As a university student, you may be starting to recognize the significance research has to your college community. Have you noticed that professors and administrators get excited about the college receiving research grants? Are professionals at your university collaborating on and celebrating journal publications? High-stakes national-level scholarships are offered to students who show promise for professional research in their fields. All of these indicators considered together point clearly to the importance of research to most institutions of higher learning. This chapter focuses practice on the basic format of college-level primary research writing – the lab report – and helps students to learn the technical writing practice that prepares you to make contributions to the body of knowledge within your chosen field.
Why are students required to write lab reports?
You may have noticed that when your assignments in various courses require a research report, your professors are likely to insist that you rely on peer-reviewed journal articles for evidence supporting your written arguments. If magazine articles and blog posts were acceptable sources for high school papers, why are peer-reviewed professional and academic journals a big deal in college? The reasons become clear when you understand that a research journal article represents a professional-level version of the lab report. Consider the following list, adapted from the University of Toronto Mississauga Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre Writing Resources (n.d.), identifying ways lab reports inform academic pursuits. Lab reports
- communicate the results and importance of an experiment
- allow others to replicate the experiment and apply the scientific processes involved
- deepen students’ knowledge of course material through application and analysis
- communicate relevant theories, phenomena, and procedures
- follow the overall style of scientific writing
- demonstrate your understanding of course content
For students pursuing research as a means of developing deeper knowledge and expert skills in their field, lab reports provide the standard deliverable from scientific exploration in a form that demonstrates the students’ mastery. For professional practitioners in a field, lab reports elevate and expand to the form of research articles that may be peer-reviewed and published for study by other experts and student researchers. In either case, the larger goal of writing about research you have conducted is to expand the scholarly information available in your field of study.
What are the standard parts of a lab report?
In its “Guidelines for Writing a Lab Report,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory Fundamentals in Biological Engineering Open Courseware site (2020) posits that “the most common elements of a scientific report, in order of presentation” are: title; list of authors; abstract; introduction; materials and methods; results; discussion; and references.
Activity: take a closer look at the Introduction section
Study the annotated sample lab report layout on the following pages, which is adapted from the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre tip sheet on lab reports. Notice that the “most common elements” identified above by MIT are not all present in the sample lab report. Similarly, your assignment guidelines may require specific details that are different from this sample. Always adhere to your assignment specifications.
Read the sample introduction section on the next page and respond to the questions that follow. Note that it is not necessary for you to be familiar with the field of molecular biology to respond to the questions.
Discuss the following questions in class and respond in the space provided (or as otherwise directed by your instructor):
- Read the introduction section. What terms, if any, are unfamiliar to you?
- What is the (3-word) term for the experimental technique used in this lab research?
- What information were the researchers seeking?
- Did they find the answers they sought? How do you know?
Review and discuss the tips 5-8 before responding to the additional questions that follow. 8 Essential Parts of a Lab Report
Instructions sometimes differentiate between the Materials and Methods section (4. in the document above on the previous page); and the Results section (5. in the sample document) of a lab report by saying that
- Materials and Methods describes what you did and what you used to do it
- Results describes what you found by doing it
The point of making such a differentiation between the two sections is that beginning technical writers sometimes combine elements of the two sections in the writing process, costing the lab report significantly in terms of clarity. To be clear, separate the “what I used and what I did” explanation distinctly from the “what I found” description.
- Finally, the Discussion or Analysis section contains the interpretation of results obtained in the laboratory or other experimental work. Similar to the clear separation you must make between Materials and Methods and Results, the discussion or analysis occupies its own major section of a lab report.
Consider the following organizational pattern, which is further discussed in the “Reporting Research Outcomes” chapter of this textbook, in terms of how the body of a lab report is organized.
|Introduction: answers the questions
|Materials and Methods: answers the questions
|Results: answers the question
|Discussion: answers the questions
Practice: examine a published lab report
Study the research article, which contains a lab report, on the following pages. The complete article was published under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-4.0) in the International Journal of Fisheries and Aquaculture (2020). Note the various essential sections of the lab report, recognizable by the headings placed as signposts in the document. The example follows the IMRaD organizational pattern. A complete copy of the article may be downloaded here.
Activity: analyze and evaluate the sample lab report
- Review the abstract and address the following questions (adapted from “Eight Essential Parts of a Lab Report”):
- What is the purpose of the experiment?
- What materials and methods were used in the experiment?
- What are the results of the experiment, and what is their relevance?
- Review the introduction and address the following questions (adapted from “Eight Essential Parts of a Lab Report”):
- Does the introduction help the readers understand the background of the experiment and what researchers were doing through the experiment?
- What is the relevance of the experiment?
- What are the supporting theories or topics involved?
- What was the purpose of the experiment?
- How did each of the parts of the experiment help researchers achieve the purpose?
- Does the materials and methods section give enough information to readers so that they can replicate the experiment? Describe what researchers used and what they did in the experiment.
- Does the Results section present the researchers’ key findings and observations without analyzing them? Describe how well you think the lab report example uses tables, figures, and graphs to present the facts only without applying any analysis. Include relevant examples from that section and cite the article as necessary.
- The Discussion section is where the writer should analyze and interpret experimental results. Try answering these questions based on the sample lab report provided:
- What were the expected results and how do they connect to relevant theories?
- How do results compare to what was expected? Why are there differences?
- What were sources of error or limitations in the experimental design? How did such limitations affect the results?
- The Conclusion section of a lab report is where researchers can state key findings from the experiment and mention any limitations or suggestions to improve the experiment. Does the Conclusion of the lab report accomplish one or both of these tasks? Explain your answer.
For student researchers, lab reports may be the single most valuable writing tasks they practice. The lab report highlights multiple skills areas student writers should develop to become strong writers within their fields of expertise. This chapter aims to demonstrate the essential parts of lab reports, but also – and perhaps more critically – it offers an exploration of the skills needed to develop lab reports successfully. Completion of the exercises presented should help students see the importance of adhering to standard formats; carefully presenting detail; reporting in a straightforward factual style in Materials and Methods and Results sections, while presenting clear analysis and recommendations in Discussion sections; and practicing the overall style and tone of scientific writing.
Obtain and analyze the requirements for lab reports in a particular department or field of study at your university. You may use the lab report assignment specifications for a course in which you are currently enrolled, or for one you may take in the future. If you are unsure how to obtain the instructions for a lab report, consult a teaching assistant, tutor, or lab instructor.
Write a memo that introduces and explains the requirements for a well-developed lab report in the course you selected. The audience should be first-year students at your institution. In addition to providing an introduction that identifies the purpose of your memo, address the following points, as appropriate:
- Do the labs have specific policies or guidelines students must uphold as they experiment?
- Does the lab instructor use a rubric or other guideline for grading lab reports?
- What resources, guidelines, and other advice or support can you offer the readers?
Jones, M. D., Voorhees, J. M., Huysman, N., Krebs, E., & Barnes, M. E. (2020). Use of different colours of vertically-suspended structure during the hatchery rearing of juvenile landlocked fall Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, Walbaum). International Journal of Fisheries and Aquaculture, 12(2), 21-25. https://doi.org/10.5897/IJFA2019.0762. License: CC-BY-4.0
Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre (n.d.). Tip sheet: eight essential parts of a lab report. University of Toronto, Mississauga. License: BY-NC-SA-4.0. https://www.utm.utoronto.ca/asc/sites/files/asc/public/shared/pdf/tip_sheets_writing/LabReport_QR_8EssentialParts_v7.pdf.