When studying towards an undergraduate psychology degree, one of the important skills that students will learn is how to write a lab report.
A psychology lab report is a piece of structured writing, sometimes known as a ‘paper’, and this piece of writing provides details about how an experiment is carried out. One of the reasons why psychology students are asked to write lab reports as part of first and second year assessments is that this can prepare students for writing up their final year dissertations as dissertations. Dissertations can often be viewed as special types of lab reports as they are formal pieces of academic writing. Unlike other assessments, dissertations are more independent and do require students to develop and write-up their own investigations.
Lab reports are academic pieces of work and the audience or reason for writing the report will indicate the format that is presented. In psychology, American Psychological Association format is typically required (also known as APA 7) – which requires writers to use different sections to explain an experiment. For example, students could be asked to write an Introduction to provide details of a theoretical and literature background; a method section to give an overview of the sample and any tasks completed by participants, a results section which gives details of what was found and finally, a discussion section which provides a discussion of the results and directions for future work. Alongside these sections, an overall summary is added and this summary is called an abstract.
One of the questions that can be asked is whether developing lab report writing skills is really important? The simple answer is yes. When students first write lab reports, say within their first or second year of studying, they may be given lots of guidance on what to write and how to phrase different sections. When a student then progresses to writing up their own dissertation project, the support from supervisors in terms of the write-up can be limited as it is often assumed that the writing skills have been developed throughout the degree. If a student does not learn these key writing skills in the first or second year of their degree then they don’t have time to practise their writing skills and will have limited feedback from lecturers and tutors in preparation for that final dissertation report.
When I was completing my own psychology degree, it was not expected that we successfully wrote up a full lab report in the first year of studying. As students, we were given tasks of writing each section and getting feedback on each section first, before being asked to write a full lab report in the second year. I believe that this key thing helped me to develop my own writing skills and understand each section of the lab report in detail before moving onto the next. I was also given the opportunity to work as a group so we could collaborate on a written project….again collaboration is a key part of psychology research.
Developing the skills to write a lab report, either through the creation of an empirical investigation or by developing the writing and formatting skills, is very important if a psychology student has plans to stay within research. When researching, researchers will write specific lab reports to submit to journals and these (lab) reports are in specific formats in accordance with the journal guidelines.
From my experience, practice makes perfect (or close enough as there is always room for improvement). If I had not been given the opportunity to write lab reports as I progressed through my own university degree, I don’t think I would have the ability to teach my students how to do this now.
When teaching lab report writing, I will often provide students with examples of different journal articles, but I always make it clear that different journals can have different formatting requirements and that students should always follow the format of the task given. So, for example, if their lab report is for an assessment rather than a journal submission, ensure that the assessment requirements and learning outcomes have been met.
I also always advise my students to write the abstract section last. This is because you can’t write a summary of an investigation without knowing what you have written in the lab report itself. I believe that it’s the most difficult to write an abstract in comparison to the rest of the report as you need to have the ability to summarise a complex study in only 150 words.
Recently when developing content for a first year cognitive module I am teaching on, I have come across some excellent resources which can support students in their lab report development. Dr Paul Penn has created a series of YouTube tutorials which explain, in detail, how to structure each section of a lab report. Dr Penn also has a website with an example of an annotated lab report and again, this is something I will be directing my students to this year.
Developing the skills to write a lab report is very important! A lab report needs to be written in a clear and concise manner that would allow someone not necessarily in the field (you are writing about) to understand. I have looked at many lab reports in my teaching career and it’s possible to make the most complex of topics easier to understand with a report.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.