June 19th, 2012

Helping Students Write Better Lab Reports



One of the messages of the Writing Across the Curriculum movement is that writing skills can be developed in any course and that often the best place to start is with current assignments that involve writing. That’s where chemists Gragson and Hagen started. They were disappointed in the quality of student writing in their “journal-style” lab reports. Despite giving students a sample lab, a writing manual, and lots of good feedback, the quality of the lab reports was low and did not improve across the 10 to 15 lab reports students prepared.

They undertook a major redesign of the lab report assignment, guided by three principles they believed would improve the quality of those reports. First, they decided less might be better. Rather than 10 to 15 lab reports they reduced the number to four, reasoning that by requiring fewer they could set the quality standard much higher. Second, they decided that they would give lots of initial guidance on the writing and their expectations for it, but then they would gradually reduce that guidance and have students work more autonomously. Finally, they decided that their redesigned assignment needed to give students experience with both the review and revision processes. Based on those principles, here’s what the new assignment looked like.

For the first experiment, each student wrote an abstract and a materials and methods section according to the formal journal-style lab report protocols. These were peer reviewed using a Calibrated Peer Review approach that I’ll describe shortly. For experiments 1–4, two-to-three-member student groups wrote the journal lab reports using a writing-cycle process. Each individual student produced a one-page Excel report with tables, figures, conclusion, and references that conveyed the essential aspects of experiments 5–10. Each individual then selected one of these experiments and wrote a complete journal-style lab report for it.

To help students understand the writing demands of this kind of lab report, the authors prepared an Integrated Writing Guide that included a sample lab report. Each section was accompanied with a grading checklist, which made it clear exactly what the instructors were looking for when they graded each section. For experiments 2–4 they posted detailed grading rubrics on the course website. For the final lab report, students were on their own.

The review and revision process used the Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) model, which includes writing, calibration, peer review, self-assessment, and then revision. Here’s how that worked with the first lab assignment. Students uploaded their written abstract to the CPR website (http://cpr.molsci.ucla.edu). Then they read three instructor-written abstracts of varying quality that they graded. Next, they were randomly assigned three abstracts written by their classmates, which they also read and graded online. Finally, they returned to their own abstract, which they read and graded. When students graded the work online, they were guided by questions. Once they completed the CPR process, they were given access to the reviews of their peers, and that’s when they revised their work.

In preparing the group reports for experiments 2–4, students prepared one report for each group. They were assigned roles: lead author, reviewer, and editor. The roles rotated each week so that students had the opportunity to complete the tasks associated with each role.

The authors summarize their description of the project with these comments: “We found that improving writing required giving the students more time to write, providing more specific guidance on both the form and content of their reports, and including opportunities for them to gain experience with the review and revision process.” (p. 65)

Even though your students may not do lab reports, this article is instructive because it demonstrates the careful planning that goes into designing assignments that develop skills and foster understanding. As students prepared these reports, they learned about physical chemistry, but they also learned about technical writing and how much good writing depends on feedback and revision.

Reference: Gragson, D. E., and Hagen, J. P. (2010). Developing technical writing skill in the physical chemistry laboratory: A progressive approach employing peer review. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (1), 62-65.

Reprinted from Better Writing in Lab Reports The Teaching Professor, 25.4 (2011): 5.

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