Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

I Need Help with Lab Reports

Posted on: October 20, 2009

163_science_newtonI’m the first one to admit I don’t know everything.  (Actually, I’m the second, my wife is the first.)  I don’t know how to proceed at this moment, I’m throwing it out there for discussion.

We are using the carbonless lab notebooks, I like them.  I want the students to use a lab notebook, but I don’t want the experience of learning to be about rewriting a procedure.  I’m struggling with the whole idea that every lab starts out with a hypothesis.  My personal experience of learning often begins with “I wonder what happens if …” You could say that is a form of a hypothesis, but it is really just a quest for understanding the workings of everything.

The other day we did a lab where we used a ticker tape recorder to make a mark every 1/60th of a second on a paper strip.  The goal is to record the changing distance of a falling object and the constant distance of a constant velocity toy car.  I wanted them to see a visual record of acceleration, to understand the distance changes at each tick, and to graph the distances over time.  They struggled to write a meaningful hypothesis.  How could they write one, they don’t know what they are going to see.  I wanted to help them, but I felt that if I said too much, I would be revealing the discovery they should be making.

If labs are about discovery, and I think they should be, then how can they have a hypothesis?  How is it discovery if there is only one right answer?  If I make the lab all about them finding the right answer, then their focus is on what will get them a good grade, and not about learning physics.  I’ve looked at lots of lab report formats online.  They make sense if the experimenter is doing research on a topic where he or she is actively working.  Each bit of learning leads to a new question and a new experiment.  Here, the hypothesis feels contrived.

Would it be wrong to have a hypothesis that is just a general question?  Am I going about this the wrong way?  I think I’d be happier if they wrote, “We are hoping to see visual evidence that differentiates a constant velocity and accelerating velocity.”  If I head this way, am I failing to preparing them for college?

One thing I am changing; in the future they can reference the handout.  It’s a waste of their time and mine when they have to rewrite my instructions.  Yes, it forces them to read the instructions, but that’s not deep and meaningful learning.  The clock is ticking.

What are you doing?


6 Responses to "I Need Help with Lab Reports"

I’ll admit that I use very directed labs. I don’t know that my students have enough experience in labs to make a hypothesis for what I want. Some labs I have something I want them to discover, and they don’t necessarily know what that is until they have done the lab.
I start with a stated purpose: to investigate the relationship between …
The conclusion is where I can see what they learned – it should answer the purpose, ie The relationship between … is linear as seen by the straight line graph.

My students will barely read any directions, so they seem to have no clue what we are trying to do in the lab. I use the lab as a reinforcement of ideas we’ve looked at in class, a way to see the theory we’ve learned put into action. I think a question or purpose is a great way for students to start a lab.

I never have them write a procedure. Never. Blech, who wants to correct that?
I use a general form:
Purpose (I give this to them)
Theory (I ask for some specific definitions, or a labelled diagram)
Data (tables of data)
Calculations (% error if possible, do a sample calculation)
Questions (usually from the lab manual/handout)

Hope this helps.
I am measuring the coefficient of friction tomorrow, with the lab you posted last year. Thanks!

In the begiing of the year, I never call it a lab port; I use the phrase lab reflection using the following set from​RECALL.doc
Then, as they prograss, I focus on the formalities expexted with each section. Towards then end of the year, I let the students in on the fact that they’ve been writing lab reports all year long.

My students are all seniors. The 9th grade science teacher is excellent, they did many lab reports in his class. There is no tricking them into reports, for me, this is about the best use of their and my time. I love doing labs, I hate taking the time out of teaching to do them. Taking days to write things up is a further distraction from learning.

I get back to everyone in a couple of weeks with an update.

I’m a student teacher – about to do a similar lesson with 8th graders.

Have you heard of or tried creating the Investigative Science Learning Environment ( Feel free to contact about it:

I think the best way to answer your question is to clarify what you’re trying to achieve with lab activities. Are you guiding your students towards one conclusion or have you designed an activity in order for them to investigate and observe something? In the first case, hypothesis is critical. In the second, you’re aiming to show students a phenomena and then develop their ideas to explain why it occurs that way. The first is faster, but students may not always gain the same level of deep understanding they will with the second. I don’t think there’s necessarily one right answer even though I always lean towards investigation-type learning. Your goals for each activity might be different, meaning you’ll design a different style of lesson.

Good luck!

I think you are on the money here Becky. I definitely prefer investigative learning. After all, we frequently learn more from the wrong answer than we do from the right one. What I really need to do is adjust my lab report format to reflect investigative learning. Thanks.

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