Lab Report Feedback Key
If we encounter a common problem when grading your lab report, we will indicate this in the marginal comments returned with your report.. The common problems, and their solutions, are included in the list below. You can use this list for help by finding the appropriatesection and problem number and following the guidance it offers. In many cases, the advice includes links to additional material on this website or other websites.
For example, if a comment in your lab report says "Introduction 2" you would follow up on this feedback by scrolling down to item 2 under Introduction below to find out more about what went wrong and what you can do to fix it. As always, please contact your instructor or TA if you need clarification or more information. We are here to help.
- Too much passive voice. Use primarily active voice sentences when writing your lab reports. For example, this sentence is written in the passive voice. "Step pulses of 200 pA were delivered to pyramidal neurons and action potential amplitude was measured." This is a train-wreck of a sentence. Notice how much easier the sentence is to read when changed to the active voice: "We delivered 200 pA step pulses to pyramidal neurons and measured action potential amplitude." Notice that using the active voice requires you to write in the first person (using "I" and "we" as the subjects of sentences). Although some instructors discourage use of first person in academic writing, I want to make it perfectly clear that writing in the first person is absolutely acceptable for scientific reports. If you pick up a copy of any leading science journal, you will notice that the articles which are the easiest to read are written with frequent use of first person. NOTE: It is possible to have too much of a good thing. A paper that is written entirely in the active voice is awkward and difficult to read. So, periodically use passive voice sentences for the reasons suggested here.
- Language is too effusive Scientific writing should not be absolutely dry and boring, but it is important to show restraint in your descriptions. Good scientific writers convey enthusiasm about the work and the importance of their experiments in a measured fashion. For example, it is OK to say that, "Action potentials are the primary language of information coding in the nervous system." On the other hand you have gone too far and become effusive when you write that "Action potentials are fascinating miracles of nature that zip around the body carrying information."
- Language is too informal. Good scientific writing finds the sweet spot between language that is too dry and language that is too casual. If you have written things like "We zapped the cell with lots of current to excite it," then you have gone too informal in your writing.
- Weak organization: paragraph level . Each paragraph should have a clear flow of information and make a single point.
- Problems with specificity . In scientific writing strive to say exactly what you mean. This means choosing words very carefully so that the reader cannot reach any understanding other than the one you are trying to convey.
- Problems with clarity. Scientific writing should be easy to understand. This depends on writing with clarity, which has much to do with the structuring of your sentences. Please read through this brief but outstanding article about how to write clearly.
- Writing is not concise. Good scientific writing gets the point across efficiently. Your sentences should be brief and avoid excessive words. This is a matter of balance, however, because variation in sentence length is important for writing a paper that is easy to read. This classic article in The American Scientist is an excellent guide to clear and concise scientific writing.
- Title: too vague The title should briefly convey the content of the lab report at a reasonable level of detail. It is possible to be too vague, so that the title doesn't convey anything. The title should at the minimum tell the reader what the independent and dependent variables are. Better yet, a good title communicates what the relationship between the independent and dependent variables are. More help here
- Title: too detailed. A title that is too long and too detailed also causes problems for the reader. An easy strategy to ask someone to read your title out loud while you listen to it. If you cringe while hearing your own title read aloud, that is a sign that you should look for ways to make it more concise. You can find more help here.
- Abstract: Doesn't summarize all aspects of the report. The abstract should summarize the Introduction, methods, results, and discussion sections. A good rule of thumb is to try to summarize each section in 2-3 sentences. This will produce an abstract that is a single paragraph and efficiently captures the content of the lab report. This is most easily accomplished if you write the abstract after completing the rest of the report. More help here.
- Abstract: Has too much detail in some areas. An abstract that has too much information doesn't effectively allow the reader to understand what the whole paper is about. Work on summarizing each section of the report in 2-3 sentences. Write the report first then write the abstract.
- Introduction: High-level organization problems . The introduction should follow a strategy of moving from the general to the specific. Begin with the broad concepts behind the experiments, explain those, then gradually become more specific until you ultimately describe the experiments you ran and what your hypotheses were for each experiment. More help here.
- Introduction: Insufficient explanation of important theoretical background. Writing a good introduction is hard. The idea is to present the background that is necessary for understanding the experiments you ran, and provide enough theory to justify your hypotheses.
- Introduction: Includes irrelevant information. Too much information in the introduction can be a problem. Only include information in your introduction that is necessary to establish the background of the experiments that you performed.
- Introduction: Avoid question framing. We see a lot of paragraphs that begin with statements like "In order to understand X, we must first consider Y." One common example is an introduction that begins like this: "In order to uderstand how neurons work, we must first consider the physical properties of electricity." Statements like these are unnecessarily wordy. You can convey the same concept in a more direct declarative fashion like this: "Neuronal membranes are governed by basic principles of electricity."
- Results: Repetetive description of figures. This is a common mistake for beginners. The results section is not simply a sequential description of what is shown in each graph. The results section tells a story by explaining what you found in your experiments, and referring to the figures to back up your claims. A couple of examples will help: BAD: "The next figure shows the amount of water left in a bucket exposed to sunlight after 2, 4, and 6 hours in sunlight." This tells what is shown in the graph, which should be included in the Figure Caption instead. GOOD:. "We found that the amount of water in the bucket decreased steadily during 6 hours in sunlight (Figure 1)." This tells what your experimental result was, and backs up that claim by referring to the appropriate figure. More help here.
- Results: Blending figures with narrative. A major challenge in writing the results section is integrating the figures and tables with the narrative of this section. The data and results are given here in summary form, and all results should be described in the narrative. This is a useful guideline: in the figure/table captions, describe what is being shown in the table or figure. In the narrative, explain what the data mean. Students make is to omit the narrative in the results section. The narrative should be more than just saying, "Table 2 shows the percentage of students with different blood types." You should state and explain the actual results, e.g., "Most students had type O blood, while the fewest had type AB (Table 2)." Data must be presented in figures (graphs) and in carefully planned tables, rather than as raw data. All tables and figures should be titled and numbered sequentially, and the axes should be well labelled with clearly marked units. In addition to the title, each table and figure should have a legend (1 to 3 sentences) which explains what is being presented..
- Discussion: Lack of Integration. The discussion section should do more than recap what you found in your experiments. The discussion is where you should bring together yoru results to draw broader conclusions. This is where you connect the results of your experiments to the big picture that you established at the beginning of the introduction.