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The University of Southampton
English for EngineersUnderstanding assessed tasks

Writing Lab Reports

Lab reports are a formal write-up of an experiment you have carried out. You can usually assume they are written for a specialist audience.

Most students find the structure of a lab report fairly straightforward, but may have problems with grammar and style which are explained below.

Mistake 1: Writing the abstract before the rest of the report.

Although the abstract is the first section, you are advised to write it last because it summarises the whole report. It is usually evident when an abstract has been written before the rest of the report because it goes into unnecessary detail, and can even contain information that is not found in the rest of the report.

Mistake 2: Tense

Lab reports generally use a narrow range of tenses: mainly the present and past simple.

The table below presents general guidelines for tense use:

Abstract Because the abstract is a summary, the tenses will reflect those used in the original sections of the report.
Introduction The present simple is used to state the aim and permanent states.
The past simple is used to refer to previous experiments.
Materials and Methods The past simple is mainly used for experimental procedure because the experiment happened in the past and is finished.

However, the present simple may be used to explain a figure, equation or model, or to explain the permanent qualities of a material being tested.
Results The present simple is used to explain what a table shows, the past simple to state what the findings were.
Discussion Modal verbs, such as ‘may’, ‘might’ and ‘should’, are often used and these do not show tense.
Conclusion The present perfect may be used to state “This report has shown…”.
The past simple is used to state what was done or found.
Modal verbs might be used to suggest further study or add caution. Modal verbs do not show tense.

Mistake 3: Style

You should avoid using personal language or commanding the reader. Writing in the passive helps overcome both these problems, but it needs to be used with care.

Avoiding personal language

You should usually avoid using personal pronouns such as I and we. This is often achieved by using the passive rather than the active.

Informing rather than commanding the reader

Because students are aware of the need to avoid personal language and because of the language used in lab instructions, some students command the reader; for example, “attach the weight”. This form is called the ‘imperative’. This can also be avoided by using the passive.

See ‘Useful Downloads’ for more information on how to form the passive.

Useful Downloads

Need the software?PDF Reader

The rule of thumb should be that a person in a hurry should be able to read the Title, Summary/Abstract, Conclusions and Recommendations of a document and obtain a complete but undetailed overview of it.

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