Whether your research takes place in a college lab or on some remote work site, you will often have to write up the results of your work in a lab or field report. Most basically, this report will describe the original hypothesis your work attempts to test, the methodology you used to test it, your observations and results of your testing, your analysis and discussion of what this data means, and your conclusions.
For labs at ACC, you are often asked to replicate the results of others rather than conduct your own original research. This is usually meant to teach students the proper use of instruments, techniques, processes, data analysis, and documentation. For scientists, reports and papers are the way new knowledge is passed on to the field and to society at large.
Students often assume that science is just “facts” and objective information, and are sometimes surprised to learn that report writing makes and defends claims just like writing in other academic sub-genres. For scientists and engineers to make valuable contributions to the sum of human knowledge, they must be able to convince readers that their findings are valid (can be replicated) and valuable (will have an impact). Thus, the way that you write these reports can impact the credibility and authority of your work; people will judge your work partly on how you present it. Yes, even reports have a persuasive edge and must make careful use of rhetorical strategies. Careless writing, poor organization, ineffective document design, and lack of attention to convention may cast doubt on your authority and expertise, and thus on the value of your work.
Writing a Lab Report
Your report will be based on the work you have done in the lab or in the field. Therefore, you must have a plan for keeping careful notes on what you have done, how you have done it, and what you observed. Researchers often keep a notebook with them in the lab, sometimes with pre-designed tables or charts for recording the data they know they will be observing (you might be given a lab manual to use while completing a particular experiment to record your observations and data in an organized format). Try to plan ahead so that you can capture as much information as possible during your research; don’t try to rely only on memory to record these important details.
How you choose the content and format for your report will depend on your audience and purpose. Students must make sure to read lab manuals and instructions carefully to determine what is required.
Typical Elements of a Lab Report
These are ‘typical’ elements of a lab report — make sure to clarify expectations with your instructors.
Title: Craft a descriptive and informative title that will enable readers to decide if this interests them, and will allow key words to be abstracted in indexing services. Ask your instructor about specific formatting requirements.
Abstract: Write a summary of your report that mirrors your report structure (hypothesis, methods, results, discussion, conclusion) in condensed form — roughly one sentence per section. Ideally, sum up your important findings.
Introduction: Establish the context and significance of your work, its relevance in the field, and the hypothesis or question your study addresses. Give a brief overview of your methodology. Your instructor may request that you describe some deeper background for the lab or field activity.
Materials and Methods: The purpose of this section is to allow any reader to perfectly replicate your method; therefore, you must provide a clear and thorough description of what you used and how you conducted your experiment. This section will generally include: 1) a list of all materials needed (which may include sub-lists, diagrams, and other graphics); and 2) a detailed description of your procedure, presented chronologically.
Results: This section presents the raw data that you generated in your experiment. You can organize this section based on chronology (following your methodology) or on the importance of data — be sure to follow the instructions of your instructor. Present data visually whenever possible (in tables, graphs, flowcharts), and help readers understand the context of your data with written analysis and explanation. Make sure you present the data honestly and ethically; do not distort or obscure data to make it better fit your hypothesis. If data is inconclusive or contradictory, be honest about that. In this section you should avoid interpreting or explaining your data, as this belongs in your discussion section.
Discussion: This section includes your analysis and interpretation of the data you presented in the results section in terms of how well it supports your original hypothesis. Start with the most important findings. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge that the data you have generated is problematic or fails to support the hypothesis. This points the way for further research. If your findings are inconsistent, try to suggest possible reasons for this.
Conclusion: In one or two short paragraphs, review the overall purpose of your study and the hypothesis you tested; then summarize your key findings and the important implications. This is your opportunity to persuade the audience of the significance of your work.
References: List all references you have cited in your report (such as those you may have included in a “literature review” in your introduction, or sources that help justify your methodology). Check with your instructor for which citation style to use.
How you write up the results of a scientific experiment will generally follow the formulaic pattern described above, but may vary depending on audience and purpose. As a student, you are often writing to demonstrate to your instructor that you have mastered the knowledge and skills required in a particular course.
For a fun example of a process report that is similar in many ways to a lab report, see the attached: Drafting Behind Big Rigs – Mythbusters Report (.pdf)
When evaluating scientific literature that you read, you might find the the following TED-Ed video by David H. Schwartz helpful: Not all Scientific Studies are Created Equal.
Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,