Writing genre series: Lab report writing

Laboratory equipment on a table

In our last blog post, we talked about different strategies for writing grad school applications. That was our first instalment of a new series on our blog where we will be exploring different writing genres throughout the term. Today’s topic is lab report writing!

If you are a student in your first year, academic lab report writing at the university level can be quite different than what you did in high school. Depending on your experience and how you were taught in high school, transferring to university writing in any genre can be difficult. Hopefully, these following tips will help make the first few formal lab reports easier.

What is a Lab Report?

A lab report is a summary and an analysis of what you did and what you learned in the lab. A lab report that is understood by everyone presents more than just its results; it conveys the writer’s understanding and comprehension of the concepts. In addition to a correct format, the material must be organized and expressed logically. If a lab instructor gives you a layout of what to include in your report, use it!

What is the Format of a Lab Report?

Title Page

A title page includes a descriptive title that is informative and explains the purpose of the lab. The title must be concise and is usually kept to ten words or less. Your name and your student number should be on the title page, in addition to your lab partner’s name and your teaching assistant’s name. Another key point is to include your lab section date and time, and the due date of the report.

Introduction

The introduction is the first part of the report that the reader generally sees and is usually anywhere from one to two pages. Thus, it is important to include the purpose of the experiment in the first one to two sentences. State the purpose or objective of the experiment explicitly and concisely. It is important to state the significance or the reason why the experiment was conducted. The purpose gives the reader an idea of what the experiment is about and it will set up any key concepts that will follow.
Another main part of the introduction is to include any key concepts and formulas used in the experiment. This background information will allow the reader to understand the concepts behind your results and it will define any previously unknown terms. Identifying important concepts and terms shows the reader that you understand what is going on in the experiment beyond just following the procedure.

Experimental Procedure

If the experiment was conducted from a procedure in a lab manual, the basic layout for the experimental procedure statement is:
The experimental procedure used for this experiment was outlined in the [course code] lab manual, under Experiment [#]: [Experiment Title]. All steps were followed with no deviations in the procedure.
If any steps were added or removed, the last sentence should reflect these changes.

Experimental Observations

This section should provide any raw data that was noted during the lab. This information can be presented in a tabular form, which summarizes any trials that took place. Tables should be properly labelled with a table number and a descriptive title. It is also important to include any unknown numbers or chemical concentrations that were used in the lab.

Results

Graphs produced from the data are presented in the results section; make sure to properly label your graphs with descriptive titles, axes titles, and plot numbers. 
If any calculations need to be made, list the sample calculations and the results of each trial. Subsequent calculations following the sample calculation can simply say, “Similarly, the unknown for trial 2 was ...”.
In addition, any questions presented in the lab manual are answered here and these questions usually test your understanding of the concepts involved in the experiment.

Discussion

At the start of the discussion, the purpose is generally restated in the first one to two sentences. The discussion summarizes the results, including any found unknowns, and compares the expected results with those found. An important part of the discussion section is interpreting your results through analysis. Are there any errors? Can the procedure be improved? How accurate are your results?

Conclusion

The conclusion length can range from a single paragraph to one page. The conclusion states the purpose and any results or unknowns that were found.

References

Make sure to appropriately cite all references with the correct formatting. It is also important to include all citations used during the report in the final reference list.

Common Mistakes

Title Length

The title should be descriptive of the purpose, but it should not be a whole sentence. If the title is too short, think of any important keywords for the experiment to add while still keeping to the purpose of the experiment. If the title is too long, remove unnecessary words including articles (such as a, an, the) and prepositions (such as on, at, in). However, make sure the title is still understandable!

Correct Tense

Generally, lab reports are written in the past tense, with the introduction being the only part written in present tense. If you decide to write in the present tense in the discussion, you must be consistent throughout. 

Spell Check and Proofread

Read the paper out loud to see if the writing is clearly organized and clear to the reader.

Organize Your Time

Don’t leave the report for the night before! Make sure you take your time to understand the concepts and calculations to write a successful lab report. Try to write the introduction after writing the majority of the lab, so that you know what concepts to research and include in the introduction.

Lab reports can vary in structure and length depending on what you are writing one for. 

In addition to these tips, use the resources available to you. Ask your lab instructor or teaching assistant for questions on the concepts related to the lab. If you are unsure of how to improve your writing, visit the Writing and Communication Centre for workshops and revising strategies or WriteOnline.ca for a step-by-step guide to lab report writing.

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