Guidelines for Writing Lab Report


The most effective way to acquire the practical skills in engineering studies is probably by experimenting in a laboratory. The process of experimentation involves organization, observation, familiarization with various pieces of equipment, working with others, writing, and communicating ideas and information. These are the skills required of an engineer.


In a practical situation, such as that in the industry or university research, experiments are designed for the purpose of clarifying research questions or conflicting theories by means of collecting a series of data. The conclusions drawn from that data can be used to validate a theory or sometimes to develop a theory that explains the behavior of an engineering object. The report for this kind of experiments must includes an introduction to the topic and purpose of the experiment, the theory, method, procedure, equipment used in the experiment, the data presented in an organized manner, and the conclusions based on the data gathered.


In engineering education, lab experiments are usually designed to enhance the understanding in engineering topics. Students are supposed to "dirty their hand" in preparing the experiment setup, organize the experiment flow, and learn to observe the salient features as well as to spot any unexpected occurrence as part of the training to acquire the practical skill to become an engineer. Although the introduction and the procedure are usually given in the lab handouts, students should practice writing a proper lab report which includes all the necessary sections, targeting at a reader who does not have any prior knowledge about the experiment. This is to develop the skill in documenting the laboratory work and communicating that experience to others. This write-up gives some guidelines on what to write in each section in preparing laboratory reports for engineering curricula.



Title Page

The title page should contain the title of the experiment, the code and title of the course, the name of the writer, the date when the experimental work was performed, submission date of the lab report, and the name of lecturer for whom the report is prepared for.



Table of Contents and Lists of Figures/Tables


A table of contents (TOC) shows readers the starting page number of each major section and subsection in the report. The topics to be covered in the report must be carefully selected and organized. The flow of the topics to be presented is very important in order to guide a relatively novice reader in understanding the whole report. To an experienced reader, the TOC gives a quicker way of finding needed information.


With the similar purpose as the TOC, the lists of figures/tables is to enable readers to find the illustrations, diagrams, charts, and tables in the report. Nevertheless, these TOC and lists of figures/tables are only necessary if the report is very long.





An abstract is the summary of the report which contains the statements of what was done, how it was done, the results and the conclusion drawn. It is usually written last after the main body of the documentation is completed. It should not be used to define the purpose of the experiment nor to give a general introduction. It should be short and concise, containing only the most critical information meant for the readers who have limited time to read the full report. Very often, technical professionals only read the abstract and will continue reading the entire report only if the abstract attracts their interest.





An introduction is necessary to give an overview of the overall topic and the purpose of the report. The motivation to the initialization of the experimental work can be included. Its content should be general enough to orientate the reader gracefully into the subject materials.



Theoretical Background


This section is to discuss the theoretical aspects leading to the experiment. Typically, this involves the historical background of the theories published in the research literature and the questions or ambiguities arose in these theoretical work. Citations for the sources of information should be given in one of the standard bibliographic formats (for example, using square brackets with the corresponding number [2] that points to the List of References). Explore this background to prepare the readers to read the main body of the report. It should contain sufficient materials to enable the readers to understand why the set of data are collected, and what are the salient features to observe in the graph, charts and tables presented in the later sections.


Depending on the length and complexity of the report, the introduction and the theoretical background may be combined into one introductory section.



Experimental Method, Procedure and Equipment


This section describes the approach and the equipment used to conduct the experiment. It explains the function of each apparatus and how the configuration works to perform a particular measurement. Students should not recopy the procedures of the experiment from the lab handout, but to summarize and explain the methodology in a few paragraphs.



Observations, Data, Findings, Results


The data should be organized and presented in the forms of graphs, charts, or tables in this section, without interpretive discussion. Raw data which may take up a few pages, and most probably won't interest any reader, could be placed in the appendices.




The interpretation of the data gathered can be discussed in this section. Sample calculations may be included to show the correlation between the theory and the measurement results. If there exists any discrepancy between the theoretical and experimental results, an analysis or discussion should follow to explain the possible sources of error.


The experimental data and the discussions may also be combined into one section, for example, under the heading called "Discussion of Experimental Results".





The conclusions section closes the report by providing a summary to the content in the report. It indicates what is shown by the experimental work, what is its significance, and what are the advantages and limitations of the information presented. The potential applications of the results and recommendations for future work may be included.





The appendices are used to present derivations of formulae, computer program source codes, raw data, and other related information that supports the topic of the report.



List of References


The sources of information are usually arranged and numbered according to the order they are cited in the report. The reference materials may be entered in the following formats:

[1] Author, "Title of the book", 2nd edition, New York: Publisher, 1989.

[2] Author, "Title of the paper", Journal name, Vol. 2, No. 3, Jan 1990, pg. 456-458.

[3] Author, "Title of the paper", Proceedings of Conference 1991, pg. 5-6.

[4] Author, "Title of the thesis", Ph.D. thesis, Rice University, Houston, May 1973.



Further Reading

The guidelines presented in this article are meant to serve as some helpful tips and suggestions for preparing lab reports. Several reference books on technical writing are available. More guides and information in preparing lab reports as well as other technical documents may be found in the following references:

. Beer D. and McMurrey D., "A Guide To Writing As An Engineer", New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997
. Lannon J.M., "Technical Writing", 6th edition, New York : HarperCollins College Publishers, 1993.