Guidelines on how to write a report
The writing of laboratory reports is an essential part of the practical course and one function of this course is to give you practice and feedback about how to write such reports.
The purpose of a lab report is to communicate to others what you did, why you did it, how you did it, what you found and what you think it means. Readers of reports will sometimes want the answer to very precise questions and do not want to wade through the whole report looking for this information. For this reason it is essential to follow a standard format, with headings and subheadings which allows the reader to locate the information that he or she requires immediately without having to work through the entire report.
The simple rule for report writing is 'Could someone replicate your experiment using the information you have provided them with?'. Reports are intended to be read by someone who knows nothing about your experiment. They will usually see the title first, then maybe read the abstract and only then read the bulk of the report.
There is no single style which is more 'correct' than any other. However, there are widely accepted standards and conventions which should be followed. Most report write-ups adopt the format outlined here which we use at Nottingham. The British Journal of Psychology is an excellent place to browse, especially if you are unsure as to correct format or style.
The practical report is composed of a series of separate sections in which specific information is to be reported. Your task in the report is to tell your reader all about the study you conducted. The main sections of the report should be as follows:
As you can see, the method section is composed of a number of sub-sections. There is some disagreement over the precise order in which these sections should appear. The above specified order is the one that we have adopted in the Psychology department and should be used in all your write-ups. Remember the most important thing is that you report the appropriate material in the right way in these sub-sections.
HINT: You should try to write your report as if the person reading it is intelligent but unknowledgeable about your study and the area of psychology in which it took place. The marker will be checking to see that you have written your report with this sort of reader in mind. So, you must make sure that you have:
Putting the report into specific sections makes this task much easier than it might otherwise be. The rest of this handout will consider each of the sections in turn and explain what you need to put in them and why.
The title should be concise yet clear enough to give the reader an idea of the investigator's central concerns. The most common type of title states only the dependent and independent variables and is often presented as a question. E.g. "The effect of sleep loss on the exploratory behaviour of gerbils" or "Encoding differences in recall and recognition" would be suitable formats for a title. Titles such as "Keeping gerbils awake" or "This study is an experimental investigation of memory" are not appropriate titles since they do not give the reader sufficient information to know what the report is going to be about.
Remember that your reader will initially see the title and nothing else, but wishes to know whether or not the report is relevant to his/her research interests. Your title should be a brief, but accurate reflection of the content of the report.
HINT: your title will probably be between 10 and 20 words. It should not be more than 20 words except under very unusual circumstances.
The abstract is a self-contained and brief summary of the main points of the write-up. It enables an interested reader to quickly determine whether the contents are likely to be of use to him/her. It should contain a brief statement of the problem being investigated, the design used, the participants investigated, the stimulus materials involved and any important apparatus, the principal results obtained and their analysis together with the main conclusions drawn. You should aim for abstracts which are approximately 100 words long (A quick rule of thumb is to take a sum up sentence from each section of the report).
HINT: the abstract is much easier to write if you make it the last thing that you write even though it appears at the beginning of the write-up.
The introduction should present the reasoning behind the particular experiment which you are describing. This means that the reader, having read all the introduction, should feel able to predict what your experiment will be. At the same time your introduction should allow someone who is not an expert to understand why you did this experiment.
Essentially in the introduction to your report you should provide the following information in the following order.
This means that your introduction is effectively in two parts: a discussion of the past research, and a part in which you introduce your own study. You move from the general to the specific.
HINT: do not start your introduction with a description of your study.
Whilst it is difficult to give advice that covers all possible write-ups a general strategy that works is as follows.
In the process of completing the above objectives it is useful to consider two different aspects of the previous work. First, tell the reader how far the previous work has got in helping us to understand the phenomena that is investigated in your study. Second, describe the limitations of the previous work . It may have methodological problems, or there may be scope for extending it, or it may simply require replicating with a different subject group, etc. If the previous work is fine, then there would be no point to any further study!
In the second part of the introduction you should focus on the actual study that you have conducted. Do remember that this is just an introduction. All that is required is a paragraph or two that succinctly outline the following aspects of your study:
It may seem obvious, but the most important part of this section of the introduction is the experimental hypothesis. A precise statement of the experimental hypothesis will say something about both the independent and dependent variables (if both exist in your study). For example, "it was predicted that people who drank more than two pints of beer before driving would have more accidents than those who did not drink any alcoholic beverages" captures both the independent variable and the dependent variable. However, it does not specifically state what he independent and dependent variables are. This statement also includes something about the direction of the effect. When you can, it is important to state the direction of the effect that you hope to observe. If you cannot make such a prediction it is important to state precisely why this prediction cannot be made and what the alternatives are.
HINT: do not state the null hypothesis in the introduction. You can assume that the reader knows what a null hypothesis is and is aware that you have one.
The method section describes in detail the operations performed by the experimenter. The method must contain enough information for the reader to be able to repeat the experiment, but it should not include any irrelevant details. For example, if you are giving your participants lists of words to memorise, you would not expect to explain that they were seated at a desk (as opposed to standing) unless you were specifically studying the effects of furniture on memory. It will take time to learn which details are relevant and which are irrelevant, especially since they will vary from experiment to experiment. The method section is split into the sub-sections listed below. These are all separate and are each given a sub-title in your report.
HINT: the reader is very often a "Doubting Thomas" and should therefore be able to use your description of the method to be able to conduct an exact replication of your study. Researchers might disagree with the findings we report in our study and those researchers who are sceptical enough will want to replicate them.
Here the experimental design should be described. In particular you must state the following.
NOTE: Not all investigations have IV's! Correlational designs, for example, often just have a number of DV's!
It should also explain how you decided which experimental condition was performed by which subject and in what order. These design aspects are all extremely important and must be included. This section is usually very short for introductory practicals, but you must get used to including the correct information within it.
HINT: This section must be a formal statement of the design. You must use the terminology that has been developed over the years to enable us to talk accurately about the features of experiments.
This should state the number of participants used, how they were selected and any other important characteristics (for example mean age, age range, sex ratio i.e. number of male and female participants, educational level, occupation). Which characteristics are important will depend upon the task you are asking people to perform and the kinds of conclusions you wish to draw. Who your participants were is of importance because it effects the generalizability of your findings. If you have only tested undergraduate students, you may not be able to generalise to the elderly. If most of your participants are female then you may not be able to generalise to males.
HINT: If you think that who the participants were could make a difference to the experiment then make sure you give the necessary details so that you can talk about it later.
This section describes the apparatus and materials used in testing the participants. The apparatus will usually consist of simple items such as a stopwatch. However, if complex equipment has been used (e.g., a computer running special software), you should describe it in sufficient detail, using a diagram if necessary, to allow equivalent apparatus to be constructed.
Words, puzzles, questionnaires, etc are materials, and you should describe the general criteria for how you selected the particular items which you used. For example, if using words as your stimuli for a memory test you should tell the reader about any features of their selection, such as word length, word frequency, word class (noun, verb, etc). Even if no such features were considered, this is important and should be stated (e.g., the words were chosen by the experimenters with no particular criteria).
This section is almost always necessary, and often you will show your readers exactly which items were used. This should be done in an Appendix (which should be referred to in this section).
HINT: do not just give a list of the equipment and materials. It is important to describe the function of the equipment and the use to which it was put.
This section describes how the design was actually implemented and should describe exactly what the participants and experimenters did with the apparatus and materials. This will include a description of the instructions given to participants (only quoting instructions if the exact wording was important for your results), usually you will refer the reader to the instructions in the appendix. You will need to state how the independent variable was controlled, and how the dependent variable was recorded. Any particular emphasis (e.g., as regards speed and accuracy) should also be mentioned.
In this section you should particularly remember the needs of the reader. There should be enough information for them to repeat your experiment. The only details which can be left out are those that do not matter (e.g., how you actually randomised the order of the experimental conditions. You can assume that your reader knows how to perform randomisations).
HINT: The statistical tests that you use should never be included in the method section, as they are tools for analysing data, not gathering data.
This section provides the reader with a clear, concise summary of the data you collected and the results of any statistical tests. Clarity is all important so you should try to find concise and informative modes of presentation. It is important to resist the temptation to interpret the results as you go along.
Remember tables and figures should all be titled, and care should be taken to label them clearly. They should all be self-explanatory. The reader should not have to refer to the text to understand your tables and figures. This does not mean that there should be nothing written about the summary statistics. You must include some explanatory text describing what data appears in the table.
A step by step guide is to:
Large amounts of raw data, or calculations of tests do not belong in this section, but should be placed in a separate Appendix and the reader should be informed of their location.
Here are some general tips that should help you avoid some of the more common mistakes:
This is the section in which you can interpret the results of the experiment and discuss their meaning. It is important that your discussion relates the results to the issues raised in the Introduction, since this presents the reasons for conducting the study and the results should provide more details about these issues. The results may not have led to clear-cut answers to the questions raised initially, so your discussion might have to suggest further experiments which can now be seen to be necessary for answering the initial question. You might also discuss any limitations of the experiment that have come to light, but which were not predicted in advance. These may also give rise to suggestions for further experiments. Always be explicit as to what questions and problems your research raised, and how you would answer/solve them. Never just conclude that further research is required, leaving your reader to guess what the further research could possibly be.
There are three stages to writing you discussion:
You should open the discussion by summarising the main features of the results. Was there a significant difference between the experimental conditions? If so, in what direction? Were the findings consistent with the experimental hypothesis?
The next stage is to discuss what the findings mean. If you have rejected the null hypothesis then you need to establish whether this was really caused by the manipulation of the independent variable. In other words, you need to make sure that no other confounding variables or experimental artefacts can be said to be the cause of the outcome of the experiment. If you have failed to reject the null hypothesis the situation is a little more difficult. Somehow, you need to convince the reader that the only plausible explanation for this is the absence of a cause and effect relationship between the independent and dependent variable. This is not, however, an opportunity to try and prove the null hypothesis. A failure to find a significant difference is just a failure to find a significant difference. It does not mean that you can conclude that there was no difference. Rather you can only conclude that there was no evidence of a difference.
Whatever you write, do not write a long list of the failings of the experimental design or your procedure in the discussion. The reader of the report is going to be a little upset if at the end of the report you try to convince them that the whole thing was a waste of time. The practice of reflective criticism of one's own work is meritorious but can make for extremely annoying reading. The limitations, if there are any, of your experiment should be used to motivate further work, not to damn the work that you have conducted. As you become more experienced in writing reports you will find that you will elaborate and evaluate a number of potential explanations for your findings. This is when you can make use of any limitations in the experiment. These limitations may point towards one explanation rather than another.
The final section of the discussion examines the implications of your findings for the area of psychology in which you have been working. What have we learned about the relationship between the independent variable and dependent variable in this experiment? Does our new understanding of the independent variable help us to improve our explanations of particular phenomena. To what extent can our findings be related back to the ideas and theories expressed in the introduction?
You can think of the discussion as an opportunity to close the circle that you started drawing right at the beginning of your introduction. Essentially your job is to show how the study you have conducted has benefited the research community and improved our understanding of the ideas that you introduced earlier.
Ensure that you use the following style when writing references:
For all Primary Sources (ones you have actually read) write your references as follows:
For a journal article give:
Surname, INITIAL. (date) Title of paper written in lowercase letters. Title of Journal Paper in italics or underlined, Vol No., page numbers.
Holender, D. (1986) Semantic activation without conscious identification in dichotic listening, parafoveal vision and visual masking: A survey and appraisal. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 9, 1-66.
For a book give:
Surname, INITIAL. (date) Title of Book Underlined or in Italics. Place of publication: Publisher.
Baddeley, A.D. (1976) The Psychology of Memory. London: Harper and Row.
For a section in an edited book give:
Surname, INITIAL. (date) Chapter title in lowercase. In Initials and Surname of Author of book (Ed), Title of Book Underlined or in Italics. Place of publication: Publisher.
Dixon, N.F and Henley, S.H.A. (1980) Without awareness. In M.A. Jeeves (Ed) Psychology Survey 3. London: Allen & Unwin.
Secondary Sources (ones you have cited but have not actually read):
When citing in the text a work discussed in a secondary source, give both the primary and the secondary sources. In the example below, the study bySeidenberg and McClelland was mentioned in an article by Coltheart, Curtis, Atkins, & Haller.
Example in text citation,
Seidenberg and McClelland’s study (as cited in Coltheart, Curtis, Atkins, & Haller, 1993) provided a glimpse into the world...
In the references page/list, you would cite the secondary source you read (not the original study.)
Coltheart, M., Curtis, B., Atkins, P., & Haller, M. (1993). Models of reading aloud: Dual-route and parallel-distributedprocessing approaches. Psychological Review, 100, 589-608.
References to previous studies by others in the text of the report should be made by citing the author's name followed by the year of publication and enclosing these in brackets. If the name of the author occurs in the text cite only the date within brackets. For example:
Attempts to tame the house fly using conditioning techniques (Sturge, 1991) have been criticised by Sweeney (1992) ...
Any additional information such as raw data, statistical calculations, stimulus material and so on should be placed here. Each Appendix should have a full title and be referred to somewhere in the main body of the write-up. The appendices should not just be an afterthought, and should be as comprehensible as the rest of your study, with clear subtitles for different types of material!