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PREPARING YOUR LABORATORY REPORT

by Dr. Jan Kennedy
Psychological report writing involves making your research findings public to enable others to learn about what you have done. In this way, society benefits from scientific research by allowing others to revise, expand, or criticize scientific work.

The format and style used to prepare lab reports is the same as is used to prepare articles for publication. This format is standardized and is detailed in the publication manual of the American Psychological Association, fourth edition. The following is an abridgement of the major rules for the preparation of scientific reports.

Organization of Reports

There are seven sections to a report. Their headings appear centered on the page. Under some of the major sections, there are subsections which are located at the left margin and are underlined. The seven sections are: Title, Abstract, Introduction (no heading), Method, Results, Discussion, and References, if any.

Title Page

After the short title and page number, the running head should be given. This is typed flush left in all uppercase letters. Do not exceed 50 characters, including punctuation and spaces. An example:

Running head: LONG-TERM MEMORY OF EARLY DENTAL EXPERIENCES

The title should be a concise statement of the main topic of the report, usually consisting of about 12 to 15 words. It should refer to the major variables or theoretical issues under investigation. Since the purpose of the title is to inform the reader, it should be explanatory when standing alone. Avoid words that serve no useful purpose and only increase the length. Such phrases as "A Study of..." or "An Experimental Investigation of..." should be avoided. Do not use abbreviations in the title. All words should be spelled out for clarity. Centered directly under the title should appear your name and under it your institution.

Abstract

Page two of your report is the abstract. The word "Abstract" is centered on the page. Then a one-paragraph summary of your research report is given, consisting of 960 characters, including punctuation and spaces (about 120 words). This paragraph is not indented. It should be written last. This paragraph should concisely describe the problem under investigation, the participants, the experimental method, findings, and conclusions. To conserve characters in the abstract, type all numbers except those that begin a sentence as digits.

Introduction

Page three of your report begins the introduction. The introduction does not require a heading; however, the title of the paper should be typed, centered at the top of the first page of the introduction. A good introduction addresses two questions: What has been done in this area by other researchers? and, What is the point of the present study? The introduction is the place to include the review of the research literature that led to your hypothesis. For instance, you might show how prior findings are inconsistent or ambiguous. Explain how your experiment may clarify the problem. State your hypothesis explicitly toward the end of the introduction, after you have explained the research and thinking that led to it. Identify independent and dependent variables here. You may want to include a sentence or two about operational definitions (or you can do it in Method). If you have made predictions about the outcome of the study, say so. Be sure you say why you expect these results. Do not expect readers to guess what you are thinking. In the introduction, you are moving from the general to the specific: a general discussion of the problem area, to your specific hypothesis.

Method

This section must be very detailed and clear. It tells the reader that someone else can repeat the experiment just by reading your method section. The method section generally consists of three subsections: participants, apparatus (or materials), and procedure. A fourth, optional, subsection is design.

Participants

The age, sex, and any other relevant demographic data are presented here. State how many subjects participated, how they were selected, and how they were assigned to groups.

Apparatus or Materials

A description of the apparatus used is given here. In the case of standard laboratory equipment, rather than describing the entire apparatus, the company name and model and/or serial number is sufficient. If this is not possible, the equipment should be described in detail.

If materials (such as a questionnaire) were used, either cite your source (if published materials were used) or provide a copy in the appendix of your paper if you devised the instrument yourself. You should describe the instrument in your materials section. For example,

A 50-item six-point Likert-type questionnaire was devised by the experimenter to measure attitudes toward authority figures. Half of the questions were worded such that....The highest (positive) score that could be attained on the measure was 300; the lowest (negative) score was 50. Thus, higher scores reflected more positive attitudes toward authority figures.

Procedure

This seciton describes what the experimenter did and how it was done. It is a detailed description of the events that the experimenter went through from the beginning until the end of the study. Such things as experimental and control group assignment to conditions, order or manner of experimental treatment presentation, and a summary of the instructions to the participants are presented here. Include a statement about your research design and the operational definitions of your variables. (If your design is complex, a separate section can be designated for this information.)

Results

This section is where you present your data and analyses. The experimenter gives a description and not an explanation of the findings of the experiment. In order to fulfill this requirement, the results section should include descriptive statistics (rather than the raw data) and statistical tests if used. Include degrees of freedom used, obtained values of inferential statistics performed, probability level, and direction of effect. Underline letters used as statistical symbols, such as "N", "F", "t", "SD", and "p." (Use underlining, not quotation marks. Since many Web browsers using underlining to indicate a link, avoid underlining within web pages.) Make reference to any figures and tables used, for example, "(see Table 1)."

The reference to the table or figure should be close to the relevant material in the text. Never use a figure or table without referring to it in the text.

Tables are often used when presenting descriptive statistics such as means, standard deviations and correlations. Pictures, graphs, and drawings are referred to as figures. You should use as few tables and figures as possible. They should be used as supplements, not to do the entire job of communication. (See the APA manual for detailed guidelines for Tables and for Figures.)

Generally, one reports descriptive statistics, then inferential statistics, then states in words what was found.

Discussion

In this section, you state your conclusions on the basis of your analyses. The conclusions should be related to the questions raised in your introduction section. How is this study, and these results, relevant to the field? You should open the discussion section with a statement of support or nonsupport for your original hypothesis. You may want to point out differences or similarities between other points of view and your own. You may remark on certain shortcomings of the study, but avoid dwelling on flaws. In general, this section allows you relatively free rein to examine, interpret, and qualify your results.

FIGURE CHECKLIST: A BRIEF GUIDE TO MANUSCRIPT GRAPHS IN APA STYLE

  1. All figures included in a paper should be necessary for understanding the results.
  2. Figures should be simple, clean, and free of elaborate detail.
  3. Always double-check to see if data have been plotted correctly.
  4. All figures should be mentioned in the text (see Figure 1).
  5. Figures are included within a paper after any appendices and tables.
  6. Each figure should be typed on a separate page.
  7. Figure pages, just as every other page in a manuscript, should have the short title and page number in the upper right-hand corner (unless a photograph).
  8. All figure labels are numbered consecutively (Figure 1, Figure 2, etc.).
  9. The length of the vertical (Y) axis should be approximately 2/3 the length of the horizontal (X) axis.
  10. The dependent variable is plotted on the Y-axis, and the independent variable is plotted on the X-axis.
  11. Clearly label each axis with respect to what was measured, quantity measured, and units in which the quality was measured.
  12. Choose the appropriate scale units (length of intervals) so that the figure will not distort actual data points.
  13. Make sure that the scale points on each axis have equal intervals.
  14. All figures are followed by a caption, which is written below each figure and ended with a period.
  15. Figure labels beginning each caption are underlined and followed by a period. For example:
    Figure 6. Reaction time in seconds as a function of the intensity of the stimulus.
Completed figures as they should appear in a written manuscript can be seen in the publication manual itself.

TABLE CHECKLIST: A BRIEF GUIDE TO MANUSCRIPT TABLES IN APA STYLE

  1. All tables included in a paper should be necessary for understanding the data.
  2. Tables should be simple, clean, and free of elaborate detail.
  3. Always double-check to make sure the data are correct.
  4. All tables should be mentioned in the text.
  5. Tables are included within a paper after any appendices and before any figures.
  6. Each table should be typed on a separate page.
  7. All tables are double-spaced.
  8. Table pages, just as every other page in a manuscript, should have the short title and page number in the upper right-hand corner.
  9. All table labels should be numbered consecutively (Table 1, Table 2, etc.).
  10. The data are listed in an orderly fashion with the decimal points falling in a straight vertical line.
  11. All tables include a caption which is located directly below the table label and is capitalized just as a title would be, underlined, and is not followed by a period.
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