We’re officially a few weeks into the fall semester, which is usually around the time that most students taking science classes will have to write their first lab report. For those of you that don’t know, I’m currently in my last year of graduate school and I am a graduate teaching assistant for the biology labs at the university that I attend. I typically teach the freshman biology labs at my university, which means that I’m usually the first GTA to teach students how to write a lab report.
I’ve been teaching for a little over two years now, and also wrote many lab reports during my undergrad (I have my B.S. in biological sciences), so I thought I would share my lab report writing tips with those of you that may need it. Keep reading for my top ten tips for writing an amazing lab report!
10 TIPS FOR WRITING AN AMAZING LAB REPORT:
1. DON’T WRITE IT THE NIGHT BEFORE
Some people work really well under pressure, so writing a report the night before isn’t a big deal for them. Most students however, do not work well under pressure. Trust me, we can tell if you wrote it the night before. Save yourself from being stressed out and start your report early!
2. START WITH AN OUTLINE
This is something that most students learn in English class in high school, but I can’t tell you how many students ignore this advice. Creating an outline helps to ensure that you don’t forget anything and makes the lab report seem a little less daunting. For the majority of lab reports, you’ll want to have a subheading for each of the sections. Check with your GTA or professor for specifics, but lab reports generally include an introduction, methods, results, and a discussion section.
3. WRITE THE METHODS SECTION FIRST
Write your methods section first and be as detailed as possible. The methods section is the easiest section to write, which is why I always recommend writing it first. It’s also easy to forget what you did, so by starting out with the methods section you can jog your memory as to what you did and that will make the other sections that much easier to write.
4. BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR RESULTS
Your results section should only include your results. I always have students write interpretations of their results (even after I tell them not to) in the results section. I think a lot of students get a little carried away when they start writing and just write everything that comes to mind. Again, this is where the outline comes in handy to keep you on track. Save the interpretations for the discussion section!
5. LABEL FIGURES AND TABLES PROPERLY
Make sure you are labeling your figures and tables properly. The axes of your figures should be labelled with appropriate units. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a lab report with a figure in it and the x-axis was labelled as ‘time’. Time is way too generic and doesn’t tell me anything. Are you talking about seconds, hours, years, or centuries? Be specific!
6. USE THE HOURGLASS METHOD
Start out your lab report with a broad statement, get specific in the middle, and then end with a broad statement. Again, the methods section is generally in the middle of your lab report and should be as detailed as possible. The first paragraph should introduce the reader to the broad concept that your experiment tested and the very last paragraph should be a summary of how your experiment tested that concept.
7. WRITE YOUR INTRODUCTION LAST
The introduction is always the most difficult section of a lab report to write. I always tell my students to write this section last. Chances are if you are writing your lab report several days after lab you probably don’t remember every detail of the experiment. By writing your methods, results, and conclusion first, you are reminded of not only what you did, but may also begin to realize the importance of the experiment. Your introduction is the first section that your TA or professor reads, so you want to make a lasting impression. Always start out with the importance of what you did, and then finish off your introduction with your hypothesis.
8. YOUR TITLE MATTERS
Don’t get cute or try to be really whimsy. Your title should immediately let the reader know what the paper is about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lab reports with a title such as ‘Experiment 5’. Your title should be concise, yet detailed enough to let the reader know what your hypothesis is.
This should be a no-brainer but I’ve received so many lab reports with obvious spelling and grammatical errors. I always tell my students that if it is underlined in Word, then it’s probably wrong. That being said, there are a ton of words that Word doesn’t recognize, especially in science. My tip is to make sure the word is spelled correctly and then right click it and add it to your dictionary that way if you misspell it again you can quickly recognize and fix it. Another great tip is to read your report out loud!
10. HAVE SOMEONE READ YOUR REPORT
Would a random student on campus be able to read your lab report and understand what you did and why you did it? If not, then your report is probably lacking in detail. Ask them what doesn’t make sense and then add more detail to that area of your lab report.
What are your lab report writing tips?