Improving Your Lab Report
Improving your Title
If you are not sure what should be included in each summary sentence, use the following list as a guide:
If your Abstract is too long, look carefully at each summary sentence and take out any information that is not essential to that section of the report.
In a paragraph, or more if you need it, write out the objectives of the lab in sentence form and then describe the purpose of the lab: what it is that accomplishing the objectives will help you learn about the scientific context of the lab (the scientific concept or procedure of the lab).
If you are having trouble starting the sentence about the purpose of the lab, try saying something like this: "The objectives of this lab enabled me to learn about X by "; "Performing these objectives helped me to understand X by ." To improve this part of the introduction, go back to what you have written about the scientific concept and look for a link between it and the activities you are expected to perform in the lab: what specifically about the scientific concept or lab procedure were these activities designed to teach you?
The goal of this lab is to help you understand more about the scientific concept of the lab or the procedures you are working with in the lab. One thing that drives this understanding is questions that you raise about the concept and procedures. It is out of these questions that issues related to the lab emerge.
If you did not present any issues at this point in the Introduction, you can improve this part of the Introduction by thinking of some questions about the lab that could be interesting or useful to learn about. Review what you are supposed to be learning about by doing the lab. Look for things that you don't understand or would like to know more about. If you did present some questions or issues, try to make them more interesting, more useful, or clearer. You can present your issues or questions in sentence form or list them in bullets.
A good Methods section describes what you did in the lab in a way that is easy to understand and detailed enough to be repeated. To make your Methods better, follow these guidelines:
Results sections typically begin with a brief summary of the findings. Such a statement is typically a sentence or two. This summary acts as the opening sentence for the Results. If you had trouble getting the first sentence started, here are some possibilities: "The results of the lab show that "; "The data from the lab investigation demonstrates that ".
One of the main problems with visuals (tables, drawings, etc.) is lack of clarity. You may have chosen a form of visual that does not represent the data clearly. To see if there is a form of visual that represents the data more clearly, go to the LabWrite Graphing Resources for help.
Another problem with visuals can be ascribed to lack of accuracy. Visuals are accurate when they correctly represent the data from the lab. If there is a problem with accuracy, you should check three points at which accuracy could be jeopardized: (1) you may have recorded the raw data from the procedure incorrectly; (2) you may have entered the raw data onto the spread sheet incorrectly; and (3) you may have made careless errors in the format of the visuals.
The presentation of findings in words should be ordered according the order of the visuals, each visual being described in words. Each description should include a sentence or so summarizing the visual and then any details from the visual pertinent to the data from that visual. To make the verbal part of your Results better, follow this general outline:
The verbal representation of each visual should refer explicitly to the visual ("Table 1," "Figure 2," etc.). You should create the sense that the visual and the word representations of data are working together. The primary way of doing that is to cite the visuals in your verbal findings. If you had trouble integrating the verbal and the visuals, be sure you have, at a minimum, a reference to the visual in the sentence in which you describe the overall finding of the visual.
Another potential problem in successfully integrating the visual and verbal elements of the Results is that the verbal descriptions may repeat all the data from the visuals. There is no need to repeat all the data; it's already in the visual. The job of the verbal description is to highlight what is important in the data, particularly in terms of the scientific concept or procedure in the lab. So if you have simply described all the data from a visual, try to determine what data points are most important for the reader to focus on and describe those data points.
The Discussion should start with a paragraph that relates what you have done in the lab to what you are supposed to be learning by doing the lab. If you had trouble with this part of the report, go back to the Introduction where you establish the context (scientific concept or lab procedure you are supposed to be learning about) of the lab. Refer specifically to the findings from your Results to explain what the findings mean in relation to the scientific concept. In other words, discuss the connection between the evidence you collected and what you were supposed to be learning about by doing the lab.
It is at this point in the report that you return to the questions or issues you raised in the Introduction. Use specific references to your lab observations and procedures to discuss what you have found concerning the questions or issues. Also discuss the importance of these questions or issues as they relate to the scientific concept or lab procedure.
Return to the end of the Introduction where you raised the questions to guide your learning. Identify any of those questions that your research provided answers for, even partial answers. These are the ones you can discuss in this section of the report. Consider each question separately, unless some questions are better grouped together. Restate the question or issue and present what you think is an answer to it. Then explain how you came to the answer. This is where you should refer to specific findings or other observations from the laboratory procedure.
If you are not sure of an answer, put in any qualifiers you think are appropriate. You can say that you think the answer is tentative.
A low rating in this area means that the instructor thinks that there are other interesting issues you could have discussed about your findings. Other issues that may be appropriate to address are (1) questions or issues that remain unanswered and why; (2) problems or sources of uncertainty in your lab methods that may have led you to unclear answers or unexpected results; (3) how your findings compare to the findings of other students in the lab and an explanation for any differences (check with the lab instructor to make sure this is permissible); (4) what further investigations you would do in order to gather more information; (5) suggestions for improving the lab.
A good Conclusion takes you back to the larger purpose of the lab as stated in the Introduction: to learn something about the scientific concept, the primary reason for doing the lab. The Conclusion is your opportunity to show your lab instructor what you learned by doing the lab and writing the lab report.
You can improve your Conclusion first by making a clearer statement of what you learned. Go back to the purpose of the lab as you presented it in your Introduction. You are supposed to learn something about a scientific concept or lab procedure. If you are not sure if you have stated what you have learned directly enough, read your first paragraph to see if your reader would have any doubt about what you have learned. If there is any doubt, you may begin the paragraph by saying something like, "In this lab, I learned that ...."
Simply saying you learned something is not necessarily going to convince the reader that you actually did learn it. Demonstrate that you did indeed learn what you claimed to have learned by adding more details to provide an elaboration on the basic statement. Read over the Results and Discussion and jot down some notes for further details on what you have learned. Look carefully at the statement of what you have learned and underline any words or phrases that you could "unpack," explain in more detail. Use this brainstorming as a way of helping you to find details that make your Conclusion more convincing.
If you think you need to do more to convince your reader that you have learned what you say you have learned, provide more details in the Conclusion. For example, compare what you know now with what you knew before doing the lab. Describe specific parts of the procedure or data that contributed to your learning. Discuss how you may be able to apply what you have learned in the lab to other situations in the future.
Tables and figures should be done to professional standards, such as proper headings and captions and numbering. For help, go to LabWrite Resource: "Revising your Visuals: Tables, Graphs, and Drawings."
Style in this case refers to your choice of words and sentence structure. The style of science writing strives to be clear and to the point. You should avoid using grand thesaurus words and long, artfully convoluted sentences.
As to choice of words, science writing uses words that its audience (other scientists in the field) will readily understand. To outsiders, the scientific vocabulary of this language looks like a lot of jargon. But the point is that scientific words that are obscure to outsiders are usually not obscure to the insiders that comprise the scientific audience. Your writing should sound like scientific writing. This means that you should go ahead and use proper scientific terminology, but you should also choose plain, everyday words for non-scientific terminology.
Your sentences should be clear and readable for your educated audience. Avoid excessively long and meandering sentences. But don't use a lot of very short sentences, either. Vary your sentence length. If you have difficulties with making your sentences readable, read over them aloud, noting the sentences that seem to be too long or are hard to read. Rewrite those sentences so that they flow more easily.
Also, avoid using quotations. Scientists very rarely quote from source materials; they do so only when a particular wording is important to the point they are trying to make. Using direct quotations is appropriate to English papers, but not to lab reports.
Spelling errors. First, run the spell-checker on your computer. That should take care of almost all of your spelling problems. Sometimes, however, there are words that the spell-checker does not catch because they are words that are actually spelled correctly but are used for the wrong meaning, like using "to" for "too" and "that" for "than." You should be able to spot these misuses of words by reading over the report looking for error, as described under "Making the lab report grammatically correct" immediately above.
Grammar errors. It's important that you understand that the source of grammar problems is not, for most of us, a matter of not knowing the rules of grammar. So don't worry about that. The source of most grammatical errors is simply not seeing them in your own writing. We usually read our own writing for the meaning that the words convey and not for the words themselves.
Correcting grammar problems, then, is usually a matter of learning to read our writing differently. Read your lab report at least twice specifically looking for errors in grammar. You should focus on the words and sentences themselves. You don't need any special knowledge for detecting and correcting most grammar problems. If you do read for error, you will probably be able to spot problems and correct them without having to look anything up in a handbook.
If you feel like you do need special help with grammar, go to the "On-line Writing Handbook" on the LabWrite Resources Page.
This is, of course, the purpose for doing the lab, to learn something about the science of the course you are taking. Reading your lab report gives your instructor a good idea of how well you have achieved this all-important aim. It's your job in the lab report to represent as fairly as you can what you have learned.
What you have learned is indicated in the report, especially the Introduction and the Conclusion. You should begin the Introduction by setting up the learning context, the scientific concept or lab procedure, you are supposed to be learning about by doing the lab. Be sure that the learning context you establish in the Introduction does indeed match the learning goal from the lab manual or handout.
You can improve this part of the report also by (1) expressing more clearly what you are supposed to be learning about and (2) providing a clearer or fuller description of what you already know about the learning context. In addition, check your designation of the purpose of the lab in the Introduction. Be sure that it explicitly and clearly makes the connection between the objectives of the procedure and what you are supposed to be learning.
The other key part of the report you should review is the Conclusion. This is where you make your strongest case for what you learned in doing the lab. You may be able to improve the Conclusion by rewriting the statement of what you have learned, rewording it so that it is clearer to the reader. You could also enhance the rest of the Conclusion by adding more details concerning what you have learned (see treatment of Conclusion above). Remember, your job is to convince your reader that you have achieved this aim, and this is the section of the report in which you do that directly.
There are two ways of looking at this aim, depending on the kind of lab you are in. In some labs, there is a "right answer," a specific unknown or standard measurement you are expected to find. In these cases, the emphasis of the aim is on "expected outcomes." That is, your laboratory procedure is expected to yield certain results and, to a certain extent, the quality of your work depends on whether or not you attain those results.
In other kinds of labs, there may be no established outcome for the procedure, or it may be that doing the procedure in a scientifically sound way is more important than the particular answer you get.
In both kinds of labs, the places where you need to focus your efforts on improvement are Methods and Results. If you need to have the right answer, then you should revisit your lab notebook to search out errors in recording data and transcribing data to a spread sheet and in any calculations you have done. You must rewrite your report accordingly.
But if your aim is to demonstrate that your procedures are sound and
that they legitimately lead to your results, then look at these sections
of the report. Is your procedure described clearly enough? Are your results
presented in sufficient detail? The point is to demonstrate that there
is a clear relationship between procedure and outcomes.
NC State University 2004
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Rev. RW 5/16/05