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Writing lab reports: A TA’s perspective (Part 1)

Introductions and titles

Brigitte, PhD Candidate in Biology

Have you ever wondered what your Teaching Assistant (TA) is thinking while marking your reports? Brigitte is a Queen’s graduate and now a senior student in the university’s PhD Biology program, and has TA’d several courses at Queen’s. In the first of a two-part blog series, Brigitte is here to look back on her experiences writing lab reports as a first year and offer some advice, from a TA’s perspective, on how she should have been writing back when she started! Today, Brigitte explores how to write a great introduction, come up with an appropriate title, and edit your work.

A bit about my first year at Queen’s

I started at Queen’s in Fall 2013. Since then, I’ve completed a BSc (Honours), MSc, and my first year as a PhD Candidate in Biology. I’ve published my research, been listed on the Dean’s Honour List and been awarded scholarships.

The last few years of my university career represent a massive change, since I was generally unremarkable in my first year. I always told my family that I received straight “A” marks in my first year—they didn’t know that meant my marks were somewhere between “Appalling” and “Average” (60-70%).

I came from high school as a top student (receiving a 98% cumulative average and the Governor General’s Bronze Medal, among 13 other awards), but I remember my first Biology labs vividly. I felt confused by the requirements for a few weeks. I was a FYNIR (First Year Not In Residence) living alone off-campus, so I had no peers to ask for help or support.

When I went to hand in my first Biology report, I felt anxious, but mostly defeated; I had spent hours upon hours desperately trying to sound knowledgeable in my assignment. I received a 60%, while the class average was ~70%. I was glad that I passed, but frustrated and upset for days because I felt that the effort I had put in should’ve been worth more than a 60%. At the time, it was an awful experience. Looking back, however, the reports and feedback I resented in my first year absolutely made me an independent researcher and capable scientist.

Introductions should explain what we already know and what you’re going to add

Formatting varies from course to course, but the Introduction should be written from general information (explaining the scientific context of your study) to the specifics of your study (e.g. hypotheses). The Introduction should provide background from primary sources (e.g. published research articles) that is sufficient for the reader to understand the study purpose, hypotheses, and why the study is important. Many students neglect to mention why they are performing their study or the implications of their findings; as a TA, it’s an easy place to take marks off. My main mistake was incorporating too much background information into the Discussion instead of the Introduction which was short and shallow (lacking detail and incorporated literature):

The finishing touch: An appropriate title

You’ve written a beautiful report, but it needs a title to capture your work. You could call it “Assignment 1”, but that would be like calling the Mona Lisa something akin to Portrait—not untrue, but also not very helpful. The Title is often worth a small fraction of your total grade, but crafting a representative title is an important skill for future academic, public or private sector careers.

One of my first year titles is below. It could’ve been improved drastically by making it more concise then adding extra detail to tell the reader about the main finding and purpose of the study. Note that the original and revised titles have the same word count, but very different amounts of detail.