February 2nd, 2010

Replacing Lab Reports


When I took an ungraduate chemistry course a few years back, I loved lab, but I have to admit writing up the lab reports seemed like so much busy work. Each report had specified sections, and the lab manual offered advice on what to put in the sections, depending on the experiment. I remember trying to get them done in a hurry and thinking that I wasn’t learning much by doing them. They seemed more like something the instructor could use to make sure you (and your partners) had actually done the lab.

That’s probably why I found an article identifying some of the problems with the typical lab report so interesting. Most lab reports follow the format of a scientific report with sections that generate the hypotheses, describe the methods, report the data, and discuss the results; but they end up being very superficial versions of true scientific inquiry. Moreover, lab reports are written for the teacher, not for a professional community and rarely is there any revision component. “Because a lab report typically does not address a genuine question, it does not teach students how scientists find questions, construct hypotheses, design experiments, or make arguments supported by data from the experiment.” The net result is an assignment that “does not help a student learn to think like a chemist.” (p. 20) (The article is about an organic chemistry course.)

Elaborating this critique still further, the authors note, “The problem with conventional lab reports is that they encourage students to think and behave like students rather than like professionals. Because students know (or think they know) the expected outcome of the ‘cookbook’ experiments, they chalk up any deviation from the expected outcome as ‘experimental error’ with little thoughtful explanation.” (p. 20) But that’s still not the worst problem with lab reports. They generate a single datum. “No scientist would follow such a process,” the authors assert. It means that “the lab report develops habits that students must unlearn if they are going to think and write like professional chemists.” (p. 20)

What’s the alternative? These chemists, with faculty colleagues knowledgeable about writing across the curriculum, “redesigned the sophomore organic experiments so that they promoted genuine inquiry resulting in enough data to be worth writing about; they designed sequences of writing assignments to teach the scientific paper over the course of a year; and they built in genuine writing instruction—employing well-designed assignments, examples, rubrics and peer review—to help students develop ‘writing process knowledge’.” (p. 20)

That sounds much more worthwhile than the workbooky lab reports I completed without much thought or effort.

Reference: Alaimo, P. J., Bean, J. C., Langenhan, J. M. and Nichols, L. (2009). Eliminating lab reports: A rhetorical approach for teaching the scientific paper in sophomore organic chemistry. The Writing Across the Curriculum Journal, 20, 17-32.