How and When to Write a Biology Lab Report
Updated: Jul 22
I'm not sure that any high school science teacher would say she loves having students write lab reports. It's often a lot like getting your kids to eat their vegetables- you know it's good for them, but what a struggle to get them to do it! And grading lab reports is equally as difficult so it's easy to see why many science teachers shy away from formal lab reports in their Biology classes.
Writing a lab report can be a valuable skill in a science course, especially if you have college-bound students that will be going on to additional science courses. It is a cross-curricular pursuit that includes summarizing, writing, research, and math skills. However, lab reports are often used incorrectly in secondary science courses, so they end up being busywork for students and unnecessary grading for teachers.
When is a lab report appropriate:
When students are working with self-determined variables, hypotheses, or experimental designs. Here is an example of an experimental design lab for Biology or Anatomy classes.
When groups are testing different variables leading to one classroom result
When is a lab report not appropriate:
When you are simply observing a specimen (through a microscope, in a dissection, etc.)
When you are following a "cookie-cutter" lab from the textbook that provides every step for you.
If students are not forming their own conclusions based on data they've collected, there is no reason to write a formal lab report. That's why many of the labs I use in class contain just a simple worksheet with discussion questions for students to answer as they complete the lab. It is a rare occurrence in which I have students actually write a formal lab report but when I do, I spend the time necessary to train them to do it correctly.
I have a detailed document with explanations and examples for every section of a lab report. The following sections are traditional in a science lab report:
Methods and Materials
Results with Tables and Figures
Discussion or Conclusion
Allowing my students to see this ahead of time gives them a great starting point when writing their own lab reports. Now you can use the lab report example I use in my Biology classes, too!
Another important note is that I usually grade multiple drafts of any lab reports I collect, especially the first one. Students usually need a lot of direction and redirection as they learn to complete this process properly. My class document includes two rubric examples that you can use to grade these lab reports. My favorite is the one that allows for self-reflection, peer review, then teacher review.
I hope the grading tips and lab report example provided here will give you some freedom to use lab reports in your science course once in a while and use them more effectively. Just remember to give them lots of guidance on the format and let them use the example lab report while they're writing! For those days when lab reports are not appropriate or just too complicated, you might be interested in some simpler labs and activities, as well.