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Lab report help, common rules

Lab report help: common rules for lab reports on Biology, Physics, Chemistry

Jan 24, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Lab reports are essential to evaluating a student's understanding of various concepts and theories as well as their ability to put into practice formulas, calculations and scientific procedures. Lab reports involve not only relaying the results of a particular experiment but also analyzing those results and their significance to a particular field of study. This is a major and often neglected part of lab report writing; synthesizing information, making judgments and effectively interpreting data.
Most scientific lab reports follow a very similar structure and format. Some slight differences may occur to further emphasis one area over the other depending on the discipline, but in general they all have the same headings and subheadings contained within them. Regardless of whether it is Biology, Physics, or Chemistry, many of the same rules will apply when crafting a lab report. A general outline, with rules and guidelines suitable for all of these subject areas, can be seen below.

Rules and guidelines for constructing scientific lab reports

I. Introduction

Background information regarding the experiment: This first subdivision should open up your introduction and transition the reader to the subject at hand. Depending on the depth of the lab report some review of the literature may also be required here as well. Whether your instructor request a literature review or not, it is essential to provide some sort of framework for your study-and a good means of doing this is by looking to what others have accomplished in the same area, their findings, and conclusions.
The purpose of the experiment: Clearly indicate to the reader why you are conducting your experiment and the significance behind it. This is also valuable information that should be included in an abstract if one is required. Often times the most critical question posed to scientist in defending their experiments is So What or Why should we care? Therefore it's essential to address this point in your introduction.
Hypothesis and research question: Lastly, along with the purpose of your experiment you will also be indicating the research question that you will be attempting to answer and your hypothesis. You may also mention any limitations to your study as well as assumptions that were made.
*As a general rule of thumb your introduction should be consistent with the body of your text. If your other sections equal 5 pages or so then it should be sufficient to have an introduction of only a page or so. Likewise, the higher the page count of the body, the higher the page count of the introduction.

II. Materials & Methods

Materials: What's important here is that you relay all of the information that is needed to replicate the assignment. This means all the tools, equipment, and substances used, as well as instruments and test that were utilized.
Methods: This section is a pretty straightforward one and also goes under the title of Experimental Procedures in some formats. In essence, you will be providing step by step instructions of your experiment in order that it can be easily duplicated. You also will include the methodology that was utilized in obtaining your results. Therefore this section can also be described as the explanation of your experimental or research design. All together as long as you include precisely how you obtained your answers or results in one way or the other, this should suffice.

III. Results

A major rule for this section is to only relay your results and not interpret them. This point is often reiterated time and time again. Possibly because the urge to begin your analysis or interpretation as soon as you share your results may be hard to resist in some cases (or simply due to lack of knowledge in crafting this section).
When relaying your results you should provide tables and figures as well as a description of the data presented. Avoid repetitiveness as well. As long as the results are explained in a simple statement there is no need to repeat all the data that is clearly presented in tables or figures.

IV. Discussion

Analysis: Guidelines for analyzing results can be seen in some common questions; What were the most significant findings and what do they indicate? What do these results actually mean? What is the significance? Why are these results important? What types of deductions can be made? All of these questions should be answered in this section. Remember that when you analyze you are also interpreting and examining the information presented. Similarly, its your job to bring out basic and logical explanations of your results.
*Note that your discussion can also include minor findings as well (though less detailed than the major ones).
Conclusions: This portion is sometimes the hardest to craft. In general when providing conclusions you will want to ensure that they are directly connected to your hypothesis or research question as well as the findings indicated in your paper. Your conclusion should synthesize all of this information into a determinative statement about the totality of the research. These statements can be limited to a small paragraph or two without bringing in outside quotes or things of this nature.
Future research: Another important component of the discussion section is to indicate what your study means for further research in this area. Based on what you learned in your experiment, how can the same experiment be performed better the next time around? What does this mean for the advancement of this particular topic in the field?

Looking to lab reports in individual disciplines - Chemistry, Biology and Physics

Lastly, in addition to the general outline provided for most scientific lab reports, it may also be useful to look at some specific issues connected to the above mentioned disciplines.

Some lab report issues specific to chemistry

Material and Methods Section
  • Include the exact measurements of substances
  • Include volume as well as concentrations of substances in some cases
Results section
  • Be clear about the substances you are referring to (i.e. do not use acronyms unless it is clear what you mean)
  • Provide calculations but do not be repetitive if the information is already found in a data table
  • When plotting, clearly label your results section
  • Use a graphical analysis program to assist you
  • Be sure to include the appropriate units with all graphs

Some issues more specific to biology

Methods and Materials Section
  • Provide a data chart to show the different stages of your results
  • Be very detailed about your subject including its specific age, species, setting, and specific dates and times of observations

Some issues specific to Physics

Methods and Materials Section
  • Provide a detailed illustration or diagram that shows the device or instrument used
  • Label the variables that will be measured in the diagram
  • Identify experimental variables and explain how independent variables are controlled
Data & Discussion
  • Separately discuss data obtained from mathematical calculations from the data obtained from the experimental device
  • Include all units for measurements in your data table
  • Provide each formula used and create a table of values chart
*The above mentioned points are not inclusive of all the distinguishing factors for each discipline; they are meant to simply highlight some specific issues that may occur when preparing lab reports.
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