This post is aimed at students who write reports for University on various subjects, such as; Lab reports of the different courses including Chemistry, Heat transfer, Fluid flow, Strength of materials, Sensors, Physics, and FEM reports. Of course, each of these subjects is slightly different and calls for its own emphasis on diverse parts. For example, Chemistry lab emphasizes the purely scientific nature of reporting while Strength of materials takes a more practical approach. Nevertheless, I will generalize a report in this post in order to give you a structure for the report to follow, and add whatever your lab calls for at the moment.
I am writing this guide or whatever you want to call it, mostly because when I was a student I had very little guidance on how to write these reports, and 50 reports later, I got a little bit better at them. While I do believe in learning from experience and grinding grades to know how to do a better job at writing reports, I don’t think it should only be YOUR experience you learn from.
First let’s tackle the question you must have: why should you listen to anything I have to say about reporting? To which I will answer that I have successfully graduated as a mechanical engineer. That means I wrote dozens of reports on various courses, at least 7 per course, over at least 7 different courses. Moreover, I’ve produced a thorough report for my senior design project in my non-native language (English). On top of that, I was a lab teaching assistant during my last year of university, so I’ve also seen hundreds of rubbish reports. like everyone else around me, I had no idea what to include and what not to include in reports, what kind of language to use and how to report results.
In the beginning, like everyone else around me, I had no idea what to include in reports, what kind of language to use and how to report results.
First I’ll leave a bullet point of what you should include in your report, and after that, I’ll elaborate a bit about what each section has and why.
- Cover page
- Table of contents
- Theoretical background
- Course of the experiment
- Calculations and processing
Let’s break it down.
Cover page – I don’t know what your faculty demands, but this usually contains the title of the experiment, to you it’s obvious what you worked on, to the guy reading it 2 weeks (or more, usually) later, it’s not. The name\s of who conducted the experiment along with ID numbers. The date the experiment was done on. And it could be a nice touch to include the name of the school with the logo in the header
Abstract – This should be up to half a page, what you should include here is the very essence of the experiment \ lab \ case study you were working on, it should include the conclusion and the focus of the report. In other words: explain your work in 2-4 sentences.
Table of contents – This is basic and easy and yet, it’s not always even present.
Theoretical background – Here you should include all the processes relating to your experiment or lab that you have performed but on a theoretical level. For example, for a lab that measured the bending moment and stresses on an I-beam in strength of materials lab, I would include all the formulas you are going to use including the breakdown of how they were developed and what each letter represents there, the definition of stress, the types of stresses you know and specifically the one relating to your experiment, the second moment of inertia (how to calculate, what it represents, how you use it in your formulas), and what information you have about the machinery used during the experiment. On a side note, I usually appreciate when these items are not copy-pasted from Wikipedia, it’s very easy to see through and it reflects badly on you professionally (always think, would my employer want the report I was responsible for writing to look like this?)
The course of the experiment – This section is usually tedious, you should include it. Depict what steps were taken at every step of the way from start to finish, this is used for future reference and also to help monitor the work that was done, this part is best written while it’s still warm – meaning, right after you finished the experiment, or if you really want to go nuts, while you’re performing it. It makes it a lot easier.
Results – Here I like to show the relevant results from the measurements. Results are holy and should not be played with to suit what you think is best. I’d like to assert that a value is never a single number, it has to come with the classic “±” sign which signifies measurement errors – have I mentioned you should elaborate about the measurement errors in the experiment in your theoretical background section?
Calculations and processing – This is where you can get creative and come up with graphs and colorful ways to present the consequences of what you measured. Graph your results, show how you calculated these values (or reference the reader to the background section to equations and formulas), and most importantly, include the error value as well. Remember, your report should be visually appealing and neatly edited.
Conclusions – I think this is the most important part of the report, it should be your favorite part of the report simply because you get to voice what you learned and express to whoever will read it. I know and I understand that most of the experiments you will perform are classical and have been done thousands of times and will continue to be performed many times again, but this shouldn’t deter you from writing a lengthy conclusion section. At the very least take it as practice for when you write about not-so-classical topics. Infer ideas from the experiment you have performed and how these ideas affect larger systems that are comprised of a lot of other systems, one of which happens to be your experiment
References – No argument was ever won without sources, including the sites and books you’ve opened to back up your claims because anyone who is seriously checking and grading your work will double check your sources.
Appendix – This is where you can include the bulk of your measurements (for the reader to verify and evaluate), you should include the original papers you worked with during your experiment. What? No one uses paper anymore? Ok just add your results in a nice, readable manner.
Tips and tricks
- A lot of material for the theoretical background will be repeated between some experiments, always look for shortcuts but don’t make shortcuts that put you in an unprofessional light
- This is a hard piece of advice to take but try and pick up LaTeX. MS Word is bad, it’s terrible if you try to get stuff done, I am simply infuriated by the program. LaTeX has a learning curve, but it’s better sooner than later, and it will help you later on, plus you can always put it on your resume.
- In your report offer ways to improve the experiment for the next time it is performed, be it faulty or near faulty equipment, or simply better ways to run the experiment. You have a right to voice your thoughts.
- It’s ok if your experiment went a little wrong it’s never ok to fake results, you should always be truthful to your results and always be able to explain them. Skewed results without a reasonable explanation are usually bad, but skewed results with proper explanation are acceptable.
- I like to add sections about the practical purpose of my experiments, when possible. In the more basic courses this will not be possible, but later one you can relate what you’re experimenting on to real life and the implications these tests have on larger scales.