Tips on How to Write Lab Reports
This post was last updated on 31/12/2015.
"@#$%ing LAB REPORTS". If you're a Medical Science student from stage 2 onwards, you've probably heard of that 'phrase' before. This article is intended for those who haven't written many (if any) lab reports before and how we think you should get started on them! Again, this is just an opinion article so you may find your own way that suits you better but I think most people will probably do something like this; just a variant on it. Additionally, this article is written with Physiology lab reports in mind which probably expect a written piece of work closest to what an actual journal article is like. (Other departments within the School of Medical Sciences at UOA have different expectations per paper so refer to your course coordinators for clarification).
1. Start on the Results section first
You've just completed your first lab and you're wondering 'how on earth do I convert what I did in the lab into a chunk of words'!? Trust me. Just do the results first. Usually, at lower levels (i.e. MEDSCI 205 & MEDSCI 206), the lab guide gives you an indication of what graphs/tables/diagrams to make. Follow these guidelines (if you have any). If you don't have guidelines, heck, just make any random graph that somehow makes sense. For example, if you've measured 100 people's height and 100 people's weight, don't just make a 100x2 table of weight and height, make a scatterplot of weight vs height! This may be easier said than done, however, and it takes a bit of experience to get used to knowing what to do with the results. As such, be sure to ask your demonstrators in your lab what graphs they're expecting since they're the ones marking.
Also, do the results section because that's probably the most brainless section which helps guide your thought process. Hopefully, by the time you have your results section, you'll have organised your data into something which actually makes sense to you and helps guide you as you write the rest of your lab report.
2. Move onto the Discussion
Let's continue with our initial example. You've just measured the weight and height of 100 people. You've just made a scatterplot! You should've seen (from common sense) that as height increases, weight increases. In a typical physiology lab report, you'd be expected to do the following:
(Please first note that the explanations are all fictional and made up)
1. Explain the main trend and explain the physiology
"As seen in Figure 1, the trend shows that height is positively correlated with weight. This is likely because as people are dimensionally larger, they will require a larger brain to coordinate their larger body size (Smith et al., 2006). As such, we can estimate that with each increase of 1cm in height, the average increase in weight is 0.14kg according to our results. This is similar to previous research such as (Adam, 1984; Bob, 1996; Carter, 1999)."
2. Note outliers and explain the physiology
"Our results, however, show an outlier with a weight of 55kg but a height of 190cm. It is possible that this person had a nutritional disease such "Very-skinny-person Disease" in that they had a extremely large height value but a small weight value. Smith et al. in 2007 noted the existence of this disease where there were many individuals with similar weight-height values. This is likely to be due to a mutation on Chromosome 8 where this person has trouble breaking down glucose in fat cells but can break it down normally in 'skinny cells' which lead to this underweight and overly tall phenotype (Gene, 2012)."
3. Note the limitations in your experiment
"It is acknowledged that our results are limited as our measurements of height were recorded using the experimenter's finger lengths with his finger length later recorded down and each individual's height was converted from number of finger lengths to cm. As such, the error associated with our measurements was potentially extensive. However, as our results agree with current literature, we can cautiously suggest that these results are valid. Additionally, it has been shown that finger lengths are an appropriate measure for height (Banana, 1894)."
4. Give suggestions for improvement
"Further questions could be asked such as if there is a different trend between male and female weight to height ratios. However, as we did not have the foresight to bother asking if the test subject was male or female, we could not make this comparison. Additionally, we could have tested to see if being a left handed person or right handed person affected a person's weight to height ratio. Pinocchio et al., (2014) recently found that left handed people had a steeper trend in their weight - height relationship compared to their right handed counterparts. As such, these are exciting times for weight-height research such that we may determine factors which affect this relationship."
3. Now write your introduction
After you've been through your discussion, re-read it to check through what terms you've mentioned. In the phoney example above, you could talk about things such as "Chromosome 8", "fat cell", "skinny cells", previous literature about the weight-height ratio etc. Consider the introduction to be the 'textbook-like' section of your lab report with many references. Imagine you're writing your own notes for an essay in the exam with the essay question being to explain those terms.
Then move onto writing the Methods. To be honest, Methods can be written whenever due to it being relatively straightforward and (for most undergraduate labs) a copy of what the laboratory manual mostly. It's basically rewording what you did.
4. Don't start this at the last minute
Ideally, you'd like to finish the results section 1 day after your lab, discussion perhaps 2-3 days after your lab, and the rest of your report by the finish. This is because with the lab fresh in your mind, it makes it extremely easier to remember how to write both your results section and your discussion with what the demonstrators told you in the lab. Seriously, it makes it so much easier if you do this. At the same time, it's funny because everyone knows to do this yet most people still leave it up to the last minute!
5. Proof-read your work
Once you've finished, no matter how late it is, you should always proof-read it. This is to make sure you actually make sense. No matter how careful you are, it is very, very likely that you've made a small grammatical, spelling or general error. It seriously pays off big time to proof-read.
If you've done this last minute; it's 4AM in the morning and the report's due at 10AM; you're exhausted and want to sleep; PROOF READ IT!!! You're even more likely to make mistakes in those early hours (trust me, I've done that plenty of times) and even a tired brain proof-reading what its tired self has blurted out will drastically improve its meaning!