Laboratory reports are written for several reasons. One reason is to communicate the laboratory work to management. In such situations, management often bases company decisions on the results of the report. Another reason to write laboratory reports is to archive the work so that the work will not have to be done in the future. This web page presents a commonly used organization for laboratory reports:
Results and Discussion,
You should not assume, though, that this organization will serve all your laboratory reports. In other words, one organization does not "fit" all experiments. Rather, you should pay attention to the organization requested by your instructor who has chosen an organization that best serves your experiments.
The abstract presents a synopsis of the experiment. The following guidelines for preparing an abstract arise from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Note that although your instructor may define the term "abstract" differently, these guidelines still give you a sense of the stylistic issues, such as whether to include numerical data, that distinguish abstracts:
The abstract should be written concisely in normal rather than highly abbreviated English. The author should assume that the reader has some knowledge of the subject but has not read the paper. Thus, the abstract should be intelligible and complete in itself; particularly it should not cite figures, tables, or sections of the paper. The opening sentence or two should, in general, indicate the subjects dealt with in the paper and should state the objectives of the investigation. It is also desirable to describe the treatment by one or more such terms as brief, exhaustive, theoretical, experimental, and so forth.
The body of the abstract should indicate newly observed facts and the conclusions of the experiment or argument discussed in the paper. It should contain new numerical data presented in the paper if space permits; otherwise, attention should be drawn to the nature of such data. In the case of experimental results, the abstract should indicate the methods used in obtaining them; for new methods the basic principle, range of operation, and degree of accuracy should be given. The abstract should be typed as one paragraph. Its optimum length will vary somewhat with the nature and extent of the paper, but it should not exceed 200 words.
Included here is a sample abstract for a laboratory report. Note that because this abstract serves a long report rather than a journal article, the abstract is somewhat longer than 200 words recommended by the AIAA.
The "Introduction" of a laboratory report identifies the experiment to be undertaken, the objectives of the experiment, the importance of the experiment, and overall background for understanding the experiment. The objectives of the experiment are important to state because these objectives are usually analyzed in the conclusion to determine whether the experiment succeeded. The background often includes theoretical predictions for what the results should be. (See a sample "Introduction.")
The "Procedures," often called the "Methods," discusses how the experiment occurred. Documenting the procedures of your laboratory experiment is important not only so that others can repeat your results but also so that you can replicate the work later, if the need arises. Historically, laboratory procedures have been written as first-person narratives as opposed to second-person sets of instructions. Because your audience expects you to write the procedures as a narrative, you should do so.
Achieving a proper depth in laboratory procedures is challenging. In general, you should give the audience enough information that they could replicate your results. For that reason, you should include those details that affect the outcome. Consider as an example the procedure for using a manometer and strain indicator to find the static calibration of a pressure transducer. Because calibrations are considered standard, you can assume that your audience will have access to many details such as possible arrangements of the valves and tubes. What you would want to include, then, would be those details that might cause your results to differ from those of your audience. Such details would include the model number of the pressure transducer and the pressure range for which you calibrated the transducer. Should you have any anomalies, such as unusual ambient temperature, during your measurements, you would want to include those.
When the procedure is not standard, the audience would expect more detail including theoretical justification for the steps. Given below is such a procedure--this one for an experiment devised to determine whether the frictional torque associated with a multi-turn film potentiometer is strictly the Coulomb friction between the slider and the film [Counts, 1999].
The test performed on the potentiometer was accomplished by winding a string around the potentiometer shaft, attaching a mass to the string, and letting the mass fall. The change in resistance of the potentiometer with time indicated the acceleration of the mass. In this experiment it was assumed that the constant Coulomb friction torque was the only friction affecting the potentiometer. If this assumption were true, the friction force from the torque would be Ff = T/r (where T is the torque and r is the radius of the potentiometer's shaft). Likewise, the gravity force would be Fg = mg (where m is the mass tied to the string and g is the gravitational acceleration). A force balance then gives
T = mr (g-a),
where a is the acceleration of the mass. If the assumption holds that the only friction affecting the potentiometer was constant Coulomb friction, then each mass would undergo a constant acceleration.
The potentiometer measured voltage versus time for the masses as they dropped, but the measurement of interest to us was position versus time. For that reason, a 'calibration' was performed before we measured any data. In the calibration, the potentiometer's initial voltage was measured. Then the string was pulled a set distance (2 inches), and the voltage was recorded. This process of pulling the string a set distance and recording the voltage continued another two times (see Appendix A for the results). To determine the relationship between voltage and position, the differences in the voltages were averaged and divided by the length. The resulting relationship was 0.9661 volts/inch.
Five different masses were used to test the assumption of constant acceleration. For each mass, the string was rolled up on the shaft, the oscilloscope was triggered, and the shaft was released. As each mass dropped, the oscilloscope collected the potentiometer's voltage versus the time. After obtaining plots for each mass, we used the voltage-position relationship, mentioned above, to convert the data from the form voltage versus time to the form position versus time squared.The residuals of the data determined whether the assumption of constant acceleration was valid.
Results and Discussion
The heart of a laboratory report is the presentation of the results and the discussion of those results. In some formats, "Results" and "Discussion" appear as separate sections. However, P.B. Medawar  makes a strong case that the two should appear together, particularly when you have many results to present (otherwise, the audience is faced with a "dump" of information that is impossible to synthesize). Much here depends upon your experiment and the purpose of your laboratory report. Therefore, pay attention to what your laboratory instructor requests. Also, use your judgment. For instance, combine these sections when the discussion of your first result is needed to understand your second result, but separate these sections when it is useful to discuss the results as a whole after all results are reported.
In discussing the results, you should not only analyze the results, but also discuss the implications of those results. Moreover, pay attention to the errors that existed in the experiment, both where they originated and what their significance is for interpreting the the reliability of conclusions. One important way to present numerical results is to show them in graphs. (See a sample "Results and Discussion" section.)
In longer laboratory reports, a "Conclusion" section often appears. Whereas the "Results and Discussion" section has discussed the results individually, the "Conclusion" section discusses the results in the context of the entire experiment. Usually, the objectives mentioned in the "Introduction" are examined to determined whether the experiment succeeded. If the objectives were not met, you should analyze why the results were not as predicted. Note that in shorter reports or in reports where "Discussion" is a separate section from "Results," you often do not have a "Conclusion" section. (See a sample "Conclusions" section.)
In a laboratory report, appendices often are included. One type of appendix that appears in laboratory reports presents information that is too detailed to be placed into the report's text. For example, if you had a long table giving voltage-current measurements for an RLC circuit, you might place this tabular information in an appendix and include a graph of the data in the report's text. Another type of appendix that often appears in laboratory reports presents tangential information that does not directly concern the experiment's objectives.
If the appendix is "formal," it should contain a beginning, middle, and ending. For example, if the appendix contains tables of test data, the appendix should not only contain the tabular data, but also formally introduce those tables, discuss why they have been included, and explain the unusual aspects that might confuse the reader. Because of time constraints, your instructor might allow you to include "informal" appendices with calculations and supplemental information. For such "informal" situations, having a clear beginning, middle, and ending is not necessary. However, you should still title the appendix, place a heading on each table, place a caption beneath each figure, and insert comments necessary for reader understanding. (See a sample appendix.)
How to Begin
Field reports are most often assigned in disciplines of the applied social sciences [e.g., social work, anthropology, gerontology, criminal justice, education, law, the health care professions] where it is important to build a bridge of relevancy between the theoretical concepts learned in the classroom and the practice of actually doing the work you are being taught to do. Field reports are also common in certain science disciplines [e.g., geology] but these reports are organized differently and serve a different purpose than what is described below.
Professors will assign a field report with the intention of improving your understanding of key theoretical concepts through a method of careful and structured observation of, and reflection about, people, places, or things existing in their natural settings. Field reports facilitate the development of data collection techniques and observation skills and they help you to understand how theory applies to real world situations. Field reports are also an opportunity to obtain evidence through methods of observing professional practice that contribute to or challenge existing theories.
We are all observers of people, their interactions, places, and events; however, your responsibility when writing a field report is to create a research study based on data generated by the act of designing a specific study, deliberate observation, a synthesis of key findings, and an interpretation of their meaning. When writing a field report you need to:
- Systematically observe and accurately record the varying aspects of a situation. Always approach your field study with a detailed plan about what you will observe, where you should conduct your observations, and the method by which you will collect and record your data.
- Continuously analyze your observations. Always look for the meaning underlying the actions you observe. Ask yourself: What's going on here? What does this observed activity mean? What else does this relate to? Note that this is an on-going process of reflection and analysis taking place for the duration of your field research.
- Keep the report’s aims in mind while you are observing. Recording what you observe should not be done randomly or haphazardly; you must be focused and pay attention to details. Enter the observation site [i.e., "field"] with a clear plan about what you are intending to observe and record while, at the same time, being prepared to adapt to changing circumstances as they may arise.
- Consciously observe, record, and analyze what you hear and see in the context of a theoretical framework. This is what separates data gatherings from simple reporting. The theoretical framework guiding your field research should determine what, when, and how you observe and act as the foundation from which you interpret your findings.
Techniques to Record Your Observations
Although there is no limit to the type of data gathering technique you can use, these are the most frequently used methods:
This is the most commonly used and easiest method of recording your observations. Tips for taking notes include: organizing some shorthand symbols beforehand so that recording basic or repeated actions does not impede your ability to observe, using many small paragraphs, which reflect changes in activities, who is talking, etc., and, leaving space on the page so you can write down additional thoughts and ideas about what’s being observed, any theoretical insights, and notes to yourself that are set aside for further investigation. See drop-down tab for additional information about note-taking.
With the advent of smart phones, high quality photographs can be taken of the objects, events, and people observed during a field study. Photographs can help capture an important moment in time as well as document details about the space where your observation takes place. Taking a photograph can save you time in documenting the details of a space that would otherwise require extensive note taking. However, be aware that flash photography could undermine your ability to observe unobtrusively so assess the lighting in your observation space; if it's too dark, you may need to rely on taking notes. Also, you should reject the idea that photographs are some sort of "window into the world" because this assumption creates the risk of over-interpreting what they show. As with any product of data gathering, you are the sole instrument of interpretation and meaning-making, not the object itself.
Video and Audio Recordings
Video or audio recording your observations has the positive effect of giving you an unfiltered record of the observation event. It also facilitates repeated analysis of your observations. This can be particularly helpful as you gather additional information or insights during your research. However, these techniques have the negative effect of increasing how intrusive you are as an observer and will often not be practical or even allowed under certain circumstances [e.g., interaction between a doctor and a patient] and in certain organizational settings [e.g., a courtroom].
This does not refer to an artistic endeavor but, rather, refers to the possible need, for example, to draw a map of the observation setting or illustrating objects in relation to people's behavior. This can also take the form of rough tables or graphs documenting the frequency and type of activities observed. These can be subsequently placed in a more readable format when you write your field report. To save time, draft a table [i.e., columns and rows] on a separate piece of paper before an observation if you know you will be entering data in that way.
NOTE: You may consider using a laptop or other electronic device to record your notes as you observe, but keep in mind the possibility that the clicking of keys while you type or noises from your device can be obtrusive, whereas writing your notes on paper is relatively quiet and unobtrusive. Always assess your presence in the setting where you're gathering the data so as to minimize your impact on the subject or phenomenon being studied.
ANOTHER NOTE: Techniques of observation and data gathering are not innate skills; they are skills that must be learned and practiced in order to achieve proficiency. Before your first observation, practice the technique you plan to use in a setting similar to your study site [e.g., take notes about how people choose to enter checkout lines at a grocery store if your research involves examining the choice patterns of unrelated people forced to queue in busy social settings]. When the act of data gathering counts, you'll be glad you practiced beforehand.
Examples of Things to Document While Observing
- Physical setting. The characteristics of an occupied space and the human use of the place where the observation(s) are being conducted.
- Objects and material culture. This refers to the presence, placement, and arrangement of objects that impact the behavior or actions of those being observed. If applicable, describe the cultural artifacts representing the beliefs--values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--used by the individuals you are observing.
- Use of language. Don't just observe but listen to what is being said, how is it being said, and, the tone of conversation among participants.
- Behavior cycles. This refers to documenting when and who performs what behavior or task and how often they occur. Record at which stage is this behavior occurring within the setting.
- The order in which events unfold. Note sequential patterns of behavior or the moment when actions or events take place and their significance.
- Physical characteristics of subjects. If relevant, note age, gender, clothing, etc. of individuals being observed.
- Expressive body movements. This would include things like body posture or facial expressions. Note that it may be relevant to also assess whether expressive body movements support or contradict the language used in conversation [e.g., detecting sarcasm].
Brief notes about all of these examples contextualize your observations; however, your observation notes will be guided primarily by your theoretical framework, keeping in mind that your observations will feed into and potentially modify or alter these frameworks.
Sampling refers to the process used to select a portion of the population for study. Qualitative research, of which observation is one method, is generally based on non-probability and purposive sampling rather than probability or random approaches characteristic of quantitatively-driven studies. Sampling in observational research is flexible and often continues until no new themes emerge from the data, a point referred to as data saturation.
All sampling decisions are made for the explicit purpose of obtaining the richest possible source of information to answer the research questions. Decisions about sampling assumes you know what you want to observe, what behaviors are important to record, and what research problem you are addressing before you begin the study. These questions determine what sampling technique you should use, so be sure you have adequately answered them before selecting a sampling method.
Ways to sample when conducting an observation include:
Ad Libitum Sampling -- this approach is not that different from what people do at the zoo--observing whatever seems interesting at the moment. There is no organized system of recording the observations; you just note whatever seems relevant at the time. The advantage of this method is that you are often able to observe relatively rare or unusual behaviors that might be missed by more deliberate sampling methods. This method is also useful for obtaining preliminary observations that can be used to develop your final field study. Problems using this method include the possibility of inherent bias toward conspicuous behaviors or individuals and that you may miss brief interactions in social settings.
Behavior Sampling -- this involves watching the entire group of subjects and recording each occurrence of a specific behavior of interest and with reference to which individuals were involved. The method is useful in recording rare behaviors missed by other sampling methods and is often used in conjunction with focal or scan methods. However, sampling can be biased towards particular conspicuous behaviors.
Continuous Recording -- provides a faithful record of behavior including frequencies, durations, and latencies [the time that elapses between a stimulus and the response to it]. This is a very demanding method because you are trying to record everything within the setting and, thus, measuring reliability may be sacrificed. In addition, durations and latencies are only reliable if subjects remain present throughout the collection of data. However, this method facilitates analyzing sequences of behaviors and ensures obtaining a wealth of data about the observation site and the people within it. The use of audio or video recording is most useful with this type of sampling.
Focal Sampling -- this involves observing one individual for a specified amount of time and recording all instances of that individual's behavior. Usually you have a set of predetermined categories or types of behaviors that you are interested in observing [e.g., when a teacher walks around the classroom] and you keep track of the duration of those behaviors. This approach doesn't tend to bias one behavior over another and provides significant detail about a individual's behavior. However, with this method, you likely have to conduct a lot of focal samples before you have a good idea about how group members interact. It can also be difficult within certain settings to keep one individual in sight for the entire period of the observation.
Instantaneous Sampling -- this is where observation sessions are divided into short intervals divided by sample points. At each sample point the observer records if predetermined behaviors of interest are taking place. This method is not effective for recording discrete events of short duration and, frequently, observers will want to record novel behaviors that occur slightly before or after the point of sampling, creating a sampling error. Though not exact, this method does give you an idea of durations and is relatively easy to do. It is also good for recording behavior patterns occurring at a specific instant, such as, movement or body positions.
One-Zero Sampling -- this is very similar to instantaneous sampling, only the observer records if the behaviors of interest have occurred at any time during an interval instead of at the instant of the sampling point. The method is useful for capturing data on behavior patterns that start and stop repeatedly and rapidly, but that last only for a brief period of time. The disadvantage of this approach is that you get a dimensionless score for an entire recording session, so you only get one one data point for each recording session.
Scan Sampling -- this method involves taking a census of the entire observed group at predetermined time periods and recording what each individual is doing at that moment. This is useful for obtaining group behavioral data and allows for data that are evenly representative across individuals and periods of time. On the other hand, this method may be biased towards more conspicuous behaviors and you may miss a lot of what is going on between observations, especially rare or unusual behaviors. It is also difficult to record more than a few individuals in a group setting without missing what each individual is doing at each predetermined moment in time [e.g., children sitting at a table during lunch at school].
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