Writing a Lab Report in Psychology
(printable version here)
by Melanie Cooke, Tori Giaimo and Athena Hensel
Lab reports are a critical aspect of learning to write in psychology, and comprise a large part of the Intro to Psychology lab grade at Richmond. Although they may seem overwhelming to you now, lab reports can be written efficiently and effectively if you follow a formula that optimizes clarity and concision. It's important for you to learn how to write a lab report early on in your psychology studies; psychology isn't just about studying the human mind and its functions, but also about communicating what you've studied. Ultimately, you want to make a contribution to the field of psychology, whether it be a report for an introductory psychology course or groundbreaking research that will be published in a prestigious scholarly journal. It all begins with the lab report.
The Student-Teaching Fellow Relationship
Up until now, your assignments have been graded primarily by your professor. In contrast to this traditional evaluation, psychology lab reports in Intro to Psychology are graded by teaching fellows - upper-level undergraduates who are majoring in psychology. This type of grading allows students to become familiar with peer review. Peer review is a practice in which scholars review the writing of their colleagues (or peers) in a particular field of science or literature. In this case, teaching fellows (TF's), peers of Intro Psychology students who have extensive knowledge in the subject of psychology, review the lab reports and provide constructive feedback.
In an effort to preserve objectivity, both teaching fellows and students must act with discretion. To maintain anonymity when being graded by your teaching fellow, be sure to use your University ID ( in substitution of your name) in lab reports, particularly on the title page. Also, remember to write out the honor code and sign it with your University ID. Teaching fellows attribute lab report grades to your University ID instead of your name and are not allowed to associate your ID number with your name.
APA Format for Lab Reports
In many disciplines, professors may discourage the adoption of a single template for writing assignments. However, in psychology, formal papers are usually required to follow APA format. Below is an overview of how to specifically format lab reports for Intro to Psychology lab classes, but a more in-depth discussion of formatting papers in APA style is located here. The lab report follows the same basic "hourglass" structure as an empirical journal article (without the abstract):
You can also reference this template for Intro to Psychology lab reports.
- Title Page
- Appendix/Tables and Figures
- The header on the top-left of your title page should read "Running head: (ABBREVIATED TITLE OF LAB REPORT)." The words "Running head" should appear exactly as it does here, with only the first letter capitalized. The words "Running head" should only appear on the title page. Every other page should only have the compact form of the title of the report, with all letters capitalized, as the header in the top-left corner.
- In the top-right corner of each page, with the exception of the title page, include the page number (beginning with "2"). According to APA style, all type should be in Times New Roman 12 pt. font.
- Your title should consist of four lines in the center of the page.
- The first line should be the title of your lab report. Titles should be simple and informative. You can use the template "The Effect of the IV (independent variable) on the DV (dependent variable)." Your title, however, should not be in quotation marks.
- The second line should be your University ID number.
- The third line should state your institution - the University of Richmond.
- Finally, the fourth line should state the week day and time of your lab. Your name should not appear on the title page or anywhere in your lab report.
Review of Background Literature
- Following the hourglass shape, your first section should begin very broadly by introducing basic concepts and previous research that relate to your study.
- Briefly describe the studies or experiments in the past research, noting the procedures, results, and, most importantly, how it relates to your own laboratory study (for example, explain how your study could further develop the theories supported or observations recorded in a previous study). If you are having trouble connecting past research to your current study, think about the questions the past study raises. Is your study attempting to answer one of them?
Defining Theories and Terms
- You should also introduce and define any theories or terms that an intelligent layperson (someone not familiar with the field of psychology) would not automatically know.
- These terms include the ones in your textbook, as well as the theories/terms discussed in class. Because your study is providing either support for or opposition to a theory in psychology, you must inform the reader of that particular theory.
- Refer to your textbook for definitions of specific terms, but always remember to cite!
- The introduction in your lab report should end with your hypothesis, which acts as your thesis statement for the paper.
- The purpose of the introduction is to "introduce" your hypothesis gradually, going from general psychological processes or theories to the specific assumption you are trying to put forth (this creates the top of the "hourglass").
- A well-written introduction should be a "roadmap" to your hypothesis- the reader should be able to get to your hypothesis and think "well of course that's what they were going to study!
- Discusses the participant group of your study.
- Include the number of participants, and demographic information that is relevant to your study, including age, gender, ethnicity/race, and geographical location.
- Show these demographics as percentages or ratios instead of describing every individual; do not include specific names.
- Remember that for most lab write-ups, you and your Psych 100 classmates are the participants, so mention that your participants received class credit for participating.
- The procedure describes how you performed the study. Be specific and exact, so that others could possibly replicate your study procedure if they wanted to re-test your findings.
- Write the section in paragraph form, not as a list of steps.
- Remember to identify the independent and dependent variable(s), and to give a sample question if a questionnaire was used.
- Remember to mention that participants gave their informed consent and were debriefed at the study's end.
- Here is where you state the results of your study.
- Specify what statistical test you used to calculate results, as well as the quantitative results (see the APA format page to look up how to cite statistics in APA format.)
- Mention whether or not there was a statistical difference, if your class calculated it.
- DO NOT interpret your results in this section: that comes in the Discussion section.
Your Discussion section should contain five main parts. They do not need to be written necessarily in the following order, but you should try to devote at least a paragraph to each point.
- You should always begin your discussion by reiterating your original hypothesis, and state whether or not your results supported the hypothesis.
- You can go into some detail here; for instance if your results did not support the hypothesis but instead displayed a different pattern, you should discuss what you actually found.
- NEVER say your results "proved" your hypothesis or a theory. In science we can't ever prove a theory correct (but we can disprove a theory by giving enough opposing evidence).
- Whether your results supported the hypothesis or not, refer back to previous research and compare your results to theirs.
- Keep in mind the differences between your methodology and that of other researchers!
- What does your study contribute to the pre-existing literature on your topic?
- Discuss what aspects of your study design and procedure could have been improved to get better results, while still testing the same variables.
- Some questions to keep in mind when assessing limitations:
- Were your operational definitions precise? That is, did the variables you tested really reflect the psychological process you want to study?
- Was your procedure consistent across conditions?
- Was there some aspect of the participant group that could have skewed results? (For instance, would having an all-female, or all first-year participant group influence findings?)
- Did the TF/researcher give clear directions for how to perform the experiment?
- Don't just list your limitations: also discuss how they could be fixed in the future.
- In this section, you should discuss the "what now" aspect of your experiment. You should propose some suggestions for future research on your topic.
- Suggestions should not just fix the limitations you've discussed in the previous section. Rather, just as you thought about the questions raised in previous studies, think about the questions that went unanswered in your study.
- For instance, what would be the effect of changing one of your variables?
- By now, you've made it to the bottom of the hourglass: your discussion should then focus on the impact of your results on the "real world." We encourage you to be creative here, because what's the point of doing research if you can't use the results anywhere?
- How do your results relate to individual people like you or me?
- How could they be used to solve problems in the community?
- How could these results be applied to things like legislative policy or education?
Other stylistic pointers:
- Your reference page includes all the sources you used to write your lab report.
- In contrast to MLA format, sources are listed in the order that they appear in your
lab report, NOT in alphabetical order.
- On your reference page, make sure to type/write out the honor code and sign with your University ID. When listing your references, begin on a new page.
- For a more detailed explanation of how to construct your reference section, check out our Writer's Web guide to referencing sources in APA.
Writing with focus
As Shaparenko discusses in her article, "Focus on Focus," successful writing, which includes lab reports, is both focused and clear. In contrast to the flowery and sometimes superfluous language used in literary writing, scientific writing should be direct and concise. To keep this focus in mind, reread each paragraph in your report, identify the main idea, and then verify that the content in that paragraph is needed to support the main idea (i.e. take out unnecessary information). It is crucial that you incorporate background information, such as past studies related to your experiment (note: experiment and study will be used interchangeably on this web page). That said, you must also contribute your own voice, which should be clearly identifiable, by interpreting, analyzing, and/or further developing the information you use.
The tone of your report should be formal, but not too elevated. Remember what your assignment is: to present the findings of a psychological study. Your tone should be scientific and sophisticated, but not to an inappropriate level. Keep these tips in mind as you write your report.
When writing your lab report, use common sense when figuring out which tense to use.
- Use the past tense to describe studies that have been conducted, as well as your own methods and results.
- Use the present tense when describing topics which are not bound to a particular time- for instance, when describing a theory, you would use the past tense because the theory itself is not linked to one single study. However, you would use the past tense to describe studies that supported or contradicted said theory.
- Use the future tense when writing a proposal or discussing future research avenues.
Jargon refers to any technical terms that are specific to a field of study. The general public is not expected to know or understand these terms, so using them in your paper can be confusing. Keep your audience in mind -- if you are writing for a journal, it is more appropriate to use technical terms freely. However, always define your terms, such that an intelligent layperson could read your paper and understand it.
Another problem with using jargon is that it can change the whole tone of the report. You should only use terms that you are very comfortable with -- using words that you do not have a full understanding of, or including terms that you believe make your paper seem "smarter," can be a big mistake. Make sure that you are writing within a comfortable vocabulary. Doing so will ultimately make your paper stronger, because you will avoid misusing terms. A good rule of thumb is this: if you cannot explain the term aloud to a friend, you may want to reconsider using it in your paper.
Try to be as concise as possible in your writing. A psychology report is not the place to practice the type of flowery writing you might use in an English class -- you want to stay on topic and be brief. Here are some tips for staying concise:
- use effective words -- you do not necessarily need to use the fewest words, but you should choose the strongest words to convey your point.
- get rid of unnecessary modifiers -- avoid using words like "really," "basically," and "kind of."
- ask yourself questions -- as you write, ask yourself "am I saying something important in this sentence?" If the answer is no, consider eliminating that sentence.
- change phrases into adjectives -- phrases can often be consolidated into single adjectives, which make sentences much more concise. For example, "children who have bipolar disorder" could be changed to "bipolar children."
Scientific writing often encourages the use of the passive voice. In APA style, however, active voice is encouraged, as it specifes the actors in each stage of the experimental process. Consider the following sentence:
The passive construction focuses on the participants (the objects of the sentence, as they "were led") but detracts focus from those who were doing the test administration. This is important information, because an experimenter bias could occur if the researcher who administered the test was aware of what experimental condition the participant was assigned to. Consider this next sentence:
- Participants were led into the testing room and were administered the PNAS through a paper questionnaire. They were asked to complete the questionnaire at their own pace.
- A condition-blind lab assistant led each participant into the testing room. The assistant then gave them a paper copy of the PNAS, and asked them to fill it out at their own pace.
This sentence specifies who administered the test, and is a more direct way of stating that information. Always use active voice, if possible.
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