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Guidelines for Writing a Formal Laboratory Report

Teaching Guidelines for Writing a Formal Laboratory Report

Central Kitsap High School

Grades 10 - 12 


To highlight methods for teaching students to write formal laboratory reports. 


Learning to write a scientific laboratory report is integral to mastering knowledge of science and scientific methods.  This style of writing requires much practice on the students�� behalf as well as detailed instruction and feedback from the teacher.  Typically high school students come to science courses with varied experience in writing reports.  Thus, it is important that students be exposed to instructional methods that systematically build on students�� existing writing skills and capabilities.

Included in this notebook are two sets of guidelines focusing on the development and refinement of skills fundamental to writing a formal science laboratory report.  One set of guidelines is designed for students, the other for the science teacher.  The guidelines are applicable to most science courses including chemistry, physics and biology.  The student guidelines are designed to help students work through the process and mechanics of writing.  Guidelines focus on each component of the research report, addressing the content, style, format and mechanics of scientific report writing.  Learning to write a laboratory report is an ongoing process and requires repeated emphasis on the fact that time and practice are essential for mastering the skills.  The teacher guidelines provide suggestions for implementing the teaching process.


There are two possible timelines for teaching students to master writing a formal laboratory report.  These are referred to these as the concentrated timeline and the extended timeline.  Select the method that best suits your curriculum and your teaching style. 

The concentrated timeline involves teaching how to write a formal lab report in a short time frame and then reinforcing the methods throughout the year.  This would entail allotting one to two weeks to this writing project at the beginning of the school year with all modules being taught during this time.

The extended timeline would require implementation over one full semester.  Modules would be taught sequentially and in conjunction with on-going laboratory exercises.  The writing focus would shift, week by week, depending on which module was being taught. For students, this would mean putting more emphasis on different aspects of writing the report depending on which module was being taught.  Writing other sections of the report could be skipped or students could be taught to write a considerably simplified or rough draft version, with the understanding that detailed instruction and practice of the other sections would follow.

Modules for Teaching

The following modules are organized so that less complex concepts and writing tasks are taught first.  This strategy allows students to achieve a level of mastery and experience success before taking on more complex and challenging writing and thinking skills. 

Module 1.  Introduction to formal laboratory reports and writing titles

  1. Review the main components of a formal laboratory report with the students.  Discuss with your students the learning objectives involved in writing a formal laboratory report (Appendix A).  To enhance understanding, students should actively contribute to this discussion.
  2. Review vocabulary words with students (Appendix B).  Most students will be very familiar with these terms.  Students will probably have a difficult time identifying independent variables (IV) and dependent variables (DV).  Provide several examples and instruct the students practice identifying the IV and DV in each.  A mini experiment could be performed or demonstrated and the students could relate these terms to the experiment. 
  3. Review the guidelines for how to write a title.  Show some examples for writing titles. 
  4. Divide the students into groups and give each group 3-5 practice topics.  Direct the students practice using the criteria to write their own titles.  Examples given should contain both independent and dependent variables. 
  5. If using the extended timeline, it would probably be a good idea to review how to write a purpose statement first since this is an important concept that will not be covered in detail until later in the semester.  This skill can be refined later.

Module 2.  Introduction to writing materials and procedures

  1. Students should be familiar with writing materials and procedures but instruct them to start by reading the guidelines.
  2. Place your students into groups and give them each a bucket of science equipment.  Each bucket should contain different types of equipment the students will use throughout the entire year.  Vary the quantities of the materials you provide for them.  Using the guidelines, direct the students to write a materials list pertaining to their particular bucket.  This activity will also function as a review of the scientific names of equipment.  If they do not know a name of an apparatus, tell them to look it up in their textbook.  If you like, students could do this activity on large poster paper so that they can share this information at the end of class.
  3. Provide a sample of text that lists the procedures to a particular lab in paragraph form.  Instruct the students to translate the text into a list of procedures.  Students should work individually and follow the guidelines provided.  They can be asked to draw a sketch of the experimental set-up when applicable.

Module 3.  Introduction to writing introductions

  1. Guide the student in reading the guidelines out loud.  After each section help the students paraphrase the guidelines in their own words.  This module will probably be more challenging than the previous two modules and may require additional clarification. 
  2. Divide your students into pairs and give each pair a purpose statement for a laboratory exercise and a related topic to research.  You will probably want to provide them with a list of related terms to research.  Direct the students to follow the guidelines and do the necessary background research.  This may require a day in the library depending on your resources in the classroom.  (If you are following the extended timeline, use a purpose from an upcoming laboratory exercise).
  3. Teach students how to define a term using their own words.  This takes practice.  One suggestion is to have students read the text definition, then close the book and restate the definition to a classmate.  Additionally, students can draw pictures or vocabulary webs to put the terms in context of their own schema.
  4. Instruct the students to type a draft introduction.
  5. Have the students evaluate their own introductions (following the attached grading criteria).  Consider having students do an ��introduction swap�� with another pair of students for additional evaluation. 
  6. The students should make necessary changes an turn in a final draft.  Spend sometime evaluating and commenting on their introductions.  As the saying goes, ��A stitch in time saves nine.��

Module 4.  Introduction to writing results

  1. Instruct the students to review the guidelines for the Results section.  Tell them that they will need to pay close attention to detail since they will be writing their own Results section.
  2. If using the concentrated timeline, perform a demonstration in which students have to collect data.  This could be as simple as measuring the effect of heating different solutions over time.  If using the extended timeline, choose a lab that has the students collect numerical data and use these data to have them write a Results section.
  3. Provide a sample chart on an overhead or have the students design their own.  As the experiment is performed, have the students record their own data and observations.
  4. When finished the students should do calculations with the data and write a section for sample calculations. 
  5. If students have access to a computer lab, show them how to input data and make graphs using a computer program.  They could also simultaneously type descriptions to accompany the charts, observations and graphs. 
  6. Tell the students to reread the guidelines and double check their Results section.  Depending on how familiar the students are with writing this section, you may want to direct the students to swap papers and do a peer evaluation.
  7. Students should submit their Results for teacher evaluation.

Module 5.  Introduction to writing conclusions

  1. Start by instructing the students to read the guidelines.  You may want them to highlight or write notes in the margin as they read this section.  
  2. If you have a sample of a conclusion that was well written either by a student from a previous year or a conclusion from a scientific journal, the students could read and evaluate it according to the guidelines and evaluation.
  3. Use data from the demonstration (in Module 4) or data from a previous lab as the basis of information for teaching the students how to write a conclusion.  Multiple sets of data would probably be preferred to one set of data. 
  4. Library time may be required for students to do necessary background research.
  5. Direct the students to write a draft of a conclusion using the guidelines.  Direct students to edit their own work and rewrite a draft for peer evaluation. 
  6. A final draft should be submitted and closely reviewed.  This is probably the most challenging section to write and students will have difficulty seeing correlations and relating the material to other research.  Students should be encouraged that topics like future ideas for research require creativity and that they have no single ��right�� answer.

Module 6.  Introduction to writing abstracts

  1. Direct the students to read the guidelines for writing an abstract.
  2. If following the concentrated timeline, use a published scientific journal article (with the abstract deleted) and have the students practice writing an abstract.  Make sure the article is appropriate for high school students to understand.  If following the extended timeline, you may either use a journal article or have the students write an abstract for a laboratory that contains all other formal laboratory sections.  They can practice going over and adding or revising this section in previous laboratory reports.
  3. Instruct the students to work in pairs or individually to read the article and extract the material necessary for the abstract. 
  4. Allow the students time to write or type this section.  Time for peer evaluation will also be necessary since most students will not have had practice writing an abstract. 
  5. Collect the abstracts and thoroughly evaluate.

Section Reminders

Below are some reminders for the teachers to emphasize.  They are listed according to the applicable section of the formal laboratory report.  

Introduction.  The teacher should indicate what portion of the report should be devoted to gathering pertinent information through library research.  Any key terms that need to be included should be listed for the students.   

Materials.  Sometimes the laboratory exercise requires cooperation between two or more students. In larger groups or in situations where supplies are difficult to obtain, activities may be done by several students working together and sharing responsibility. However, students should gather and record their data individually. 

Procedures.  The teacher should stress that this section should contain all of the information necessary for another person to repeat the exact procedure of the experiment without knowing about experimental techniques and without repeating errors made. 

Results.  The teacher should stress the significance of observations versus inferences. 

Conclusion.  If students have grasped the important ideas, concepts, or observations from each experiment, they should be able to answer each of the statements in their module instructions.  If not, then some important aspect of each experiment has been overlooked. In this case, rereading or repeating the experiment is suggested.  

Ideas for Helping Students Achieve a Final Product

  1. Use graphical aids to help students understand how to concentrate their time and efforts (Appendix C).
  2. Make sure the students have a copy of the grading criteria before they write-up the lab.  You may want to prepare a more specific version of the attached scoring rubric to match the specific goals for a particular laboratory exercise.
  3. Set due dates for each section of the lab and/ or for an outline or rough draft.
  4. Students should construct a working outline indicating the order of their reports.
  5. Have the students write a rough draft for critique. 
  6. Pair students and have them do a peer evaluation using the grading criteria.  Students can identify spelling errors, grammatical errors, and ensure that all sections of the lab are present.  You may want to grade this based on how thorough and how much effort was put into this activity.
  7. Have students ask a parent or another adult proof read the paper.  Have the students tell the adult to check for comprehensibility.  The adult could probably more readily identify missing parts of information since they are not directly involved in the laboratory exercise.



Chmielowiec, D., Molinian, A., & Nassis, G.  (1994)  Holt biology: Laboratory experiments.  Austin:  Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

Kaskel, A., Broudy, M., Bunkelmann, H., & Mittleman, F. (1977)  Life science.  Columbus, OH:  Charles E. Merrill.

Morgan, J. & Carter, R.  (1993).  Investigating biology.  Redwood City, CA:  Benjamin Cummins.

O��Connor, P.R., Davos. J.E., MacNab, W.K., & McClellan, A.L.  (1982)  Lexington, MA:  D.C. Heath.

Otto, J.H., Towle, A., & Otto, W.D.  (1981)  Biology investigation.  New York:  Holt, Reinhart and Winston

Tznimopoulos, N.D., Metcalfe, H.C., Williams, J.E., & Castka, J.F.  (1990)  Modern chemistry, laboratory experiments.  Teachers�� edition. Austin:  Holt, Reinhart and Winston. 


Appendix A 

Learning Objectives for Formal Laboratory Report 

  1. Hypothesizing  -  Making a testable statement that answers some questions about the data.
  2. Predicting  -  Stating the most likely outcome of an experiment based on hypotheses or theories.
  3. Experimenting  -  Carrying out observations under controlled conditions.
  4. Observing  -  Using your senses to collect and record specific information, or data.
  5. Measuring  -  Gathering quantitative data by gathering numerical information.
  6. Organizing Data  -  Placing the data in logical fashion in graphs, tables, or charts.
  7. Classifying  -  Ordering the data according to similarities or differences.
  8. Modeling  - Creating visual, verbal, or mathematical models that show relationships among the data.
  9. Analyzing Data  -  Using mathematical relationships to study the reliability of data.
  10. Inferring  -  Drawing conclusions from the data collected rather than from direct observation.


Appendix B 


VARIABLE:  Something that may or does vary in an experiment.  There are 3 kinds of variables. 

  1. INDEPENDENT VARIABLE (IV):  A variable you, change or manipulate on purpose.  When you change this variable you are looking for a effect or response in another variable.
  1. DEPENDENT VARIABLE (DV):  This is the responding variable.  It is the one you measure. 
  1. CONSTANTS:  Once you have selected the IV and the DV you make sure that all other potential variables remain constant (the same).  

CONTROL:  A standard for comparison. We choose one of the levels of independent variable as a standard for comparison.  For example, if you wanted to study the effect of fertilizer on grass growth, the obvious control would be the section of lawn with no fertilizer. 

REPEATED TRIALS : We do repeated trials to make sure our results are not due to chance.  Each level of IV is tested several times.  If you get similar results each time you can be more confident that your findings were not caused by error or chance. 

PURPOSE STATEMENT:  A clear concise statement of the specific goal or aim of the experiment. 


Appendix C 



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