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Julia Metzker, Georgia College
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Advice on teaching (and grading) lab report writing

I am currently in the trenches grading many general chemistry and inorganic lab reports.  I wonder what strategies you use to teach and grade reports.  I provide students with detailed guidelines and a grading rubric.  They seem to have no problem following the format but they still struggle with presenting a logical analysis of their results that lead them to a viable conclusion.

I am currently struggling with the best way to provide good examples of abstracts and spectroscopic analyses.  The examples I have are either do the analysis for them (previous lab reports) or are difficult for them to understand (literature papers).  I would appreciate hearing other's experiences, resources! I also welcome any comments suggestions on my guidelines and rubric (linked above).

 Thank you and happy Turkey day!

Julia Metzker
Georgia College & State University

Joanne Stewart, Hope College
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Julia,

Seems like you're ahead of many of us with your well-written guidelines and rubric. Thanks for sharing them!

The key to good student writing is, of course, rewriting. And I think it is also effective to focus on one part of the report at a time.

In my inorganic lab, I ask students to turn in just their experimental section a week before their first full report is due. I mark them up and return them so they can make the corrections in their full report. If I were better organized and didn't get buried as the semester goes on, I would do this for the discussion section of their next report and the abstract of their final report. (We do 3-4 multiweek projects during the semester.)

There are three other things we do in some of our lab classes that I think are effective:

1) Provide a complete, well-written sample report for the first lab (although this may be "doing it" for them, I think the amount of learning it provides outweighs other concerns).

2) Have the students "review" well written and poorly written sample reports in small groups, then debrief with the whole class.

3) Have students anonymously peer review one another's reports. (I think doing this one time during the semester is enough.)

I hope people find these suggestions useful. I would love to hear from others.


Nancy Scott Burke Williams, Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College
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Joined: 11/17/2007 - 10:57am

I've often struggled with the same. A rubric and clear guidelines are "no brainer" solutions in the sense that I think they are the only way to fly, but are far from "no brainers" in the sense that they take real thought and time to make good ones. If you have 'em, you're cooking with gas. If you don't, well, think two sticks and kindling. Unfortunately, in the heat of the semester, I rarely have the time to be ahead of the game, and end up constructing these things ad hoc

In semesters in which the teaching load is lighter, I can actually work with real rubrics and clear previously expressed expectations, and it makes a huge difference (I've done the control experiment, in other words).  

In our organic lab, we have recently gone to a "communications format" in which they download a template much like what you would use for JACS, and they write a report. They have detailed (too detailed! They don't read it all!) instructions, and they have the rubric in advance. These reports also have a "draft" built in (alas, only one), as Joanne suggests. The drafting is...OK. It's the only way to go, but, frankly, most students don't use it well. Their conception of a "revision" is to correct everything specifically mentioned in red, and not a comma nor semicolon further.

I think the next time I teach that course, I want to add a criterion in the rubric: "Degree to which the author reimagined and rethought the draft beyond  those suggestions explicitly made by the grader."

That's my only experience with drafting, and I'm tempted to try more extensive drafting in our Inorganic Synthesis Lab this spring. I think I might get very different approaches to drafting and student peer-editing in a chemistry elective than we get in our pre-med cattle-call that is Ochem.

I like Joanne's idea about focusing on part of the report at a time-we've had mixed success with that in ochem. The reports improve, but we're still not really happy with the outcome. Part of the problem (again, this is partly a sophomore issue) is that the students resist creating a partial report. Trying to get them to just write an experimental section has a tendency to turn into a slightly-shorter-than-normal full lab report with extra experimental details.

As for writing good abstracts or analysis-abstracts to my thinking just require a lot of practice. Analysis is a tougher problem, because it requires a deeper level of understanding of the lab than most students (again, speaking of first years and sophomores) will acquire. We have been working for several years to find a way to get our students to think in lab (or before...or after)...about the lab, but so far all our attempts have come to naught. In other words, it seems like, at leas in our case, the analysis isn't in their heads, so it's not surprising it doesn't show up on paper. Somehow we've sent the message to our students that lab is a place you do, not think and I don't know where to intercept that message (though if anyone has any ideas, I'd be excited to hear them).

Hilary Eppley, DePauw University
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And from the responses, obviously something a lot of us have struggled with. Back in the day when I got to teach an upper level inorganic lab, I did a variation of the "add a new section" each time they do a new lab report, starting with the experimental section and working through the other sections of the report. The abstract was one that always caused the students difficulty, so the last time I taught this class, I waited until about midterms or so, and actually had them look at several abstracts from the literature and talk about what was included in those and what was not included as a class before making an attempt to write one for one of their labs. I think the in-class discussion did lead to better abstracts overall, even though we were using relatively complicated examples from the literature (though we had looked at literature papers several times before this in the course). I'll see if I can find my handout for that and post it if people would find it helpful. --Hilary
Julia Metzker, Georgia College
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Joined: 05/02/2008 - 4:17pm

Hilary, I would like to see your handout if you find it! I have found the rubric and guidelines very useful for those students that take the time to read them.  For the others, they only learn from the feedback I give them on their reports, which is time consuming and not as timely as I would like :(.