Lab Report Format: 5 Common Mistakes

Sep 29, 2013
Scientists aren't expected to be great writers. No one expects them to use poetic language or artful turns of phrase. What they do expect, however, is precision and order. This is true at all levels, for both scientists and non-scientists. What do we mean? As soon as a high school student walks into a laboratory, he/she will be asked to explain the results of larger lab assignments in written form. These lab reports represent a crucial part of the scientific learning process, as they help students think things through from beginning to end in a logical, demonstrable way.

The structure

Unless otherwise instructed, the standard lab report is fairly easy to understand. It consists of the following: a title, a statement of the problem, a hypothesis, lab materials that were used, the procedure(s), the results or data, and the conclusions. Because these sections are quite vague, it is not at all uncommon for beginning students to make numerous errors on their early lab reports. With that in mind, let us take a look at the five most frequent lab report missteps.

1. Tedious title

Like any title for a work of nonfiction, the title of you lab report should let your reader know exactly what your paper is about. It must include information about the subject of the experiment as well the overall results or findings of your investigation. If you have room, you may also mention what research methodology was utilized and the main research variables. Of course, including all of that information can make for one mighty long, mouthful of a title. That is why most experts recommend reducing an initially overlong heading to no more than a single line.
One easy way to accomplish this is to remove all unneeded words and phrases including articles and prepositions that make the title clunky and harder to read. Always remember that the best title is one that piques the reader's interest without telling him things he doesn't need to know. On the other hand, if your title doesn't have enough information, simply create a list of important keywords associated with the experiment and use them to create a longer, more informative heading.

2. Ambiguous abstract

A successful abstract is nothing more than a condensed version of your lab report that includes succinct summary sentences that let the reader know what you did and how and finally what the results are. The standard abstract paragraph should be composed of an introduction, the methods, results, discussion, and the conclusion.
The most common mistake new lab report writers make is that they expatiate and make this section far too long. It should be no more than a single paragraph and should include summary sentences for each of the aforementioned sections. Any information that is not associated with the introduction, methods, results, etc., should be excluded or removed.

3. Weak introduction

By definition, the introduction of any lab report should define the research problem and declare the research question. The former entails that the writer give a brief, succinct description of the research problem, including all of the known and unknown variables. A good introduction describes the problem in such a way that even a layperson could understand it.
The second part of the introduction involves the research question, which is the point of the research paper, to discover the unknowns. The easiest way to introduce the research question is to put it in the form of a question of what you intend to find out or learn during the experiment. Also known as a hypothesis, it succinctly summarizes what outcomes you expect.

4. Slipshod methods

A convincing and compelling methods section describes to the reader what you did in the laboratory to arrive at your conclusion. This section should be simple and easy to understand without being too general or lacking in details. An experienced scientist or a layperson should be able to comprehend this section if they consider both parties.
Clear, concise writing is the key, but so is paragraph structure. For example, if you have a method that is complicated and complex, consider dividing it into several, easy to follow sections complete with subheadings. This will help even the uninitiated reader and amateur scientists alike follow exactly what you did and how you arrived at your conclusions.

5. Substandard conclusion

As any writer will tell you, the most important parts of any paper, short story, novel, or book are the beginning and the end. A conclusion in a standard academic paper is designed to summarize and reiterate all of the main points that were made in the report. For a lab report, this means restating the initial goal or purpose of the lab. Then the paper must explain exactly what the team learned by completing the report.
The easiest and most reliable way to improve your conclusion is by penning a clear statement that describes exactly what you learned. If you are having trouble coming up with something pithy and succinct, you can always start with a general statement like, "In this lab, I/we learned..." It might not win you the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it should help you get the ball rolling if you reach an impasse.
Of course, simply telling the reader that you learned something will not be enough to convince him, no matter his level of scientific training. You must demonstrate that you did take something away from the lab by including specific details that offer convincing corroboration. One way to do this is by rereading your Results and Discussion sections and repeating this information in your final paragraphs.
Another popular strategy to convince a reader that you really have learned something is to compare what you knew before you began the lab with what you know now. To illustrate this point, you can reexamine specific data that helped you reach your current level of understanding on the subject in question. You may also wish to include more personal opinions about the experiment, such as what procedures, methods, and tests you found interesting and edifying.
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By Martha Buckly. Martha is a good freelance writer and loves sharing posts on different topics including tips and guidelines for articles and academic writing. Her professional experience helps to create interesting and useful material.
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