Reading time: 3 minutes - The Methods Section is incredibly important for a Lab Report. Not only can a reader know exactly what you did in your experiment, but they should also be given enough information so that they can replicate your study.
We discuss the three main errors that students make in the Methods Section of a Lab Report, and how to easily avoid making those errors and massively boost the quality of your work.
The Error: Materials section sounds like the procedure section
The Methods section (at least in APA) has four sections: Participants, Materials, Procedure, Design & Analysis. These need to read like separate sections, and students often write the Materials and Procedure sections in pretty much the same way with the same content.
A Materials section should simply list the materials/apparatus used in the experiment. How can this sound like Procedure?
Firstly, you can put everything in order of use, and make this sound like Procedure. For example:
“The Happiness Questionnaire (Ashcroft, 2017) was used first, and then the Purpose Questionnaire (Kennedy, 2017)”
This puts the materials in an order. It sounds like Procedure.
“The Happiness Questionnaire (Ashcroft, 2017) was used, as well as the Purpose Questionnaire (Kennedy, 2017)”
Secondly, you can also go wrong by really focusing on the participants and what they did (if you had participants). For example:
“Participants firstly did the Happiness Questionnaire (Ashcroft, 2017), then the Purpose Questionnaire (Kennedy, 2017)”
This puts all the focus on the participants. The participants are at the start of the sentence. At the very least you want them at the end of the sentence (so that the material used is the focus).
It is quite possible that you won’t mention your participants at all.
The Error: Not enough information for replication
As mentioned earlier, a major point of the Methods section is that the reader is given enough information that they can fully replicate your study.
As a student, this just means you’ll get a good mark. As a researcher, this means people will understand your study and findings, and they may even replicate your work (getting you a lovely citation in the process).
Getting enough information into the Methods Section isn’t like walking a tightrope – where you’re balancing between too much information and not enough information. It’s a bit easier than that. It’s more like a reasonably wide path that you shouldn’t stray off.
The interesting thing is that what is important for replication changes across studies. For one study, the temperature of the environment might be rather unimportant (for example in a computer simulation). However, the temperature could be crucial (for example, when studying the melting rates of different ice cream brands).
Even such minor things as whether a participant used a pencil or pen could be utterly crucial for replication, or utterly irrelevant. Maybe you’re doing a study on people’s preference for using pens versus pencils. Well, this detail is now super important.
You need to ask yourself: “does this make a difference to the study and the results?”
In some of the examples above, temperature and pencil/pen could make a big difference to the study and the results. These things would all need to be mentioned in the Methods, then.
You also need to ask: “if I don’t mention this information, can another scientist still do a full replication of the study and expect to get similar results?
This question really helps you figure out what information is irrelevant. If you didn’t mention the colour of the carpet, another researcher would probably be able to replicate your study and expect to get similar results (unless you’re looking at carpet preference!).
Be as technical as possible but avoid things that aren’t relevant. Here’s an example of the information that would be necessary for a language-based psychology computer experiment -
What is on the screen? What’s the colour of things on the screen? How long are things on the screen? How far is the participant from the screen? What buttons does the participant press? What happens when the participant gets it correct? Are the conditions randomised? Are they counterbalanced? What happens between different trials? What instructions are the participants given?
My advice is to write in everything, and then go through the process of cutting out details that don’t really make a difference to the study or results. Then ask yourself whether you think someone could do a full replication based on the information you’ve given.
The Error: Missed opportunities
This is a broad category – there are a few key missed opportunities that I have in mind.
Firstly, people miss the opportunity to cite.
If you’ve just mentioned a questionnaire, you need to cite it. It shows the reader that you’re doing authoritative work with real tools. And it shows the marker that you’re diligent at what you do. Don’t miss that opportunity – it’s available in the Methods section and many people forget that.
Secondly, people miss the opportunity to use the Appendices.
The Appendices are where you can stick a lot of detailed information, and (usually) this costs you no word count at all. All you need is “see Appendix A” (in APA formatting).
Using the Appendix shows a few things. It shows that you know how to use an Appendix (an important skill, which may set you apart from the crowd). It also gives off the impression that you really know the study in a lot of detail. That’s an important impression to give. It also might get you the benefit of the doubt (BOTD), because if you’ve missed out a small detail in your Methods that is included in an Appendix, the marker may look kindly on you and either not dock marks, or dock fewer marks than if you didn’t have the safety net of an Appendix.
Thirdly, people miss the opportunity to be detailed.
Being detailed sets you apart from the crowd. If you used the software PsychoPy v1.83.7, I can guarantee that most students won’t even mention it, and another large bunch of students would only mention “PsychoPy”. Not you though. You’re going to mention PsychoPy v1.83.7 and then have a citation to the software too. Yes, you can often cite software nowadays.
If you take advantage of these three opportunities in the Methods section, your work will really stand out from the crowd.
You’re an absolute menace, reading stuff like this. Look out, research world!
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Sam and Brad
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