Formal lab reports must die

Remember formal lab reports from your undergrad days?

Multiple page affairs starting with an abstract, followed by an introduction, experimental,1 data, calculations and ending with the (dreaded) discussion. These reports did me a lot of good. They made me think deeply about the chemistry at hand. But I struggled; I didn’t enjoy the process. It was the writing as much as the chemistry that made wisdom tooth extraction without anesthetic look appealing.

Many of us thought — and still think — that formal lab reports are something that high school students should do. “They’ll have to write them in university” is a typical reason. As a beginning teacher, it didn’t take me long to see that formal lab report writing is not part of a typical high school student’s skill set. Most secondary school students simply aren’t mature enough to write a decent formal lab report. And more important: these tomes need to be marked, which takes hours and saps a teacher’s strength.

Typically, my approach to laboratory work involves a pre-lab discussion, which “leads students down the path”. This is followed with pre-lab questions, which are often collected and are always taken up before the activity. Pre-lab work allows students to formulate a procedure2 and collect data as required. Post-lab questions are assigned. These are short, pointed questions that are easy to grade. In rare cases — with acid-base titrations for example — I ask students for a one-page (maximum) lab report, which includes: descriptive title, abstract,3 tabulated data, balanced chemical equation, calculations and answers to questions. Students find that writing to a maximum, rather than to a minimum, is a challenge — they find it tough to be concise. This is especially true for abstracts; students are usually too wordy. I find that these are hurdles that high school students can overcome. (I routinely ask students to write an abstract as a post-lab question.)

I think that university-style formal lab reports are too much for high school students. A greater level of maturity is required in order for a student to get full value from this exercise. I suggest that we do everyone a favour — keep it simple.


  1. Written in the past tense, passive voice. Imagine if regular people talked like this: “The turkey was brined for eight hours in a solution prepared with 2 cups table salt (NaCl) dissolved in 5 litres of room temperature tap water… dinner was enjoyable… family members refrained from bringing up stories about Dad…
  2. I provide a recipe for work that involves anything dangerous, such as (moderately) concentrated acids or bases.
  3. Purpose of experiment, general method, (e.g., acid-base titration with NaOH to phenolphthalein end point), result(s).