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Prepared by University of Waterloo

Section D: Parts of a Lab Report

In this section, you should learn the specific requirements of each section of a lab report.

What will I learn?

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

  • explain what each section of a lab report does, and
  • understand the expectations of each section.

What do I need to include?

  1. The title of the report
  2. Your full name and the names of any co-authors
  3. Your instructor’s name
  4. The date

Develop an effective title

Keep your title to a single line of text, and write your title in the form of a phrase, not a complete sentence. Include key words from the report.

Title Comparison

Below, compare a title as a phrase with a title written as a complete sentence:

Title written as a phrase

“Effects of Water Deprivation on House Plants”

Title written as a complete sentence

“The Death of House Plants is Caused by Extreme Water Deprivation”

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Abstract should look like.

Do's

Keep your title to a single line of text and write it in the form of a phrase. Include key words from the report.

Don’ts

Don't write your title in the form of a complete sentence.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Title Page section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  1. The lab’s purpose
  2. Theory and methodology behind the lab
  3. Key findings/results
  4. The significance of the findings
  5. The primary conclusions

Before you write

Abstracts are summaries of a document and are usually no longer than 100-200 words. They include one or two-sentence summaries of all the parts of your report.

Piece-by-Piece Strategy

Prepare a table with 5 rows and 3 columns.

In the first column, label each row with one of the five parts needed for an abstract—purpose, method, findings, significance, and conclusions.

In the first row of the second column write down all the sentences from the report that relate to purpose. Continue this process for the method, findings, significance, etc.

In the third column, summarize (in your own words) each set of sentences in column two.

Bring your summaries from column three together in a single paragraph.

Write-and-Condense Strategy

Rather than begin with a one-paragraph summary, try writing a few paragraphs that summarize the report.

Revise those paragraphs, condensing them into one or two paragraphs for the abstract.

Continue revising until you have a 100-200 word paragraph for your abstract.

While you write

Use transition words and phrases

Transition words help guide a reader from one point to the next. They also show the relationship between ideas.

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Abstract should look like.

Do's

Write the abstract in your own words, and include a brief summary of the lab’s purpose, background, methodology, results, significant findings, and key conclusions.

Don’ts

Don't include quotations in the abstract, or write more than 100-200 words.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Abstract section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  • Discussion of scientific concepts being studied through the lab
  • Background information about the concepts or previous research in the topic
  • The objective for the lab
  • The lab’s purpose
  • Your hypothesis(es) for the lab
  • Your reasons for the hypothesis(es)

Before you write

Understand the difference between a lab’s objective, purpose, and your hypothesis.

Objective

Answers what main action(s) is being done in the lab.

Example: “The objective of this experiment was to determine if lowered pH levels in water induce greater fruit fly respiratory movements.”

Purpose

Answers what you expect to gain from the lab (the learning you hope to achieve).

Example: “The purpose of this experiment was to learn about pH as a measurement and how to measure pH with a digital instrument.”

Hypothesis

Answers what you expect to find in your experiments.

Example: “We hypothesize that, under uniformly cool temperatures, fruit flies in lower pH water will display a greater number of respiratory movements.”

While you write

Use the following sets of questions to help you write your introduction:

Explain the scientific concepts

What is the lab about? What problem is being investigated, and why is the problem important to investigate? What scientific concepts are you meant to be learning?

Provide background information

What is the history behind the problem you are studying? What is the theory behind the problem or subject being studied? What has other research said about this problem?

Earlier in this guide we discussed pre-lab research, which covers evaluating, organizing, and integrating research in your report. Be sure to go back through previous sections if you need help understanding these areas.

Present the objective for the lab

What do you need to accomplish? What will you test, measure, analyze and/or determine?

Discuss the lab’s purpose

What do you want to understand by completing this experiment? What questions do you want to answer? What are the lab’s activities designed to teach you?

Propose a hypothesis

What results do you anticipate for this experiment? Usually a hypothesis is written to show the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. Here’s a basic template for a hypothesis:

"If A (independent variable) is related to B (dependent variable) in a particular way (X), then... (prediction)."

Give reasons for your hypothesis

Why do you expect the result you mentioned? What do you already know that leads you to guess this outcome? Why does the result you suggested make sense logically?

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Introduction should look like.

Do's

Include background information, the lab’s objectives and purpose, your hypothesis, and reasons for that hypothesis. Use transition words and phrases to connect each point you include.

Don’ts

Don't include details such as the methods, materials, or results, which will be discussed in later sections.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Introduction section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  • Descriptions of the materials and equipment you used
  • Descriptions of the procedures you followed
  • Descriptions of your methods for analyzing the data you collected

Before you write

Organize your lab notes

Earlier in this guide, you learned strategies for organizing. Make a plan for what you will discuss first, second, and so forth.

Find or create sketches of more complex equipment

Sometimes a picture is needed for a reader to understand the complex equipment being described. Place these images as figures inside the text of the paper. See the Results section of the lab report below for more information on formatting figures and other visuals.

While you write

Provide an account of your experiment.

Think of the methods and materials section as a historical record. You want to tell a story of your lab work, from beginning to end: what steps you followed and what materials you used in each stage of the lab. Use transition words and phrases to help your readers follow the story. Since this section should accurately reflect what you did in the experiment, make sure that you describe the materials you used and the methods you followed, even if these were slightly different from your lab manual.

Be detailed but efficient

Good historical documents give plenty of detail. To keep your methods and materials section focused, here are two good rules to follow:

  • Provide only those details needed for recreating the experiment.
  • Avoid writing lengthy descriptions of procedures that most readers would be familiar with.

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Methods and Materials should look like.

Do's

Write in paragraph form, and include descriptions of your equipment, the procedures you followed, and methods of your analysis. Describe changes made to the experiment that differ from the original lab report, and pay attention to detail.

Don’ts

Don't write about your materials separately from your methods, or include lengthy descriptions of procedures or equipment that most of your readers won't be familiar with. Do not use bulleted or numbered lists.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Methods and Materials section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  • A summary of your overall findings in 1-2 sentences
  • Visuals (graphs, tables, figures) that represent your observations/analyses
  • Written introductions for each visual describing relevant observations, both quantitative and qualitative

Before you write

Understand the difference between raw data and information

When presenting your results, you don’t simply present the data unprocessed to your readers. Rather, you present the trends and relationships that data reveal. In other words, you report the information you have gained by analyzing the data. To understand this difference, see the following explanations and examples.

Important Note: Some instructors may ask you to include the raw data in the results section. At other times, you will be asked to place the raw data you have in the appendix at the end of the report.

What is raw data?

Raw data are unorganized facts that need to be analyzed. Without analysis, data appears random. Often, the data are useless until the facts are processed and organized.

Example: In a study of student test score trends in high school math, students’ individual scores are the raw data.

What is information?

When you analyze data—process, organize, and present the facts in a way that is useful—then you have created information.

Example: Information gained from the raw data might include the following:

  • a high school’s average scores
  • average scores for women across the province
  • average scores for men across the province

Determine what kind of data you have

Knowing what kind of data you have will help you determine the best way to present that data visually.

Quantitative data

Anything expressed as a number (e.g., weight, scores on tests, etc.).

Qualitative data

measures of types -- elements that cannot be expressed in numbers (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status, religious preference, etc.).

Choose what type of visual is best for each set of data

Certain data is best represented with specific types of visuals. To determine what visual to use, try using the following steps:

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the independent and dependent variables qualitative or quantitative?
  • How many data points do you need to show?
  • Are you working with more than one independent variable?
  • In your visual, do you need to show the statistical distribution of the data?
  • How important is it that your readers see individual values?
  • How important is it that your readers see and understand the overall trend?

Consider common reasons for using tables and graphs:

Tables work best when the reader

  • wants to look up or compare individual values
  • requires precise values
  • has to make sense of values that involve multiple units of measurement

Graphs work best when the writer

  • wants to communicate an idea through the shape of the data
  • wants to show a relationship among many values

If you’re having trouble deciding what kind of graph or table to use, ask your instructor or consult your school’s writing centre.

Determine the order in which you will present your results

Consider the purpose of your lab as well as who you expect to read your report. There is more than one way to present your results.

A few strategies include:

  • chronological
  • in order of importance
  • from general to specific

Prepare and format your visuals

Formatting guidelines for visuals are often found in your lab report, so look there first. You can find guidelines for tables and figures in style guides (e.g., IEEE, APA).

The following procedures are commonly expected for visuals. Number and title each table and figure. In general, tables are numbered independently from figures. So, you might have both a Table 1 and a Figure 1.

For graphs
  • always label your axes (include the unit of measurement)
  • you should also provide a legend to help your reader understand the information
  • generally the independent variable on the horizontal (x) axis and the dependent variable on the vertical (y) axis
For tables
  • organize the data so that the reader reads down through a column
  • each column and row should be clearly labeled. In these labels, make sure you include the unit of measurement that was used

While you write

Summarize, in writing, your overall findings

Think of the first paragraph in the results section as an extended topic sentence. What is this section about? What main ideas will the reader learn? In the rest of the paragraph, develop a few sentences that present your overall findings. In these sentences, explain the relationship between the variables shown in your visuals.

Present each finding separately

In the main paragraphs of the results section you will simultaneously:

  • describe your findings in writing
  • present a visual that represents those findings

To present each finding effectively, follow these steps:

  • Introduce the visual by referring to its number (e.g., Table 2 lists the rates of. . .).
  • Direct readers to notice what is important to see in the visual (a trend? a particular relationship?). Remember that visuals don’t speak for themselves. Readers need to understand why the visuals are there and how to read them.
  • Show readers the calculations you made based on the data. You don’t need to include every calculation for each value. Include only a sample calculation. Place the rest in the appendices.

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Results should look like.

Do's

Summarize your overall results and in writing, describe the important point of each visual. Present data in formats that show important relationships and precisely label each variable in a visual.

Don’ts

Don't provide more than one kind of visual to represent a single data item, or make your graphs too small (three inches tall by four inches is a good size). Don't include interpretations or draw conclusions in your results section.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Results section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  • A summary of your findings
  • An explanation of your findings
  • A comparison of your results with previous research and theories
  • A discussion of the weaknesses and limitations of your experiment
  • An analysis of the significance of your results
  • Recommendations for the future

Before you write

Understand the difference between the results and your discussion

In the results section, you presented trends and relationships in the data. In the discussion section, you want to take your findings one step further. What do these trends and relationships mean?

Take a look at the following examples to compare what it means to report your results and to interpret those results:

Results

What it means: Reporting your findings

Example: The majority of the respondents (75%) said that they had to wait for more than half an hour before connecting with a customer support representative.

Discussion

What it means: Interpreting your results

Example The finding indicates that the number of on-call representatives at the Rogers service centre is inadequate.

While you write

Summarize your findings

How would you summarize your findings in 1-2 sentences? Do these findings support or contradict the hypotheses? Were there any unexpected findings?

Explain your results

How do you explain why you got the particular results you did? Are there multiple explanations for these results? How do you make sense of any contradictory explanations?

Compare your results

How do your findings confirm or challenge results from other research?

Discuss the experiment’s limitations/weaknesses

Were problems encountered during your experiment and if so, what were they? How could these problems be rectified? How do limitations/weaknesses affect the validity of the experiment and your interpretation?

While considering these questions, take a look at the following worksheet about common experimental errors.

Worksheet: Types of Experimental Errors

Use this helpful worksheet for your Lab Report.

Download PDF

Preview: PDF Worksheet
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Summarize the significance of your findings

How do your findings relate to your objective? To what degree did you achieve your goals? How do your findings influence wider knowledge or your understanding of the topic?

Present recommendations

What questions do the results raise? Based on your conclusions, what further research is needed in this area?

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Discussion should look like.

Do's

State whether your findings support your hypothesis, and back up your assertion by referring to your findings. Compare your results and conclusions with previous research and theories, and evaluate problems with the experiment and unexpected findings

Don’ts

Don't exaggerate what your results suggest. Don't forget to explain the significance of errors made. Never simply point out trends; instead, discuss what those trends mean.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Discussion section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  • The lab’s purpose and procedures
  • The results of the experiment
  • The significance of your results
  • The errors and inconsistencies you noticed

Before you write

Before you start writing, adopt the following strategies:

Present your conclusions in order of importance

To determine what’s most important, think about the purpose of your lab and who will be reading this lab report.

Use strategies for summarizing

Conclusions are essentially a summary. You want to narrow your focus to the most important information and convey a sense of the entire report.

Piece-by-Piece Strategy
  1. Prepare a table with 4 rows and 3 columns.
  2. In the first column, label each row with one of the four parts needed for an abstract – purpose, results, significance, and errors.
  3. In the first row of the second column, write down all the sentences from the report that relate to the purpose. Continue this process for the results, significance, etc.
  4. In the third column, summarize (in your own words) each set of sentences in column two.
  5. Bring your summaries from column three together in a single paragraph. Use transition words and phrases to move from one point to the next.
Write-and-Condense Strategy
  1. Rather than begin with a one-paragraph conclusion, write a conclusion in a few paragraphs.
  2. Revise those paragraphs, condensing them into one or two paragraphs for the abstract.
  3. Continue revising until you have a single paragraph for your conclusion.

While you write

Use the following sets of questions to help you write your conclusion:

Lab’s purpose and procedures

  • In 1 sentence, how would you describe the lab’s purpose?
  • How would you summarize your procedures in 1-2 sentences?
  • What, if any, changes to the procedure are important to note?
Results of the experiment
  • In 1-2 sentences, what were the main findings of your experiment?
  • What were the notable trends and relationships?
Significance of your results
  • In 1-2 sentences, what would you say your findings mean? How do they impact the topic/problem you are studying?
  • How do your findings relate to your objective for this lab report?
  • What did you learn from the lab and your results?
Errors and inconsistencies in your results
  • In 1-2 sentences, can you explain what scientific errors your readers should know about?
  • Why should readers be concerned about these limitations/inconsistencies?

What Should It Look Like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your Discussion should look like.

Do's

Determine how your results relate to your original objectives and discuss the lab’s purpose, results, and the significance of the results. Provide a final evaluation of the experiment limitations.

Don’ts

Don't add new conclusions or recommendations that you have not discussed earlier in the report.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the Conclusion section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

  • A reference page for the end of the document
  • Reference citations for text inside the report
  • Reference citations for figures and tables in the report and the appendices

How do I start?

References help you to give credit to other authors you relied on, and provide information so that readers can find the source material themselves

To accomplish these goals, you’ll need the following kinds of references:

Reference page

A reference page is placed on a separate page(s) at the very end of the lab report or at the end of the text, just before the appendices. The reference page includes full bibliographic information (e.g., author name, date, title, place of publication, etc.).

Reference citations inside the text of the report

Reference citations (often called in-text citations) are used along with the reference page to help a reader locate specific information (e.g., a quotation, a theoretical explanation, etc.). Each time you include specific information from a source (whether quoted or explained in your own words) you need to include a citation. In-text citations contain much less information than the reference page. Often, you include simply the last name of the author and the page number.

Reference citations for figures and tables

Place reference information for tables and figures inside the report, below the image. Always number figures and tables and give each a concise title. For tables, provide clear identifiable headings and cells. Give figures clear legends and labels. Place extra notes for tables and figures below the table, near the reference information.

Reference citations for common knowledge

In short, citations are not needed for common knowledge. Common knowledge is information that is generally known by educated readers in a discipline. Because the information is so well understood, it cannot be attributed to any one person or group. Thus, you do not need to cite this kind of information. However, determining if information is common knowledge can be tricky. What is considered common knowledge varies across different disciplines. One way to help you decide whether information is common knowledge is to ask yourself two questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What does this audience already know about the subject?

Information that your audience commonly knows is often considered common knowledge for that group. Nevertheless, if you are unsure, always cite the research you include in your paper.

What should it look like?

Every discipline uses its own style guide to create consistency in how reports and papers are organized. Always check with your instructor about what style guide is preferred. Check out the website for your school library, which often offers links to style guide information. Or, talk to a librarian or writing centre specialist about where you can find guidelines for your citation style. Below is a list of citations styles commonly used in science.

List of commonly used style guides in the sciences

American Anthropological Association (AAA)

American Sociological Association (ASA)

American Chemical Society (ACS)

American Psychological Association (APA)

Chicago

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

Turabian

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your References should look like.

Do's

Pay attention to details! Every comma, period, and parenthesis matters. Provide all three types of citation—reference page, in-text citations, and citations for figures and tables.

Don’ts

Don't use more than one citation style in your document.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the References section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

What do I need to include?

Appendices provide additional, supplementary material at the end of a report. In lab reports, this material usually includes the following items:

  • Detailed drawings of equipment used in the lab
  • Source information for hard-to-find material (e.g., full, generic names of chemicals that you abbreviated in the report)
  • Detailed, extended calculations presented in the Methods section
  • Raw data that have not been presented in a table or figure (e.g., a long table of data that you have represented as a succinct graph in the report)
  • Drawings or photographs that help explain the results
  • Notes from your lab session
  • For social science studies, full master copies of questionnaires and instructions for participants

Get organized

Usually, each distinct item has its own appendix, titled separately. These appendices are organized in the order in which the items are discussed in the paper. So, an appendix related to your methods would be placed earlier than an appendix providing raw data from your results.

What should it look like?

Here we provide a brief breakdown of the Do's and Don'ts of what your References should look like.

Do's

Determine early what information is not necessary to place inside your report. Arrange items in the order in which they are discussed, and place each item in a separate appendix, on a separate page.

Don’ts

Don't add appendix items that would not be helpful for further understanding of the experiment.

Example: Annotated Lab Report

Learn more about writing strategies for the References section of your paper.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

Key Takeaways

  • Think of your lab report as a story of a group of people and the experiment they performed. Like all stories, it has a beginning (the purpose and hypothesis), a middle (materials and methods), and an end (results and discussion).
  • Write the lab report in your own words. If you are relying on your lab manual for information, make sure you aren’t copying, word-for-word, from it.
  • Focus on the information that your reader needs in order to understand the experiment and your conclusions.
  • Pay attention to detail. Be precise in the terminology you use, the measurements you record, and the details you include.

References

Books

Alley, M. (1998). The craft of scientific writing. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.

Hofmann, A. H. (2010). Scientific writing and communication: Papers, proposals, and presentations. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

McMillan, V.E. (2006). Writing papers in the biological sciences. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc.

Northey, M. & Jewinski, J. (2012). Making sense: Engineering and the technical sciences. (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Northey, M. & Timney, B. (2002). Making sense: A student’s guide to research and writing, psychology and the life sciences. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press Canada.

Rubens, P. (Ed.). (2001). Science and technical writing: A manual of style. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Afzal, D. (2014). Manipulation of enzymes and enzymatic processes. Unpublished manuscript used with permission.

Robinson, S. (2014). The effects of enzyme, reactant and product concentrations on the reaction time and direction of enzymatic reactions. Unpublished manuscript used with permission.

Online resources

American Association for Clinical Chemistry. (2015). Clinical chemistry guide to scientific writing. Retrieved April 10, 2015 from https://www.aacc.org/publications/clinical-chemistry/clinical-chemistry%C2%A0guide-to-scientific-writing

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

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/

Next Section Overview

When you're ready, move on to Section E: Revising Your Work.

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