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Writing lab reports: A TA’s perspective (Part 2)

Results, Methods, Discussion

Brigitte, PhD Candidate in Biology

Brigitte is a Queen’s graduate and now a senior student in the university’s PhD Biology program, and has TAd and taught several courses at Queen’s. This is the second of a two-part blog series looking back on her experiences writing lab reports as a first year and offering some advice, from a TA’s perspective, on how she should have been writing back when she started!

Results and Methods are your foundation.

In my first year, I neglected the Results and Methods: they were simple, in a given standardized format, and required little real effort. If you follow the formatting requirements in the lab manual and use specific language (e.g. “250 mL of water was boiled” instead of “some water was boiled”), you will likely get full marks as I did in my early reports. However, by the end of my undergraduate career, the Results section on lab reports went from 100 words to 1000 words (not including my 4th year thesis). Developing and practicing good skills early on is vital to later success.

My mistake was underestimating the importance of the Results in other sections of the report. The points you make in the Discussion and background you include in the Introduction heavily rely on the hypothesis, how you’ve tested the hypothesis, and what you’ve found. Most of this information should be outlined in your Methods and Results. It’s also important to emphasize the experimental results without interpreting them in the Results section – the Results section is the most impartial, objective component of your report. Save your interpretations for the Discussion, where you can fully place your Results in the context of previous literature.

There also tends to be a bias against negative (or statistically non-significant) results in the scientific publishing world. It’s important to remember that the reason a certain phenomenon didn’t behave as expected can be just as interesting as why something did occur and isn’t necessarily the fault of methodological errors. Non-significant results are not always scientifically insignificant. I was discouraged by insignificant results in my first and 2nd year. It was challenging to write a Discussion where you need to integrate literature that disagrees with your findings (which is where your experimental errors can easily be integrated with most discrepancies). Remember that research is an iterative process. When writing your lab report, it’s important to keep an open mind to consider both your hypothesis and the null hypothesis. You could say that your Results are “innocent until proven guilty” – the null is true until shown (never “proven”) otherwise. After collecting the data, it is your job to act as the jury, deciding whether there is sufficient evidence and precedence (from the literature) to make strong conclusions from your Results. If not, be sure to explain why there are concerns and where the Methods could be improved.

A Discussion should integrate, not regurgitate, your Results.

The Discussion section is often worth the most marks and is where most marks are lost. Two of the most common mistakes (which I also made!): too much background (move it to the Introduction), and word-for-word reiteration of the Results. The Discussion should incorporate the Results with both your explanation of the phenomenon and the information you’ve gathered from the literature. Do not simply copy your results into your Discussion: add context and try to answer the question(s) you posed in the Introduction.

A general format: state whether your results support your hypothesis/idea, discuss 2-3 pieces of relevant literature, then discuss if the literature agrees with your hypothesis (or whether there are new questions for future studies to address). Remember to have a thesis statement at the end of your first Discussion paragraph. The thesis statement needs to set up the rest of your Discussion, just like an essay – here, I’ve made three distinct points that I discussed in the body/analysis paragraphs: “Heterozygosity may be affected by the stocking program, natural and artificial selection, and interspecific competition.”

My proofreading and editing tips

You should strive to have a day to edit your report before handing it in. It can be difficult to manage your time at university: taking care of yourself, managing multiple assignments, and studying can be challenging to juggle. Part of first year is learning what strategies will or won’t work for you. SASS has a number of strategies you could use to improve your time management such as making a to-do list, preventing procrastination, prioritizing your tasks, and using short- and long-term calendars to plan your time efficiently.

Personally, I’m one of those annoyingly organized students which has only progressed since I started graduate school. I have colour-coded weekly, monthly, and term schedules and goals. I use Gantt charts to plan the projects, tasks, and deadlines associated with my thesis. I write all of my tasks on a whiteboard and faithfully prioritize them every morning. I started assignments the evening they were assigned (because I knew I wouldn’t start them until the night before if I set them aside right away).

Not that any of my planning helped my grades in first year. I struggled with starting assignments, despite scheduling and setting definite, realistic goals. Later, I learned that using a Pomodoro timer helped me start assignments – it’s also the strategy I used to write my MSc. I force myself to work, undistracted, for 10 or 20 minutes (or however much time I had between classes) towards one goal. Read one paper. Write one paragraph or one sentence. Write the figure caption. Breaking the assignment into smaller chunks made it less daunting and much easier (for me) than staring at a blank page for an hour (or three hours) trying to write an entire Introduction. Writing freely or brainstorming allowed me to get my ideas on paper instead of focusing on writing the “perfect” sentence or paragraph. In the first week of every course I’ve ever TAd, I start class with one of my favourite (slightly altered) quotes, currently attributed to Earnest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is trash.” Sometimes, finished is better than perfect – especially if you can leave some time to edit your work.

When you’re proofreading your report, try to ask yourself some of the questions that TAs ask when we read your reports. Check if you could add any extra detail to improve your writing.

 

Report section When writing, ask yourself if you’ve answered these questions:
Title Could this be more concise?
Abstract Are the purpose, brief methodology, main results, and major conclusion(s) included?

Could this be more concise?

Introduction Why am I doing this experiment?

What is the purpose of the experiment?

If I were to explain this to a friend that missed class, what background would they need to understand this experiment?

What theory or concept is this experiment exploring?

Methods Is there enough detail for someone else to replicate my experiment?

Do the methods adequately address my hypothesis?

Is the control treatment appropriate?

 

Results Have I followed the format?

Did I appropriately test my hypothesis?

Are there any significant differences between experimental treatment groups?

Discussion What happened and why?

Do I have adequate support from the literature to make this argument?

Did I link my findings to the main concept/purpose if this assignment? Are my results consistent with the literature?

How are my results similar or different to other studies?

Was my hypothesis supported? Were my findings statistically significant?

What could be done differently in the future?

 

A concluding thought

Long story short, first year can be difficult but doesn’t define the rest of your career if you work with the knowledge and feedback you receive. If you do your best, put in the work, and use the resources available to you, your next term or course can be better than you think it will be now. As a TA, I’m always incredibly proud of those students that struggle for the first few weeks but work hard to improve their grades by the end of the term – most of us do notice!