Writing Lab Reports: Methods
Keys to the Methods Section
Purpose: How did you conduct this study?
Relative size: 10-15% of total
Scope: Narrow: the middle of the hourglass
Verb Tense: Always use the past tense when summarizing the methods of the experiment.
The methods section sets out important details.
The purpose of this section is to provide sufficient detail of your methodology so that a reader could repeat your study and reproduce your results. Though the methods section is the most straightforward part of the lab report, you may find it difficult to balance enough information with too much extraneous detail. To test yourself, ask, “Would someone need to know this detail to reproduce this study?”
Avoid writing your methods as a step-by-step procedure; rather, present a concise summary of what you did. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: “First, each group chose a turtle. A member of each group then measured the carapace length, while another recorded the measurement in the lab book. A different group member then recorded the turtle’s weight.”
Example 2: “Students determined carapace length (cm) and weight (g) for all individuals.”
The first example provides unnecessary information (the reader need not know that each turtle was measured by a different group, nor which group member took the measurements) and is tedious to read. The second is clear and concise, and it also provides the units of measurements. Note that it is not necessary to mention that data were recorded – we assume that if you took the trouble to take a measurement, you also wrote it down.
The methods section should contain information specific to your study only. This means that you generally should not refer to other research and, therefore, should not include citations. Exceptions arise when using another author’s method, such as when following the procedure from your lab manual, or when using maps or diagrams from other sources.
Methods Section Details
Study area: Describe your study area. Geographic location, size, boundaries, topography, and habitat type (forest or meadow composition, type of water bodies, for example) may be relevant.
Organism: If studying a particular organism, provide details of gender, age, and other relevant information to your study.
Materials: Within the prose of your procedure text, integrate materials that you used. Include model numbers of specialized lab equipment, concentrations of chemical solutions, and other such details.
Procedure: What you did – write in paragraph format (no point form or numbered steps). Include an explanation of your experimental design, sample size, replicates, measurement techniques, etc.
Data Analysis: What statistical tests you used (including tests of normality), significance level set (α=?), and any data manipulation required. Include specific calculations, if appropriate.
Figures: Include diagrams of study area, equipment, or procedures, where appropriate. Number and title appropriately and refer to the figure within the text.
A good methods section should…
- Provide enough detail to allow an accurate reproduction of the study
- Be written in a logically flowing paragraph format
- Provide details on the study site, organism, materials, procedure, and statistical analysis
- Should reference the lab manual, if appropriate
A good methods section should NOT…
- Be a recipe-book-style instruction guide
- Provide a list of materials
- Use bullet points
- Cite other studies for comparison
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