy Lyttle says:

    I would love to have a copy of this!

  38. Pat Roisen says:

    I too have used the checks activities since the mid 90’s, but would love to have the new emails activity and slides, thank you. I’m planning for likely ‘Distance Learning’ for next year, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to make this digital, ie they click a link and get random emails but never the entire set. Is there any copyright issues with doing so that I need to be careful about?

  39. Christopher Jang says:

    Hi – I’m a faculty member at York University, and this would be a fantastic exercise. Would it be possible to get a copy?

  40. Magen Cyrier says:

    Hello! I have been using the checks lab as an introductory activity for my high school biology classes, and I would love to have an updated activity! Thank you!

  41. pamela netherton says:

    I’d love a copy of this lab –ppt version —thank you!!

  42. Kate says:

    I used the checks lab last year and it was great! But definitely had some challenges as students were unfamiliar with the check format. If you are still willing to share, I would so appreciate it!

  43. My son’s made an online version of this that randomly gives the emails to the students and allows them to arrange them as desired. Any feedback is appreciated. It outputs a .txt file to email to teachers; the aim is to have it generate a .pdf file, but that’s a bit trickier and I wanted to get this out quickly.

    Things to consider:
    1. The last step requires students compare their results to others, easy in a classroom, challenging in Distance Learning, but maybe possible in Zoom breakout rooms. Any suggestions?

    2. I typically would ask follow up questions to make students explicitly make the connections between the lab activity and how ‘real’ science works, as in hypotheses are tentative, you never get ALL the data, sharing/collaborating gives you access to more data and alternative interpretations, even sometimes I can get kids to realize they got ‘fixated’ on a particular idea simply because of which emails they got first. I didn’t have my son include those sorts of questions because I didn’t know if other teachers would want them or wanted to supplement with their own questions in some kind of handout.

    Any feedback you can give to make this better would be appreciated. Right now it’s being hosted by my son in his Github, but that’s probably not the best place long term.

    • Hi,

      Thanks so much for sharing this! I hope other readers weigh in as well. I went through the activity and was really impressed; I love the way the program serves up the right number of emails at the right time, although the interface with the tiny emails (at least on my screen) was a little awkward to use. I don’t see why Zoom breakout rooms wouldn’t work for small-group discussions of the hypotheses. I think the followup questions are really excellent, either answered individually or after discussion in breakout rooms.

      If you get this polished up and looking just how you like it, I hope you consider publishing it at Course Source or some other such location. It could be really useful!

      Thanks again!

      • Patrick Roisen says:

        You said the emails were tiny, did you double click on the individual emails to read them? If you didn’t, what should we change to make it more self-evident to do so? We went with having them in thumbnails so that they could organize them, but be able to examine them more closely at need. What if anything would you suggest changing about that?

        With regards to the follow up questions, should I embed them so that everyone who uses this has to answer them, or just include them as suggestions to teachers somehow?

        Besides perhaps improving the instructions on how to look at the emails, and possibly adding follow up questions, would you suggest anything else to polish it up?

      • Hi, sorry I didn’t see your followup questions earlier. I did double click on the individual emails, and I could see them just fine. But when it comes to remembering the exact dates, the names of the vendors involved, and so forth, they were too small (on my screen) to be able to see those details without opening them again. That’s all I meant by saying they were a bit small for me. Perhaps it might be possible to make the thumbnails larger, or to give users the choice between all thumbnails and all larger images? (I have no idea what programming would be involved with that!)

        Re: followup questions, that’s an interesting issue. My first thought is just to include them as suggestions to teachers, but then it wouldn’t be seamless for the teacher. So now I’m leaning toward including them for everyone to answer, and teachers can say “Don’t answer these” or “Just put N/A for these” if students can skip them.

        I have no other suggestions. I like it a lot!!

  44. Kelly Biddle says:

    Hello! Can I please get a copy of the ppt as well?

  45. Joyce Bui says:

    Hi! Thank you for this! Could I get a copy of the materials as well?

  46. Jing Han Soh says:

    I am so glad to see your website since I was wondering the same. Please do send me a copy!

  47. Michael West says:

    Could you please send me a copy of the Email lab powerpoint? I’m adapting the checks lab to distance learning. I appreciate your help.

  48. Nena Thornburg says:

    Could you please send me a copy of the Email lab powerpoint? I’m adapting the checks lab to distance learning. I appreciate your help.

  49. Brandon R says:

    Hi! I love using the e-mails activity at the start my one-semester high school forensic science elective. My hard drive failed early in the year last year and I lost my copy, so I would love to have yours and any hand-outs you have! By the way, the online version is also awesome – I think it would be helpful to pair up the online version with the complete file with all the e-mails. This would make it so students can wonder if their final hypotheses would be any different if they had the fullest picture of all the e-mails.

  50. Brandon Rindfleisch says:

    Would love this! I tried replying earlier but I think my comment went away?

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