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Prepared by University of Waterloo

Section B: Planning and Researching

In this section, you'll read about activities to do before, during, and after your lab. You'll learn how to plan your time so that you get the most out of each stage.

What will I learn?

By the end of this section, you will be able to

  • identify specific expectations of your readers,
  • prepare materials to work in the lab effectively, and
  • organize and evaluate your research before writing.

Lab work assignments involve multiple activities that must be completed before you start your lab work, while you’re in the lab, and after you finish the pre-lab. Understanding what you are supposed to complete at each stage can, however, be tricky. Therefore, understanding your assignment is an important first stage when you begin any lab work. As you read through your assignment:

  • Read carefully and ask questions.
  • Consider your audience.
  • Think about your writing situation.

Read carefully and ask questions

These strategies are the most important. If you read the assignment directions thoroughly, you should not miss important information. But if some information is still unclear, asking your instructor can ensure that you understand. Often, the biggest errors we make are the result of not paying attention to details and not asking questions.

To help you improve these essential skills, here are a few tips to be a more active reader:

Active reading strategies

  1. Read through your assignment with a pen or pencil in hand.
  2. Underline or circle important points.
  3. Highlight key words.
  4. Write down your questions as soon as you have them. Then, ask your instructor about them.
  5. Study each paragraph individually. In one sentence, summarize what the paragraph is telling you. In a second sentence, summarize the purpose of the paragraph (i.e., what does the information help you to understand?).

Consider your audience

Knowing who will read your report will help you know how to think about your assignment. The content and style of your lab report can change depending on who reads it, so you’ll want to think about the expectations of your readers. However, as a student, your lab report will be read and graded by your instructor, who wants to make sure you are learning the course content. Take a closer look at some questions that will help you understand the expectations of different audiences.

Understanding Readers

Understanding the readers of your lab report.

  • What group(s) of people are you writing for? Professional scientists? Business executives? Students? Other professionals?
  • What knowledge does your audience already have?
  • What do they need to know to understand your report?
  • What information will they expect to find in your report?

Understanding Instructor Expectations

Understanding your instructor’s expectations

  • What does your instructor value in class work?
  • What does your instructor want you to learn?
  • Did your instructor note any additional questions or concerns for you to think about?
  • Did the instructor include any special style tips for organizing or writing the report?

Think about your writing situation

Although an instructor may dream that her students devote all the time in the world to her assignments, in reality, time is limited. Thus, when reviewing your assignment, think about how much time you’ll have to complete it.

Below are a few questions to help you better plan your time:

  • When is the assignment due?
  • Is there a page minimum or maximum?
  • Are you trying out new skills or methods in this assignment? If so, what?
  • Will you need to include research to complete this assignment? How much?
  • How important is this assignment for your grade?

Most undergraduate labs will provide a lab manual that includes background information for the lab, safety rules, and procedures you need to follow to complete the experiment. Your lab manual will probably include all you need to know about the lab and lab report assignment, so as we’ve discussed, read carefully and ask lots of questions.

During the in-lab stage of your lab, you’ll likely be asked to keep a laboratory notebook. These notebooks are a record for others so that a lab can be easily repeated. However, taking detailed notes during the lab will also prepare you to write the formal lab report.

Instructions for how to keep a laboratory notebook vary across disciplines and instructors, so be sure to clarify what is expected for you. The primary guideline is to write notes in such a way that someone, a few years from now and with your skill level, can repeat your experiment. Attention to detail is key.

Answer Key Questions

Many lab instructors require that you complete a pre-lab worksheet before going into the lab. These worksheets help you to think through important aspects of the lab experience:

  • the concepts behind the lab
  • the purpose of the lab
  • your hypotheses about the experiment outcomes

Whether or not your instructor wants you to complete a pre-lab worksheet, asking a few key questions before the lab will prepare you to think more deeply about your experiment. If you can answer these questions now, you will write a better lab report later on.

Worksheet: Key Questions To Ask Before Your Lab

Use this helpful worksheet for your Lab Report.

Download PDF

Preview: PDF Worksheet

In addition to the background information in your lab manual, your instructor may also ask you to research the lab topic a little further. You might gather your research from articles or textbooks you read in class, or you might need to use a library database to find other relevant articles. The research you find should help you develop your hypothesis(es) for the experiment. Later, you’ll incorporate the research into your lab report.

The Research Process

Starting any research project, however small, can feel overwhelming—so much so, that you might feel tempted to give up. However, if you understand what the research process looks like and use a few key strategies as you work, you will be more likely to succeed.

Below, you’ll find a brief overview of how the research process works:

  1. List Key Words
  2. Make a list of key words that you can use to search for research on your topic. Think about key concepts; then, find key words that broaden and narrow your topic as well as related words.

  3. Identify Databases
  4. Identify places where you can search for material on your subject. You'll want to look at peer-reviewed articles, so you'll most likely use library databases.

  5. Begin Your Search
  6. Use your key words to complete searches in each database you identified. With each search, select one or two of the most relevant articles. Use key terms from selected articles to help you complete more searches, if needed.

  7. Evaluate Sources
  8. Evaluate your sources to decide whether they are current, relevant, and credible to use.

  9. Take Notes
  10. Organize your relevant sources and take notes.

  11. Analyze
  12. Use your notes to, first, develop a hypothesis for your lab and, later, to analyze your results.

  13. Write
  14. Now you're ready to prepare sections of your lab report!

Next, we’ll focus a little more on three parts of the research process:

Explore the content in the tabs below describing how to evaluate your sources, organize your research and take notes.

Evaluating Your Sources

When preparing for a lab and writing the lab report, you use research in three ways:

  • to develop a useful hypothesis(es)
  • to provide background information for your reader
  • to support your reasoning

It's important, then, that the research you include is both relevant and credible. Generally, in lab reports, instructors expect you to use peer-reviewed sources. A peer-reviewed article is usually found in an academic journal. Peer-reviewed sources are reviewed by subject experts before the writing is published. These experts determine the significance of the research and, most importantly, whether the information is accurate. Are the facts correct? Were the methods accurate? Is the interpretation sound?

Of course, evaluating a source requires more than simply checking whether the article is peer-reviewed. Even peer-reviewed articles can be out-of-date or not relevant to your own work. When selecting sources for your research, you also want to rely on your own judgement.

A useful guide to help you evaluate your sources is the CRAAP test. The acronym stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. Each section takes you through a series of questions to help you determine whether a source is useful for your research.

Worksheet: CRAAP Test Handout

Use this helpful worksheet for your Lab Report.

Download PDF

Preview: PDF Worksheet

Organizing Your Research

Since you’ll be using and referencing your sources in your lab report, it’s important that you organize that research when you first find it. Early organization will save you from frustration later and help you to avoid academic integrity issues.

Record all the reference information for your source

Consider creating your own research database through tools like RefWorks, EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero. These online systems will help you organize your sources and format your reference information.

Make notes for each resource in a separate area

Make sure you know what source your notes come from. Keep your notes from a single source in one location. For instance, you might use one section of a notebook for notes from source A, create a second section of the notebook for source B, and so on.

Taking Notes

Notes can be taken in a variety of formats: on notecards, in a notebook, or on computer. Below are a few strategies to help make your note-taking easier and more successful.

Include the page number for each piece of information

Recording where you found information will save you a lot of time later when you may have to reference page numbers in your paper. Having page numbers near each note also enables you to look back at the original source when you need to clarify a point.

First, scan your source for the main idea

Read the first few paragraphs of the source, then the concluding paragraph. If an article is short, you should also quickly read the topic sentences of the other paragraphs. Once you have a sense of the writer’s main argument or idea, write it down at the top of your page. Knowing the main idea will help you to better understand the article.

Take notes in your own words

Avoid the temptation of writing down the exact words you read in a source. In lab reports, using quotations is generally not acceptable, and copying a source word for word (even your lab manual) is considered plagiarism. Equally important, writing notes in your own words will ensure that you understand what you read.

Avoid recording too many details

Including too many details in your notes can sometimes cause you to plagiarize. You will need to reword key details, but the goal most often is to understand general ideas and concepts. Using shorthand abbreviations rather than complete sentences is a good note-taking strategy.

Key Takeaways

  • Read your lab manual carefully.
  • Ask questions.
  • Make time for doing research, if needed.
  • Organize your materials before you enter your lab.

References

Books

Chafee, J. (2014). Thinking critically. (11th ed.). Independence, KY: Cengage.

Meltzhoff, J. (1998). Critical thinking about research: Psychology and related fields Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Tufte, E. (2001). The visual display of quantitative information. (2nd ed.). Burlington, ON: Graphics Press.

Online Resources

Foundation for Critical Thinking. (n.d.) University students. Retrieved May 12, 2015 from http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/college-and-university-students/799

Meriam Library, California State University, Chico. (2010). Evaluating information: Applying the CRAAP test. Retrieved May 15, 2015 from https://www.csuchico.edu/lins/handouts/eval_websites.pdf

North Carolina State University. (2004). LabWrite: Improving lab reports. Retrieved April 4, 2015 from https://www.ncsu.edu/labwrite/info/contact.htm

The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University (n.d.). Questions provoking critical thinking. Retrieved May 23, 2015 from https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/effective-classroom-practices/discussions-seminars/questions

University of Leicester. (n.d.). Presenting numerical data. Retrieved May 7, 2015 from http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/numerical-data/numerical-data

The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (n.d.). Figures and charts. Retrieved April 27, 2015 from http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/figures-and-charts

Wolf, J. (2007). Writing about data. Retrieved May 2, 2015 from https://louisville.edu/faculty/jlwolf02/writing-about-data/Writing_about_data.pdf/at_download/file

Next Section Overview

When you're ready, move on to Section C: Critical Features.

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