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Lab Report Writing – You’re Not a “Mad Scientist” Here

October 16, 2015 - Posted toWriting

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Following the Procol

We have all seen at least excerpts from the movie, “Frankenstein” and perhaps some other films in which mad scientists are working in their labs, among smoking test tubes, and creating horrific things. Not in any of these films will you see a piece of paper – anything that might purport to be notes or notations of what is being done and the results. You are not that mad scientist, however. You are a scholarly researcher who must follow protocols and structures as you conduct experimentation and record results, ultimately producing your laboratory report. Your report is nothing like a film script or a short story. It is a scholarly piece of writing.

A Definition

Lab reports are very specific documents that contain defined research projects – from the formulation of a research question to analyzing the results of the research. In this way, a lab report is much like a thesis or dissertation. And also just like a thesis or a dissertation, there is a rather strict protocol for both the process and the final written report. Most lab science college courses will require at least one research project with an accompanying report. At the graduate level, students can expect many more.

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Topic Selection

Your first step in preparing for a lab report is to determine a broad topic area of interest. Once you have that, you need to conduct some research to see what other research has been conducted in the topic area. This research will give you the insight you need to refine your topic to a specific research question.

The Steps of the Process

Once your research question has been formulated and approved, you obviously conduct the research. During that research you are expected to maintain careful and detailed notations of all steps in the process and of all the formative results that you obtain. Once the research is finished, you will then prepare the lab report, in five sections:

The Introduction

This section contains very specific sub-sections. First the research question must be clearly stated. It should be followed by a justification for the research, as well as a review of the literature surrounding the question. The last sub-section must include a general statement about the method of approach and a hypothesis relative to the expected results.

Methods and Materials

This section will explain to the reader exactly how the work was done and what materials, experimental groups (if any), or equipment was utilized. It should also include the site of the research, such as the school lab or another facility off campus. While this section does not have to include every minute detail of the work, it cannot be too vague either. The best rule of thumb for this section is that another researcher could read this section and duplicate the research exactly as you did it.

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Results

This is the most important section of the entire report, for it is in this section that the results of the quantitative and qualitative results of all experimentation will be provided. All of the collected data from the experiments will be summarized, both in prose and in charts, graphs, and tables, which must be labeled by “figure” numbers and titles.  As each graphic is referred to in the prose section, its highlights should be briefly explained. Your narrative explanation should include your reasoning for each experiment and data collected. The reader needs to see your logic.

Discussion and Conclusion

The first sub-section of this section will include an analysis and discussion of your result. What are the conclusions from the experimentation? Was the research question answered and was your hypothesis correct? Did it validate earlier research in the same area, add to earlier research, or debunk earlier research?

The conclusion should address any unexpected results and point future researchers in additional directions to build upon the research that you have done. You might include some questions for future research, such as what would happen if one of the variables were to be changed slightly?

References

Obviously, any time you use information or data from another source, you must cite the source of that information. This will be especially true in your introduction and if you refer to the research of others in your discussion and conclusion section. Every institution and/or department has its requirements relative to the format for citing references. Normally, it is more convenient to cite all references at the end of the work, followed by a full bibliography. Still others want one of the standard format styles so be certain you know the expectations.

Do’s Don’ts
  • report in the third person and se the passive rather than active voice
  • use the present tense - it is considered unscholarly. Past tense is at your disposal
  • keep all of your experimentation notes in a single place – preferably a spiral notebook
  • proofread your own report – get someone who understands your field to do it

Common Errors

The most frequent errors are as follows:

  1. Students dive in without really understanding how to write a lab report. You cannot just “wing it.”
  2. Your analyses or interpretations are not totally clear. Have someone else read them to ensure they are easily understood.
  3. If data is repeated more than once in either the results or the discussion sections, it can be confusing to the reader.
  4. You have grammatical errors and have not had the piece reviewed and proofread by a skilled grammarian.

A Couple of Final Tips

Be certain that your report looks professional in every way. It is not the length of a dissertation and it may not be scheduled for publication; however, it is a scholarly work and should be treated as such.

Check and re-check your figures. Incorrect figures can impact your statistical analyses, and destroy the credibility of your work, especially if someone tries to replicate it in the future.

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