Friday, May 31, 2013

Stop Assigning Lab Reports!!!

The lab reports in most science classes are probably the most destructive exercises in all of science education. It seems like a good idea to get the students writing, but it is never good to make them practice doing things wrong, and the common lab report is almost always full of assigned wrongs.

It has been my experience that students are always confused when they move between disciplines and between professors about what is expected on lab reports.  Citation formats, what to include, what to leave out all change with discipline and the specific class. The problem is that each discipline and each professor has their own format emphasizing specific learning objectives (LO). The seemingly logical and irresistible temptation is to assign a report style perfectly tailored to the exercises specific LO’s. For example, if a lab requires a Bradford protein assay, do the students include details on how the procedure is done, the data table and the graph showing the standard curve or do they just report the protein concentration in the context of the experiment? Pedagogically, if one is teaching Bradford assays, one might be tempted to make the students include all of that in the results. However, this teaches students to put material in the results that is never in a real journal article. If you need to check student proficiency of these specifics then why not ask the student to put this in a supplemental section at the end of the report so that the student knows that this is supplemental and never core to writing up their science?

The result of these sorts of mistakes is that when the student moves on, the next teacher has to re-educate students on the next class’s lab report style. Worse still, is that we all get stuck making graduate students unlearn lab report writing before they can move onto proper manuscript writing. 

Why don’t we all agree to always have our science students use a journal manuscript format for all lab reports? Why not ask students to write their reports as manuscripts for submission to a relevant journal that we have pre-selected. I am now giving students a specific journal format to follow and pointing them to the instruction to authors section for direction when I assign a lab manuscript. These formats are all on line and freely available. By looking at model papers in these journals for guidance, they will find examples of what to include and what not to include in a general and universal way. If I want them to include something that is not routinely included I tell them to put it into a supplemental section so that they know it is extra.  Students will also see that there are different citation formats for different journals and that they need to adhere to the one for that journal.  If physicists send students to physics journals, chemists to chemistry journals, ecologists to ecology journals then the approach would be consistent across disciplines and students would understand why differing citation and other formats are being assigned in different labs.

The one rule I have found with this style of lab reports is to have a ZERO tolerance for breaking format. The only effective way I have ever made the majority of students reference properly is to return reports with ill formatted or bad references with zero credit and telling them to redo it and resubmit. The same policy is the probably the only way to teach the method format. The inevitable protest will be “but it is just the references!” or “a zero for not abbreviating authors names!!?”.  If you do not take it seriously and give allocate a small portion of a grade for formatting, then the students will not take it seriously either.  The answer to these protests is that any professional editor will make you do it again, so get used to it. Following a publication format is what one has to do to publish anything anywhere. In other words, make it authentic. The practical advice for this kind of assignment is that the policy absolutely requires that manuscripts be submitted with enough time for resubmissions remaining at the end of the semester (at least two weeks for first submission date prior to end of term).

By writing in real publication style, the students will see that there are different formats and understand that these formats must be adhered to in the real world. Most importantly, Writing up lab experiments would become authentic practice and not create bad habits that we have to unteach them later.