September 2016 | Resource Feature
Tools and Strategies for Teaching Lab Report Writing
By W. Patrick Cunningham and Elisa Compton
One of the critical skills expected from any science graduate is the ability to write coherent and meaningful laboratory reports. Students must move beyond the typical fill-in-the-blank lab report form and develop the ability to write about complex concepts successfully. Various state and national teaching standards are requiring that students be taught to use writing to explain their conclusions and support them appropriately with lab reports, drawings, graphs, etc. To name just one example, the last of the key practices required by the Next Generation Science Standards is “Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.” STEM-competent students must develop the important skills necessary to share information in writing, because it is vital to their future success in all science areas.
In our experience, chemistry students come to their first- and even second-year classes with an incomplete understanding of how to write high-quality formal lab reports. First-year students often have completed many “fill-in” report forms, but may have little or no experience writing formal lab reports. This makes it incumbent on us as chemistry teachers to provide them with the tools to do so, and the experience of writing at least a few during their time with us.
In our classrooms, we have worked for the last three years implementing specific instruction on writing lab reports. We have created some tools that may help teachers in scaffolding students toward developing laboratory writing skills. They are as follows, in the order we provide them to our students:
- At the beginning of the year, as we start to teach these report writing skills, we provide students with a report template in Word format. This document outlines the components of a complete report and includes some very brief descriptions of content. When students use it, they need to be reminded to delete the descriptions! There is also a more detailed handout that can be used to expand on the report template.
- A laboratory report rubric that students can use individually or in study groups to self-critique their work, and that the teacher can employ in assessing student achievement.
- A YouTube video that outlines the components of an exemplary report and uses a real student lab report (with the student’s name deleted) to show how the report can be written.
- The student report used in the YouTube video, for teacher and student inspection. (The report uses data generated by the stoichiometric study of the reaction between sodium hydrogen carbonate and hydrochloric acid, an important AP chemistry investigation.)
- A laboratory investigation on the density of irregular objects (explained below). We use this simple experiment to introduce the student-created lab report and show the students the tools we created to help them attain mastery.
If this is used in an AP class, we expect one statistical analysis using class wide data during each semester. As a resource, we provide a link to a YouTube video showing the statistical method used to identify and exclude outlier data as demonstrated in the student report mentioned above.
Implementing the tools in the classroom
How would these materials be used in a first-year course? We propose that as soon as students begin working with uncertainty, measuring units, and techniques of data collection, they actually perform an investigation that forms the basis of a student lab report with tables and graphs. In our practice, we use a density measurement as one of our first laboratory experiments to serve the dual purposes of reinforcing measurement concepts and teaching lab report writing.
In this experiment, students measure the mass and volume of irregularly-shaped objects. We have multiple copies of three different types of wood that have been cut into irregular geometric shapes with a saber saw. Students then share the mass and volume results on a computer file or white board, and graph class data for two or three different types of wood. Volume is graphed on the horizontal axis, and mass on the vertical.
In this two- or three-day sequence, we also supervise the students’ preparation of tables, graphs, and reports in the computer lab. Graphs could also be prepared on paper, if computers are not readily available. We find this experiment particularly effective in addressing both laboratory writing skills and the early-year concepts, but these techniques could be used with any experiment during the beginning of the course. As the video and exemplary lab report are from an AP lab, the same scaffolding techniques and resources could easily be used in AP courses.
As part of this sequence, students are provided the template, rubric, and video to watch and use in the classroom and at home. The video is for an AP lab, so some of the concepts and analysis may be beyond the first-year student’s ability, but the general thrust and examples are not. The directed practice component of instruction in the early labs is instrumental in making students comfortable with the process. They may even be encouraged to make their own instructional videos for extra credit!
As the year progresses, less and less teacher involvement is needed in the report writing process. Students arrive at mastery at different rates. The most important factor in mastery is student success, so the teacher should comment on students doing good work whenever possible, especially in the early reports. It also helps to phase in grading rigor.
There is flexibility in how to ramp up the grading. Some teachers may want to have a rigorous point scale and grade interpretation — and quarter by quarter, increase the demands of the scale. We have provided a scale (Figure 1) that may help with this process. Others might do it more informally early in the semester, saying something to the effect of, “I expect by second semester that you will incorporate 100% of these elements in your reports.” Students may receive an “A” on their first reports by demonstrating mere adequacy but, as the year progresses, expectations should increase so that what had received an “A” in September would merit a “B” or “C” in March.
|Ramp-up sample for converting 5 point rubric score to 100 point grade scale|
|Rubric Score||Quarter 1||Quarter 2
||Quarter 3 +
The instructor could expect the students to improve in their ability to summarize their data, synthesize the data into a coherent conclusion addressing the laboratory objective, and recognize sources of systematic error and possible extensions of the laboratory experiment itself.
At this point in our three-year implementation, we can report anecdotal success. Not only do we see significant growth throughout the first-year class, but the students also arrive in the AP class better prepared for the more complex demands of second-year laboratory reports. We also see improvement in the reports’ structure and quality of writing, as well as in the students’ ability to collect data during the laboratory experiment itself.
As the student begins to understand the demands of report writing, they see what kinds of information are important to include as they collect data. On the front end, our first-year chemistry students have convinced the freshman biology teaching team to introduce formal report writing to their students, so that they get the experience of writing one such report for biology before coming to chemistry as sophomores. On the back end, we have received a number of testimonial letters from our graduates who have gone on to research universities, telling us that the report-writing skills they learned in our classes have served them well in their early chemistry courses.
The skills required for scientific writing are extremely important to students’ success, not only in their future science classes, but also as they advance into college and eventually into STEM careers. This is one way we can influence student success in one particular class in high school, but also for the long term as well.
Photo Credit: Elisa Compton