Submitted by Adam Johnson / Harvey Mudd College on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 23:31

do you require research reports from your students?  If so, how extensive are they? what do you ask them to include?

I am attempting research reports for this summer and am getting push back, probably because I haven't done it before and I have no samples to show them.  What I was expecting is:

(1)    Broad lit review and introduction to your topic
(2)    Your experimental results
(3)    Discussion and conclusions
(4)    10-20 pages
(5)    due on last day of summer

most important, for me, is the results section.  I need a record of what they did this summer.  Second, for me, is the lit review, as I feel that the students should be able to handle that.  I don't expect much in the way of discussion or conclusions. 


Barbara Reisner / James Madison University

On paper, at JMU we require research reports from all of our students.  We don't have any problems getting them from summer research students because ALL faculty require that students turn in a paper and a present their research (either poster or talk).  There is a lot more push back during the academic year because different faculty have different expectations.  While most students present at our spring research symposium, fewer complete papers.  When I first got to JMU (2000) almost everyone completed a paper.  We went through a slow down, but recently paper writing has picked up.  Part of the reason for the uptick has been a renewed emphasis on publication and the participation of our students in this process.

I tell my students that one of my goals for them is to make a meaningful contribution to a project in my group so that they can be a co-author on a publication. Because of this expectation, they better understand why they have to write up stuff and usually become more invested in the project.

My expectations vary given the age (frosh or seniors) and length of time in my group.  Rather than write a new paper, I like to have students revise their previous papers from previous semesters.  That way they can put their progress (or lack thereof) in the context of what they've done in previous semesters.  I think that it's less intimidating to revise than to rewrite each semester.

  • Length. I never set any expectation on this one. I've seen papers range from 3-15 pages (excluding figures and data).
  • Due Date. In general, papers are due at the end of the semester (summer), although I expect to see  drafts at least 1-2 weeks before a paper is turned in. (I've gotten a bit lax about this as my workload has increased.) That way we can go back and forth about data presentation and analysis.
  • Contents. Results is by far the most important section.  I ask for a lit review and discussion as well although I am universally disappointed by these sections.  I find that most student prefer to use googlescholar or google rather than the resources (scopus and scifinder) that we use both when working together and when they take their literature and seminar class. I sometimes feel that I write the dicussion during the revision process.  I also require an abstract.

One resource that Igive my students is George Whitesides' essay Whitesides' Group: Writing a Paper (Whitesides, G. M. Adv. Mater. 2004, 16(15), 1375-1377.).  I've found that this article helps keeps my students (and I) on track.

Thu, 07/24/2008 - 04:46 Permalink
Joanne Stewart / Hope College

I tried something new this summer that worked very well. I had my research student start writing his intro (in Google Docs) during the first week. That way, it forced him to read all of the things I wanted him to read and "translate" them into an intro (with properly formatted citations!!). Because it was on Google Docs, I could provide frequent feedback.

Then about week 3 or 4 I had him start writing his experimental section, again in Google Docs. He updated it as he had new experiments to add.

Finally, I had him work on his "results and discussion" section during the second to last week. I realize that "results" and "discussion" are not the same thing, but all I want in this section is a brief text-based explanation of what he did and a brief interpretation of the results. It's more important to me that he write a REALLY good experimental section.

So now he has a final paper that has seen many revisions, and I'm not losing his most productive time (the end of the summer) to the paper.

Thu, 07/24/2008 - 15:35 Permalink
Adam Johnson / Harvey Mudd College

In reply to by Barbara Reisner / James Madison University

wow, that's a great paper, Barb.  Thanks for the reference.  Of course, its too late for me and for this summer, but I like the ideas you and Joanne had (using Googledocs, and revising previous papers instead of starting fresh).

Thu, 07/24/2008 - 18:09 Permalink
Nancy Williams / Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College

It sounds like what I ask for is similar, though I've never tried the great GoogleDocs idea! I would also agree on the import of a good experimental and results, and the near-universally lousy discussion. The Intro/Lit section I've found highly variable. Some do a fantastic job. Some need to be reminded that the literature exists. 

 I guess the main thing I do differently is I try to make it clear to my students (who aren't writing a thesis) that it should be relatively short. For a summer, unless they were unusually productive, 10 pages seems to be an upper limit-if they're producing more than that, there's likely a huge amount of fluff. 5 is possible in cases where the student has few experimental entries (often because (s)he troubleshot a few reactions all summer, and only needs the ones that worked). For a semester's research, 5-6 pages seems to (almost always) be adequate.

The trick is, then getting them to produce 5 pages of meat instead of the 5 pages of 75% filler.

Sat, 07/26/2008 - 16:28 Permalink
Joanne Stewart / Hope College

FYI, here's what the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT) guidelines say about research reports:

  "Research can satisfy up to four semester credit hours or six quarter credit hours of the in-depth course requirement for student certification and can account for up to 180 of the required 400 laboratory hours. A student using research to meet the ACS certification requirements must prepare a well-written, comprehensive, and well-documented research report including safety considerations. Although oral presentations, poster presentations, and journal article coauthorship are valuable, they do not substitute for the student writing a comprehensive report.
    Research performed during the summer or performed off-campus, even though it might not receive academic credit, may count toward student certification. In such cases, the student must prepare a comprehensive written report that a faculty member of the home institution evaluates and approves."

With some searching, there's a short and helpful document on the ACS web site about how to prepare this "comprehensive written report." The link is The recommended components are:

Experimental Details or Theoretical Analysis
Conclusions and Summary

The document then goes on to describe what goes into each of these sections. In the past, CPT has required departments to include sample student reports with their 5-year report. Although the reporting scheme for the new guidelines is not firmly in place, yet, I imagine they will continue to ask for these.

Sun, 02/08/2009 - 06:20 Permalink