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How and When to Write a Science Lab Report

I’m not sure that any high school teacher would say she loves having students write science lab reports. It’s often a lot like getting your kids to eat their vegetables- you know it’s good for them, but what a struggle to get them to do it! And grading lab reports is equally difficult so it’s easy to see why many teachers shy away from formal lab reports in their Biology classes.

Writing a science lab report can be a valuable skill in a high school course, especially if you have college-bound students who will be going on to get advanced degrees. It is a cross-curricular pursuit that includes summarizing, writing, research, and math skills. However, lab reports are often used incorrectly in secondary science courses, so they end up being busy work for students and unnecessary grading for teachers.

How and When to Write a Biology Lab Report in the Science Classroom

When is a science lab report appropriate:

  1. When students are working with self-determined variables, hypotheses, or experimental designs. Here is an example of an experimental design lab for Biology or Anatomy classes.
  2. When groups are testing different variables leading to one classroom result.

When is a science lab report not appropriate:

  1. When you are simply observing a specimen (through a microscope, in a dissection, etc.)
  2. When you are following a “cookie-cutter” lab from the textbook that provides every step for you.

If students are not forming their own conclusions based on data they’ve collected, there is no reason to write a formal lab report. That’s why many of the labs I use in class contain just a simple worksheet with discussion questions for students to answer as they complete the lab. It is a rare occurrence in which I have students actually write a formal lab report but when I do, I spend the time necessary to train them to do it correctly.

Although a typical unit on the “scientific method” has fallen out of fashion, the science skills required to create, analyze, and evaluate experiments is still critical. I do begin my full courses with a short summary of scientific processes and the peer review process so students can practice experimental skills without the confusion of content they haven’t yet learned. Of course, those processes and skills are used later in the courses, as well.

I have a detailed document with explanations and examples for every section of a lab report. The following sections are traditional in a science lab report:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods and Materials
  • Results with Tables and Figures
  • Discussion or Conclusion

Allowing my students to see this ahead of time gives them a great starting point when writing their own lab reports. Now you can use the lab report example I use in my Biology classes, too!

Another important note is that I usually grade multiple drafts of any lab reports I collect, especially the first one. Students usually need a lot of direction and redirection as they learn to complete this process properly. My class document includes two rubric examples that you can use to grade these lab reports. My favorite is the one that allows for self-reflection, peer review, then teacher review.

I hope the grading tips and lab report example provided here will give you some freedom to use lab reports in your science course once in a while and use them more effectively. Just remember to give them lots of guidance on the format and let them use the example lab report while they’re writing! For those days when lab reports are not appropriate or just too complicated, you might be interested in some simpler labs and activities, as well.

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