Improving Your Lab Report
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.
2. give the necessary background for the scientific concept by telling what you know about it (the main references you can use are the lab manual, the textbook, lecture notes, and other sources recommended by the lab manual or lab instructor; in more advanced labs you may also be expected to cite the findings of previous scientific studies related to the lab). In relatively simple labs you can do this in a paragraph following the initial statement of the scientific concept of the lab. But in more complex labs, the background may require more paragraphs.
1. The objective(s) are what it is you are supposed to accomplish in the experimental procedure itself. The objective(s), therefore, is usually presented in terms of a specific verb that describes what you are supposed to be doing in the lab, such as to measure, to analyze, to determine, to test etc. Often, the objective(s) for the lab is given in the lab manual. If you are having trouble phrasing the sentence about objectives, try something like: "The main objectives of this lab were to "; "In this lab we were to ."
2. The purpose of the lab is different in significant ways from its objective(s). Purpose provides the wider view; it answers the why question, why you are doing the lab in the first place. Instead of focusing just on the specific actions of the experimental procedure, purpose looks at the experimental procedure within the context of what you are supposed to be learning.
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 were these activities designed to teach you?
Providing logical reasoning for the hypothesis means explaining the reasoning that you used to make your hypothesis. Usually this reasoning is based on what you know about the scientific concept of the lab and how that knowledge led you to the hypothesis. In science, you reason from what you know to what you don't know. In a couple of sentences (more for complex labs) describe the logic that you used to reason from what you know about the scientific concept to your educated guess of the outcomes of the experimental procedure. If you need to make the logic of your hypothesis clearer, use words that indicate an explanation: because, since, due to the fact that, as a result, therefore, consequently, etc.
Often you can present the hypothesis and the supporting reasoning in one paragraph. In more complex labs, especially those with multiple procedures and therefore multiple hypotheses, you may need more paragraphs, perhaps one for each hypothesis.
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:
One of the main problems with visuals 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 experiment. 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, particularly in labeling the x- and y-axes and in designating the units along those axes.
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 first sentence of each paragraph when you describe the overall finding of the visual.
The Discussion should start with a sentence or two in which you make a judgment as to whether your original hypothesis (from the Introduction) was supported, supported with qualifications, or not supported by the findings. To improve the opening of your Introduction, make sure your judgment is stated clearly, so that the reader can understand it. There are, generally speaking, three possible conclusions you could draw:
If you had trouble composing this sentence, try being straightforward about it, for example, "The hypothesis that X solution would increase in viscosity when solutions Y and Z were added was supported by the data."
Problems with the sufficiency of the explanation refer to the reader's judgment that you didn't include enough details in your explanation, that there wasn't enough of an explanation to satisfy the reader that you fully understood why the relationship between the results and hypothesis was what it was. You need to provide greater depth in your explanation. Do some brainstorming. Look again at the explanation you placed at the end of the Introduction. Jot down more details about the explanation and use those jottings to help you expand that part of the Discussion.
Problems with the logic of the explanation refer to the reader's judgment that your explanation of the support or lack of support of the hypothesis did not adhere to sound scientific reasoning. Look at the reasoning you used in the explanation. It should follow one of four basic arguments:
1. If the results fully support your hypothesis and your reasoning was basically sound, then elaborate on your reasoning by showing how the science behind the experiment provides an explanation for the results.
2. If the results fully support your hypothesis but your reasoning was not completely sound, then explain why the initial reasoning was not correct and provide the better reasoning.
3. If the results generally support the hypothesis but with qualifications, then describe those qualifications and use your reasoning as a basis for discussing why the qualifications are necessary.
4. If the results do not support your hypothesis, then explain why not; consider (1) problems with your understanding of the lab's scientific concept; (2) problems with your reasoning, and/or (3) problems with the laboratory procedure itself (if there are problems of reliability with the lab data or if you made any changes in the lab procedure, discuss these in detail, showing specifically how they could have affected the results and how the errors could have been eliminated).
You can also improve the logic of your explanation by using words that make your argument clear, such as because, since, due to the fact that, as a result, therefore, consequently, etc.
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 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 the scientific concept or theory or principle or important scientific procedure that the lab is about. 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.
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.
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.
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 "grammar errors" immediately above.
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 teacher 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 can improve the Introduction by (1) expressing more clearly the scientific concept you are supposed to be learning about and (2) showing that you have a good understanding of the scientific concept (see treatment of Introduction above). 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 the scientific concept.
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, revising 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 the overall learning goal of the lab, and this is the section of the report in which you do that directly.
One of the objects of the lab and lab report is to give you the experience of participating in scientific inquiry, the form of thinking that defines science. In other words, you need to show through the lab report that you can think like a scientist. There are key places in the report where you indicate your ability to do that.
The first is found at the end of the Introduction where you present your hypothesis, which drives scientific inquiry. You can improve this part of the report by (1) restating the hypothesis so that it more clearly and more specifically presents your educated guess of the outcomes of the experimental procedure and (2) enhancing the logic that you use to show how you have reasoned from what you know about the scientific concept to your hypothesis. You may need to make the links in that logical chain clearer to the reader, or you may need to entirely rethink your reasoning (which could lead to a different hypothesis).
The other place in your report in which you exhibit your ability to think scientifically is in the Discussion. That's where you come back to the hypothesis to see if it is supported or not supported by the results of the procedure. First, are you making a reasonable judgment about whether or not the hypothesis is supported by the findings? Second, do you provide clear evidence from the Results that back up your judgment? And third, do you give a sound explanation, based on your understanding of the scientific concept of the lab, for your judgment? Perhaps you need to revise your explanation so that it is more logical, provides a greater depth of discussion (more details), and treats all the facts that are relevant.
Also in the Discussion you have the opportunity to compare your results to the results of others, other students in the lab or (in more sophisticated labs) published scientific studies. This is an important aspect of scientific inquiry. Look to see that you make the necessary comparisons and that your explanations for the comparisons are full and logical.
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 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 spreadsheet 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.
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