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What I Wish Everyone Knew About Lab Reports


The most effective way to demonstrate your understanding of a scientific investigation is to write a lab report. You should be able to convey to your teacher or professor that you understand the content. In a broader sense, the purpose is to share your scientific knowledge that you've gained with the scientific community. Your audience is going to want to be able to both gain knowledge from your report and to make sure that your arguments and observations are valid and based on evidence.

There are several things to consider if you want to effectively communicate your findings:

  1. Do I understand the content of the experiment that I've conducted?
  2. Is there a specific style of writing I should use?
  3. What are the specific details that should be present in each specific section?

This guide will both help you think through the process and understand the standard parts that your report should include.

Do you understand what happened during the investigation?

Before you go about the task of writing your lab report, you must first have a firm understanding of what occurred during your experiment:

  • Your experiment must be conducted in a scientific manner. Scientific experiments must be carried out so that you are testing only one thing at a time. For example, if you wanted to compare several substances to see how much of each one can dissolve in a given liquid such as water, you would want to keep all the conditions the same. If your substances were sugar, salt, calcium chloride, and zinc oxide, you would follow the same procedure to see how much of each one would dissolve in water (their solubility). You would need to use the same amount of water and keep all conditions the same, dissolving the substances in the same liquid until no more will dissolve.
  • You also want to make sure that you are making accurate measurements and recording your data in a chart or in a lab notebook. Often, a professor (or lab book) will provide you with a specific step-by-step procedure to follow. If so, make sure that you are following the steps as closely as possible, asking questions of the teacher or professor as needed.
  • When you've finished the experiment, you should make sure that you fully understand what's taken place. Consult with your lab partner if you have one to make sure that both of you are on the same page as far as your understanding. It helps to ask yourself questions once you have your data to make sure that you are ready to write up your results. Ask yourself the following questions before you begin to write your report. If you find yourself unable to answer the following questions, you may need to ask your professor for clarification, talk with your lab partner, or do some research on your own to clarify your results:
    • What did you learn from the experiment?
    • Can you communicate the results to someone else with clear and easy terms?
    • Are there any questions you have about what took place?

What writing style should you use?

With any writing task, you must first consider your audience. Your audience for a lab report is often a teacher or a professor, but it should also be the greater scientific community. You want to communicate in a concise, professional manner and give yourself credibility with proper grammar and research-backed observations.

  • Remember that your audience is your professor or the greater scientific community. This means that you should write your report as if it might actually be published in a scholarly journal. Try to avoid wordy sentences and make sure that you begin each paragraph with a sentence that sets the tone for the content of that paragraph. Your thoughts and ideas should be your own. If you borrow someone's ideas or quote someone, be sure to correctly cite your references according to your professor or teacher's requirements.
  • Be aware of the tense that you use. When you are referring to your results, you should use the past tense. When you are making reference to the report itself, the equipment or any theories that pertain to the research, use the present tense. For example, "Sugar was found to be much more soluble in water at fifty-five degrees than salt. After measuring the solubility at several temperatures and seeing similar results, we came to the conclusion that sugar is more soluble in water than salt."
  • It's generally a good idea to use the active voice in lab reports. This way you can express yourself in a brief manner and get to the point. For example, "It was observed by the group that the solubility of substance 'A' was much greater than substance 'B'" is passive and much less concise than the active voice: "We observed a greater solubility with sugar than salt."
  • Avoid the repetition of words to allow your writing to be more interesting and engaging. It can be tricky with science writing because you are often repeating types of equipment or concepts. Sometimes, it's as simple as turning a noun into a pronoun when you need to mention the same substance or piece of equipment twice in one sentence. For example, "At fifty-five degrees Celsius, Calcium sulfate was found to be more soluble in water than when we tested it at four-five degrees."
  • Read what you have written to be sure of sentence structure and flow, which is something that is often missed with computer spelling and grammar check programs. You can also catch obvious grammar and spelling errors as you correct and improve the structure of your sentences.

How do you organize the details of a lab report?

The way in which data is organized in a lab report can vary according to the standards of a school or specific requirements of a professor. However, there is a general structure that most lab reports include that more or less follows the scientific method. Most investigations framed this way require you to discuss the relevant research; discuss the purpose; form a hypothesis; test it; and then once you have the results, make the decision as to whether or not those results back up that hypothesis. Most lab reports require you to include an introduction, a methods section, a results section, a discussion section, and possibly, a further reading section.

  • The introduction is extremely important because it sets the tone for the entire report. Here, you need to include research that is related to the topic of your investigation. Once the groundwork is laid, you should state your purpose for the investigation, which is often confused with the hypothesis. The purpose is a more general statement that is narrowed with the formation of a hypothesis. For example, the statement, 'the purpose of this investigation is to test ideas about factors that increase the rate of a chemical reaction' is a general statement. The hypothesis is a more specific statement or question that narrows or specifies the focus of the experiment: "We hypothesized that increasing the surface area and temperature of the reactants would increase the rate of the reaction."
  • The methods section is where you describe in detail the way that you tested your hypothesis. Some sources refer to this as the procedure that you followed when you tested your hypothesis. It is important to include as much detail here as possible so that someone could repeat the steps of your investigation just as you performed them. It is also important not to discuss the results in this section.
  • In the results section, you are presenting the raw data and making statements about how it relates to your hypothesis. It is tempting to begin forming conclusions about what the results mean, but that should be reserved for the next section. Here it is enough to make short statements such as "Crushing the reactants into powders resulted in shorter chemical reaction times." This is not where you would discuss why the results happened in that manner. You may also want to include charts and graphs to illustrate the relevant data. Your tables should include a title and the data should be arranged vertically. Check with your professor to see if they would prefer that information in this section or the appendices.
  • The discussion section is very important because here you are fleshing out the implications of the results. In this section, you should again discuss how the data either supports or disproves your hypothesis. If there is any data that appears to be different from the rest of the information, you want to point that out. This section is where you will form a definitive conclusion based on your results: "Based on the data we obtained, we can conclude that increasing the surface area of a reactant will indeed result in a faster chemical reaction." If possible, you should relate your conclusions to the research you discussed in the introduction. Finally, if there are any further questions that your conclusion brings to mind, you should discuss those here. Any practical implications or uses for the conclusions you have drawn should also be fleshed out here.
  • Finally, many professors require a further reading section that lists references relevant to your experiment. Often, this is a list of articles and books that explore the topic of your investigation in much more detail. This is different from a references page, which should come at the end of your report. Check with your professor as to which format they wish you to use for citing references.

To write an effective lab report, it is important that you conduct your experiment in a scientific manner, testing only one factor at a time. Once you have obtained your results, make certain that you understand what's taken place, asking questions of your lab partner(s) and professor as needed. When you begin writing your report, consider your audience, making sure that you are sharing your own thoughts or ideas, and giving credit where it is due for your sources.

Finally, follow the scientific method, making sure to include relevant research, a valid purpose and hypothesis, results section that clearly shows your raw data, and a discussion section that discusses its implications. If you follow this template, you are not only likely to receive positive feedback from your instructor, you will also gain valuable insight into the scientific research and writing process.

Relevant Sources

The Writing Center
ThoughtCo: How to Write a Lab Report

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