Talking Teaching: How to improve students’ lab report writing

Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. This month, we discussed the importance of lab reports and how to improve students’ writing skills. 

In this blog, I’d like to discuss methods for building scientific writing skills in the classroom.

The article we’d like to share with you this month is:

  • Inquiry-Based Writing in the Laboratory Course is a paywalled article published in Science. This article proposes a new approach to writing lab reports. The proposed changes are designed to improve students’ understanding of report structure, and to encourage competent scientific writing.

The proposed changes

Instead of writing a traditional lab report by filling in the introduction, methodology, and results sections, Moskovitz & Kellogg suggest that students should learn to perform “real” scientific writing. Undergraduate lab courses are already adopting inquiry-based methodologies, where students work on relevant scientific questions instead of completing prescribed or “cookbook” activities. However, the writing of lab reports has not yet been aligned with an inquiry-based approach. In the authors’ opinion, inquiry-based writing is only feasible when three fundamental changes occur in the traditional lab: students need to practice authentic forms of scientific writing; the writing tasks need to be aligned with a lab activity; and students need to write for an audience.

  • Authentic forms of scientific writing are the many different writing tasks a scientist might encounter during their scientific career. These include methodology papers, proposals, posters, peer reviews, and experimental reports. These writing tasks should be broken down into smaller parts, as opposed to asking students to write an entire text for a single assessment. Furthermore, the authors suggest that when writing a lab report, students should be encouraged to reflect: for example, on why a specific method was used, or how this method addresses the research question.
  • Aligning the writing task with a lab activity accommodates the student’s academic progress. The authors suggest that students in first-year labs should only be writing the results section, as they lack the expertise to determine when and/or why to use particular methodologies, as well as the familiarity with the literature required to write the introduction. However, their experiments produce results which they are capable of describing and discussing. Intermediate-level students can also write the methodology section of the lab report. At this level, students are encouraged to design their own experiments and are capable of justifying their choices. Only advanced students should be asked to write full lab reports, since they are experienced enough to grasp the complexity of the literature and perform original research. 
  • Finally, the authors suggest that students need to write for an audience, ideally someone who is not familiar with the experimental results. This requires the students to communicate the key points of the experiment, and the instructor to read as a scientist as opposed to a grader. The feedback given in response to this form of writing would be more meaningful, and could further improve students' performance.

These proposed changes are significant, and may be difficult to implement into the curriculum. In this blog, we focus on actionable tips to improve students’ comprehension of underlying scientific concepts, and promote clear and concise communication skills.

What can I do to improve my students’ writing skills?

You may have found that your students are overwhelmed by the number of lab reports required by their courses, or are simply lacking motivation to write. If your students are struggling with writing lab reports, here are some tips to help motivate them and improve their writing skills.

1. Don't ask for so many lab reports 
Traditionally, students have been required to submit a full lab report for each experiment they complete. However, it might be worth narrowing the scope to focus on one report section at a time.

By decreasing quantity in the hopes of increasing quality, the workload for your students (and for you) will be reduced, allowing the students to spend more time on each individual assignment.

A seated man writing in a notebook with a laptop in the background.

These individual sections would result in a full lab report by the end of the semester (see Bramer & Bastin, 2013; Gragson & Hagen, 2010); otherwise, you could ask your students to write full reports toward the end of the semester, when they are more confident. 

2. Provide guidance  
Guidance regarding the form and content of the report can be provided in two ways and gradually reduced throughout the semester. First, prompt students with reflection questions. For example, ask “What do you already know about this topic?” or “Why is this topic important?” when students are working on the introduction section. The methodology section could be introduced with questions like “Why is this a good method to answer your question?” or “Why was step X performed before step Y?”. Questions such as “What do your results show?” or “Describe the trend(s) in your results.” help to keep students focused in their writing. Lastly, questions like “How do you explain your results?” and “Do your results differ from those seen in the literature? Why might this be?” contribute to thoughtful discussion sections.

Second, provide examples to give students a clear idea of what is expected of them. This could be achieved by actually handing out exemplar lab reports, and/or by providing students with a marking chart (Gragson and Hagen, 2010). This marking chart will help students understand the key components of each section of the lab report. 

3. Implement a peer review process 
Multiple studies have shown that students write and perform better over time when they get to review other students’ work and revise their own writing (Walker & Sampson, 2013; Gragson & Hagen, 2010). Gragson & Hagen (2010) suggest using the Calibrated Peer Review model, an online platform designed to teach students review criteria, allow them to review their peers’ work, and then revise their own work.

Join the discussion

What techniques have helped your students to improve their writing? How do you motivate your students to write lab reports?

Join us in the ADI: Educator Community on LinkedIn and let other educators know your thoughts!

Our online community is a hub for life sciences education in #highered, where you can share resources, ask questions, get feedback, and build meaningful relationships - across campus and across the globe!

Additional Resources:

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How to boost metacognition in the classroom »

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How to make online assessments resistant to cheating »


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