Lab report structure
Lab reports typically adopt the sections listed below.
The abstract functions as a short, yet detailed, summary of the whole report. Hence, it is far easier to write at the very end, once you have completed the report. Ideally, you may be able to extract a sentence or two from each main section of the report to build your abstract. In creating your summary, it is important to include a sentence or two about each of the following:
- A statement about the topic, which demonstrates some reasoning for formulating the hypothesis.
- The hypothesis
- Brief details about how the study was conducted, including:
- Number of participants.
- Participant characteristics, such as gender.
- How they were recruited and assigned to experimental conditions where appropriate.
- Any special equipment used to carry out the research.
- The main findings and whether they supported or disconfirmed the hypothesis.
- Identify theoretical explanations for the findings, as well as any major inconsistencies and / or alternative explanations, where word space permits.
- Research avenues for the future or implications of the research.
The abstract can vary in word length from a minimum of 120 words through to 250 words. However, always check the assignment instructions to be sure of the limit required for your report. Typically an abstract is a single paragraph although sometimes it can be two paragraphs.
This is the first main section of the report and may be easiest to write in conjunction with the discussion section because it is often important to follow-up, in your discussion, on at least one or two of the studies you mentioned in your introduction.
The central purpose of the introduction is to justify your hypothesis. However, to begin the introduction, you need to start back at a more general area of interest that is relevant to your study. From there, you move rapidly into any major theories or models, as well as studies that have been conducted, which relate to the focus of your hypothesis.
When considering what studies to include, it is always useful to mention an original, pioneering study that may have been carried out many years ago, in the 60s or 70s, which led the research path. In some instances, the topic area may be an emerging one, and the original study or several pioneering works may have occurred in more recent times.
Then from here, you have a range of options. It may be the case that the research findings in the topic area have been fairly consistent, except for one or two outcomes. In that case, it would probably be helpful to include the inconsistent studies to at least highlight the lack of consistency and hence the need to continue the investigation. In other cases, it may be more difficult, in that there may be a range of studies which all highlight diverse aspects of the study you have conducted. Here, you will need to prioritise which studies are most relevant to the current one – whether it be the particular technique used or the actual findings and type of research question.
The introduction can be one of the most difficult sections of a report to write because it is difficult to develop a sense of direction about where to start and how much to include at the beginning. Write the introduction in pieces by summarising one study at a time, or one theoretical framework at a time. Then return as appropriate to shaping these pieces together to get a sense of the order in which these items can be best placed to most convincingly lead up to the reasoning for your hypothesis. Do not forget to also include definitions of any relevant terms and concepts, including the use of acronyms throughout your report.
In terms of how much word space to allocate to the introduction, it is probably the second most important section, so assign words accordingly. For a 2000 word lab report, about 500 words would be a reasonable figure to aim for, depending on how many words are required to adequately describe the method and results sections. If these take substantially fewer words, you may be able to increase the introduction accordingly.
This is a relatively formulaic section in that there is a clearly marked out structure to follow, namely, three sub-sections: participants, materials or apparatus, procedure. The method section can be the easiest to write because it follows a straight forward structure. Therefore, it is often the best section to start with when writing-up your report.
In this section, give enough details about the participants so that someone could repeat the study using people with the same characteristics. Hence, you will need to mention the number of participants, their gender, whether they are students, as well as how they were recruited. It's also important to mention whether participants volunteered and whether they were randomly assigned to experimental conditions.
Materials or Apparatus
Here you need to give details about the equipment required to carry out the study. This may include a particular type of technology, in which case you may need a model number and brand name. If you used a paper-pencil survey, which was designed specifically for the study, then you need to provide enough details so that someone could replicate it if they wanted to repeat the study. In such cases, it may be appropriate to attach a copy of the survey in an appendix at the end of the report, and give general details in this section, but refer readers to the appendix for a full copy. If a paper-pencil test is well-known, you may only need to mention its name.
In this section, you need to repeat the exact instructions that were given to the participants. If it is important in conducting the study to express instructions to participants using particular words and phrases, then mention these exactly as they were stated in the study. You may also need to include activities and tasks undertaken by the researcher.
The results section is often a good section to write after the method because it can provide clarity on the findings, before you embark on thinking about possible explanations for the findings in your discussion. The results provide the reader with information about what you found. Consequently, one of the key features of the results section is to ensure that you only mention the findings, and not what they mean in relation to the study.
It may be useful to begin by naming the type of analysis carried out on the data, and if the data had been changed in any way from its raw form before you undertook the analysis. Then mention the difference or lack of difference between groups with respect to the activity they participated in during the study. If relevant, you can express this difference (or lack of) by including each group's score numerically in brackets. This then needs to be backed up with statistical evidence to support the difference (or lack of). In this case, you will need to mention the name of the statistical test using appropriate statistical symbols, such as t, F, M. With each test, include the degrees of freedom, the value of the statistic, and the level of probability. For some tests, you may also need to provide the N value or number of participants. Most importantly, you also need to state whether the difference was “significant” or “not significant”.
When you have a lot of data, it may be convenient to display this in a table or graph and then summarise the main features or patterns in words. However, remember not to duplicate information. So, if you have a table with data contained within it, and then go on to repeat much of this data in the form of sentences, the written expression of the data will be redundant. When using tables, the title appears at the top of the table; when using graphs, the title appears below.
This section is allocated the most marks, so it is well worth your investment in time to do it thoroughly. You typically begin with a sentence or paragraph, summarising the results, including whether they support or disconfirm the hypothesis. You can then choose to highlight the similarities in findings with the current study and previous ones. It is then relevant to move on to the most challenging part of the Discussion: explaining your findings.
A good proportion of your discussion should be devoted to explaining, interpreting, and where relevant, justifying your findings. This can involve repeating some of the theoretical frameworks or models mentioned in the Introduction, but with a greater focus towards making sense of the outcomes in the current study. Beyond affirming the theory, you should also consider any alternative explanations for the findings. These may be drawn from studies that presented inconsistent findings with the theory. Additionally, you may also be able to draw on aspects of the study which may have been left to chance, rather than being experimentally controlled.
In the last part of the discussion, it is beneficial to mention any flaws in the study, such as a lack of diversity amongst participants, sample size, and other characteristics of the sample population. If you can think of other disadvantages associated with the design of the study, then it is a good idea to discuss these if you can. In the final part, before your concluding paragraph, it is a good idea to consider the future application of the findings in some way, and even the need for further investigations to ascertain unexplained aspects of the research outcomes. This particular part can also be included in the concluding paragraph, but will depend on your assignment instructions. In closing the report, finish by reaffirming the findings and their significance to the research area.