Lab Reports 101

It is that time of year when the leaves turn colors and science teacher’s hair turns gray over lab reports that are not up to standards. The kids work hard in labs and often, in my classes, the lab reports did not reflect the richness of the conversations nor the work in class. The problem was partly in the students’ reluctance to write more than required and my poor instructions. So, if you are having the same problem I can give you a sample path out of the woods. One key is in the lab report template. There are several good ones online. There are even a few on Microsoft Word online in templates. All of the ones I use include some basic features. Purpose: This is the “why” of this lab. What are we trying to find out? Data: This is where in the most appropriate method for presenting data (graph, chart, list…) is used.

Big Idea: This is also the theory or principle that is being investigated. Procedure: What did the student do specifically? These are sometimes put into steps. This also includes the materials. Results: This is the narrative version of what patterns the student sees in the data and in the observations. Error analysis: This is where the student outlines the possible sources of error or the limits of the experiment. Calculations: These are not necessary in qualitative but a must in quantitative labs. Conclusion: This is where the student summarizes what they learned that is supported by the evidence in the data and results. There are a few sites that provide some assessment help with the lab reports. If you work in a school with a science department it is an excellent idea to negotiate with your science teaching colleagues and use the same lab report template. Having the students learn one template and set of expectations is a powerful way to clear the path and let them work on the science behind the lab.

All too often the lab report and the technical writing required in them is a barrier to the students expressing what they saw, learned or understood. The instructions are critical. I walk a fine line between not giving the students a cookbook lab and giving enough structure for the students to follow and express their ideas and learning. A good lab report template is only part of the plan. The instructions and a possible example provide more guidance. Keeping with my pledge to provide assistance and not just one path I post several older lab reports from different labs on the walls of my room. I laminate them and also post them on the class web site/blog. The students can see several procedures, conclusions, purposes etc. I make sure I include examples that are pretty traditional and some from students who took a novel approach. I also constructed a couple of examples that I post. Counter examples are also important. I post only pieces of lab reports that would not be considered acceptable. These examples I present in a PowerPoint on lab reports at the start of the year and post a synopsis of “don’t do this” hints on the blog. Another teacher combined some of these kinds of examples into a narrative guide to writing a lab. So, I am armed and ready for the first round of grading the thinking products from a weeks worth of lab effort. With a little front loading of instructions this latest batch should not turn my hair any greyer than it is today.

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