Guide to Great
Habits of Mind
Think sdrawkcaB . . .
One strategy for writing good lab reports is backwards thinking. You should
always begin with the end in mind. Before you do your research, grab some test tubes,
frizz your hair in your best mad scientist look and get started, you need to stop and think
about what you need to accomplish. If you are reading this before designing and
carrying out your experiment, then you should pat yourself on your front and
congratulate yourself on thinking backwards.
O.K., now you’re feeling backwards, your shirts’ tag is itching your chin and it’s
time to start at the end . . . what do you do? Begin with two questions – what do I need to
accomplish, and what are my constraints. Make lists based on what you know.
• Find out how temperature affects
the speed at which black-‐eyed
• Collect data that I can graph.
• Identify a single dependent and
• I only have 2 weeks to complete
• I can only use black-‐eyed peas
• I have to control the temperature
of the seeds using a heat lamp in
• I have to set up my experiment
with a control.
Your lists will be different from the ones above, but you should have your goals in mind
before you start and you must take into account your constraints. Once you know where
you are going, you can figure out the best way to get there without wasting precious time.
Be a control freak . . .
Being a control freak is just as important as thinking backwards. You should
design an experiment where you are in control of everything. You even need to be in
control of the control, more on that later. If you don’t control every aspect of your
experiment, then you risk having more than one independent variable in your
experiment. Remember, variable refers to something that changes and in a good science
experiment you only want to change one thing! For example, if you have two pea plants
that get different amounts of water and different amounts of sunlight – how will you
know which variable (sunlight or water) caused any changes you might measure? You
won’t know because you failed to control your pea, and scientists who can’t control their
pea may find themselves referred to as an incompetent incontinent. Try saying that
three times fast and then remind yourself in a good experiment – you change only one
thing at a time (independent variable) and you measure the affect of that change
(dependent variable(s)). It is o.k. to have more than one dependent variable, but not
more than one independent variable. For example, increasing hours of daylight
(independent variable) may cause pea plants to be taller (dependent variable), produce
more pea pods (dependent variable), and have thicker roots (dependent variable). All
other variables should be controlled. Here is a quick reference for thought . . .
Type of Variable Question it Answers Examples
“What do I change?” Amount of sunlight a plant
“What do I observe?” Height of plant, width of
roots, number of pea pods.
Controlled variable “What do I keep the
Amount of water the
plants receive, the type of
soil they are in, brand of
pea plant, etc, etc, etc, etc,
Thinking this way should help you control your control. A controlled experiment is an
experiment where ALL variables are controlled (kept the same), and you don’t change
anything (no independent variable).
Success is only the beginning
While coming to a conclusion (answering your question) may seem like an end to
you, for science it is part of a continually evolving process. Once you have reached an
answer, it is up to others to try and confirm or refute your answer. Science goes on and
on, always testing and considering, looking for new information or rethinking old –
never satisfied. Every answer is only one experiment away from being proven wrong
and being replaced with a new answer.
The Lab Report
This is just as you would expect, a reflection of the appearance and organization of your
work. Is it clearly presented? Remember, the care and effort you put into your report
reflect upon your character and will influence how people perceive you. While neatly
hand-‐written reports with graphs on graph paper are acceptable, typed reports with
computer-‐generated graphs are better. Ultimately, there are two important pieces
here . . .
1. Is your lab well organized – is the information located in the right place?
2. Is your information clear -‐ is your grammar correct? Did you include graphs
that have labels? Are you graphs to scale? Did you include units?
Participation (not included in lab report)
Showing up and kindly staring while your group members do all the work is not
acceptable. You are expected to be on task at all times and to be helpful to your team
members. While participation is not a section to be included in your lab report, it is here
to remind you that it will be reflected in your lab grade.
The Lab Report Components
Before you try and write your question, make sure you have identified the independent
and dependent variables. Both what you will change and what you expect to observe
should be included in the question. The one thing that should not be in the question is
(right) Does the amount of light a pea plant receives affect the height of the plant?
(wrong) If I change the amount of light a pea plant receives, will it affect the height of
The question is similar to putting a “Title” on your report. By using the question, you are
essentially giving your report a highly informative title.
This is your best guess and it should make sense to you. Your hypothesis is your
prediction and should be followed by an explanation of why you think this will happen.
You can continue to use the IF . . . THEN . . . statement if you would like, just make sure
you use it correctly and follow it with an explanation of why you think it will happen.
AGAIN, avoid including you or I. Here is the correct way to do an IF . . . THEN . . .
IF (independent variable) THEN (dependent variable) and WHY
IF (what you change) THEN (what you predict you will observe) and WHY
If the amount of sunlight a pea plant receives is increased, then the pea plant will grow
higher. This is because the sunlight will give the pea plant energy to grow.
Truly, this is not a necessary step for scientific research – your hypothesis has no affect
on your results in the best-‐case scenario and may cause you to be biased in the worst.
However, this step is very useful for students because it causes them to think about the
end of the experiment (backward design) and to focus their thoughts. It also forces you
to identify your variables, which is another important thing to know before you start. If
your prediction is incorrect, it will not cause you to lose any points or make your
experiment any less useful.
The key to this section is to include all necessary materials and to do so
quantitatively. Quantitative descriptions include amounts, measurements, brands, etc.
This section should be like a grocery list for a recipe that you expect someone to follow:
1. Gummy Bears
3. Yard Stick
1. 30 Brach’s Gummy Bears
2. 18 Beakers (100 ml)
3. Meter Stick
4. 1 Liter Distilled Water
The key to this section is to include all necessary steps and to do so in the proper
order of events. Similar to a recipe, this section is the instructions necessary for
someone other than yourself to re-‐create your experiment. It is often a good idea to
have someone unfamiliar with your experiment to read your procedures. Often,
scientists will become so familiar with the process that they have a hard time explaining
it well to others. If your experiment has to be set-‐up, it is useful to include pictures or
diagrams of your lab set-‐up. Avoid “gather materials” or “clean up.” Only steps that
directly impact the results of the experiment should be listed.
Results – DATA TABLES and GRAPHS
This is where you share the data that you collected. This is NOT where you tell a reader
what you think the data means. A good result section should be clearly organized and
you should present your data in a way that is easy to interpret. Much of the time, this is
done by using graphs, tables, or pictures. Graphs are an easy way for our minds to
summarize data. Tables allow us to easily find the data we want amongst a large amount
of data. Pictures can also be useful and give the reader additional information.
Your results should be very accurate and easy to interpret. This is easily
accomplished when you use a computer to produce the tables or graphs of your data. If
you are not using a computer, all your graphs should be drawn to scale using graph
paper. Remember to label your data clearly.
This is where you say what you think the data tells you. You should always discuss the
relationship between your independent variable and dependent variable(s). Look for
trends in the data (ex. As sunlight increases, plant size increases). Look for problems
with the data and discuss why you think they might have occurred (ex. One of my plants
showed sign of disease and that may have contributed to it not fitting the data trend).
Discuss any new experiments that might be useful based on the data you collected or
ways that your experiment could be improved to collect better data. If there is no trend,
Conclusion – Part 1 (Hypothesis)
State whether your data supported or failed to support your hypothesis. You should
summarize how your data supported or failed to support your hypothesis.
Ex. Increasing the amount of sunlight a pea plant receives did increase the height of the
pea plant. The data showed a range of 8 cm for plants receiving 4 hours of sunlight to 17
cm for plants receiving 10 hours of sunlight. Although the hypothesis was supported,
the data showed greater increases in height between 4 hours of sunlight and 7 hours of
Conclusion – Part 2 (errors / improvements)
What kinds of errors could your lab include? Think about your measurements, the
amount of data collected, how it was collected, the materials you used, and any problems
you observed. Was the procedure followed precisely? How could you have set up your
experiment differently that might produce better results? If you were to repeat this
experiment, what would you change and why?
Conclusion – Part 3 (What was learned)
This quick summary should restate what was learned from the experiment. This should
be the “answer” to your original question. You should include your independent variable
and dependent variable(s). If the data does not support a conclusion, do not be afraid to
say that you were unable to make a conclusion.
From this experiment I learned that increasing the amount of sunlight a pea plant
receives does increase the height of the pea plant.
Because most of the pea plants I grew did not produce seedpods during the two-‐week
period I observed them, I was unable to learn if the amount of sunlight a pea plant
receives affects the number of seedpods it produces.
Background Sources (If Required)
If requested, please site any text (hard text & online) you use for information. Use
standard APA format.
Experimental Design (If Required)
This section is for experiments where you design the entire experiment. To receive full
credit, an experiment must be designed to test your Question. It may only have one
independent variable. It must have at least one measurable dependent variable. All
other variables must be controlled or accounted for.