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Tutoring Lab Reports

Summary:

The purpose of this resource is to help tutors navigate the lab report genre and equip them with strategies for tutoring sessions.

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald
Last Edited: 2017-09-12 12:26:58

For many writing tutors, giving suggestions, or even understanding technical papers on subjects in which they are not expert,s can be difficult. Lab reports can feel particularly dense to writers who are unfamiliar with the discipline or the material in the report. Therefore, it is important to think about the features of writing lab reports that are comparable to other types of academic writing. The purpose of this resource is to help tutors navigate the lab report genre and equip them with strategies for tutoring sessions.

Purpose and Situation

Like all writing, lab reports exist in response to a specific purpose and situation. 

Purpose

Many college-level science classes have a lab component to their section wherein students gain hands-on learning experience. The lab report serves the purpose of collecting and reporting what was learned. In a tutoring session, tutors may benefit from focusing on the purpose of lab reports, rather than trying to focus on specialized content. For instance, a tutor may want to begin a session asking the writer about how they understand their draft to reflect what they learned in the experiment in addition to how well it outlines the procedures they performed.

Situation

The goal of scientific experiments and reports is to get students “participating in the acquisition and interpretation of data” (Pechenik 156). It’s important to think about how scientific lab reports, as a genre, reflect the values of observation and discovery. Keep in mind that a lab report is unlike writing in other disciplines—such as the humanities—in that it involves assessing the validity of a hypothesis rather than arguing or exploring a claim (Carter, et al. 398).

Genre Considerations

Lab report genre conventions may be different from other types of writing that tutors typically see, so it is important to consider these differences when setting the agenda for a tutoring session.

Organization

One important characteristic for a tutor to acknowledge is the organization of the lab report. The OWL’s resources on Experimental Reports discusses the sections of lab reports and what writers should consider when working in those sections.

A lab report is a highly structured text, and the depth of each section will vary depending on the writer’s course level. Therefore, tutors may have some questions in mind for specific sections in addition to a general understanding of each section:

Introduction

The writer should describe the general background knowledge necessary for the intended audience to understand the experiment. Does the writer’s introduction section contextualize their experiment by describing its goals and purpose? Is the hypothesis clear? The writer may consult the OWL’s resource on the CARS (Creating a Research Space) Model to learn more about constructing an effective introductory section.

Materials and Methods

The writer describes the procedures and materials used in the experiment to establish the study’s credibility, to contextualize results, and to provide information for replicability. Is it clear what materials and/or participants were used in the experiment? Does the writer also show how she used those materials? Does the writer explain their specific research practices (surveying, statistical analysis, etc.)? Does the writer provide enough detail and context based on the purposes of the experiment?

Results

The writer describes the findings of the experiment without interpreting those findings. Are the findings of the experiment clear to outside readers? Do any charts or visual aids enhance the clarity of the results section? Are the results organized in a coherent, readable way?

Discussion

The writer interprets their findings and states if their hypothesis was valid or invalid. Sometimes the writer may also need to include a separate concluding section that reviews and summarizes their findings and their discussion. In these sections, does the writer give enough attention to interesting and/or unexpected trends in their findings? Does their interpretation relate their findings to their original hypothesis?

Citating Literature

The writer provides the sources they consulted through their research. Do their citations follow the appropriate format for the discipline?

If the tutoring session leads to a more holistic discussion of the report, a tutor may benefit from thinking about the arc of the report. A lab report should successfully

  1. Contextualize the study (introduction);
  2. State how the study was conducted and what was used to conduct it (materials and methods);
  3. State what was found in the study (results);
  4. Reflect on the results and how they relate to the original context (discussion);
  5. Cite any external research that was used.

Also note that the general organization and particular sections of a lab report may vary depending on the discipline, the course, the instructor, and even the experiment. While the sections described above are common, they may not apply to every report, or there may be additional sections not mentioned here. Just like with any other tutoring session, tutors should consult the assignment sheet and discuss expectations and goals with the writer.

Language and Style

Passive Vs. Active Voice

Writing tutors may have been taught that, in general, the science disciplines predominantly use the passive voice because the action performed within the sentence is emphasized over the individual performing that action. In other words, the passive voice typically emphasizes the data and methods rather than the researchers, which is often desired in scientific communication. While this rule may apply in some situations, it is not universal, and some instructors may specify which sections should be written in the passive voice and which should be written in the active voice.

Point of View

Generally, writers are cautioned to use the third person and avoid the first and second person (I, me, my, we, our, us, you).

Verb Tense

Lab reports are often written in the present tense, but the past tense may be used when describing some methods and/or observations or citing past published work. But, as with every other genre convention, the tutor should ask the writer about the expectations within the discipline and the course.

The Writing Process

A lab report shows the first-hand learning that occurred in an experiment, whereas, in other common writing genres used in university courses, first-hand learning often occurs through the writing process itself. For example, by composing a research paper or a rhetorical/literary analysis, a writer will learn more about the topic that they’re researching or the text they’re analyzing. On the other hand, when composing a lab report, a writer is recording what they have observed and must provide concrete, specific details so readers can follow and potentially repeat the experiment.

Therefore, in a tutoring session, a tutor may focus on how a lab report details what was learned through the experiment. For instance, if the writer is in the brainstorming or drafting stages, the tutor and writer may consider how the content communicates the purpose of each section. The writer may also benefit from discussing how they understand their report working section-by-section and how those sections come together to fulfill the purpose of the entire lab report and show that learning has occurred. These conversations may help the writer recognize how individual writing choices made throughout the document affect the broader context and purposes, and vice versa.

Sources

Carter, Michael, et al. "Teaching Genre to English First-Language Adults: A Study of the

Laboratory Report." Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 4, 2004, pp 395-419.

 

Pechenik, Jan A. A Short Guide to Writing About Biology—8th Edition. Longman, 2001.

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