How to get a first in a physics lab report
A physics lab report can be a daunting task.
It’s difficult to understand what is expected from it, and lots of effort sometimes leads to an unsatisfactory mark. This was certainly true in my case, and it took me several attempts before I was finally happy with my grade.
As with most things, you not only need to work hard, but to work intelligently. After making these two small changes, my mark went up significantly to a first:
☆｡･:*:･ﾟ★｡･:*:･ﾟO N E｡･:*:･ﾟ★｡･:*:･ﾟ☆
Firstly, it is important to understand everything. This means doing your best to understand the physics surrounding the topic, to understand everything in your data, and not including a single sentence in the report which you are factually unsure about. It may seem obvious, but I made this mistake multiple times, and lost many marks as a result!
☆｡･:*:･ﾟ★｡･:*:･ﾟT W O｡･:*:･ﾟ★｡･:*:･ﾟ☆
The second key is to make it look nice. If a report looks great, it will get more marks. Take the time to plot the normalised residuals if they are relevant, don’t be scared to use colours and make sure the diagrams are formatted consistently. I once spent hours making beautiful graphs, but didn’t get credit for them due to the colours used (they made the diagram slightly unclear), so I also suggest to choosing colours which are distinct from each other. Work hard but also intelligently.
The following is a general overview of how I write my reports; a method I figured out using trial and error. Hopefully it can give you an idea of how to plan your own time:
1. Finish the lab work
Before doing anything else, finish all the necessary lab tasks and calculations. Plot all graphs as soon as you can, since this will also help you gain the most from your lab feedback session.
2. Understand everything from the lab
Next, it’s important to understand everything about your data. If the academic papers about your topic are initially too complicated, use textbooks (and even YouTube videos if you are really lost), and then move on to academic articles, taking note of any useful resources.
3. Journals journals journals
Now it’s time to figure out a story for your report. The aim is essentially to find a relevant and interesting idea to explore, which incorporates (and justifies the collection of) as much of your data as possible. The way to do this is through reading many academic papers on related topics. Once you have a proper understanding of your topic, it will be easy to think of a title and storyline for your report. If you’re struggling, you’re likely missing something in your understanding, so keep going with the research! From your choice of story, an academic will easily be able to gauge your understanding of the topic.
Now that you have the story, the writing part is relatively simple. Use the notes provided by lecturers as a checklist for what to include in the content, include references to textbooks and journals (avoid websites unless absolutely necessary) and just get on with it! It doesn’t have to be perfect in the first try, and once it’s written it’s easy to improve. I usually write the abstract last, since it is difficult to summarise the paper before writing it. Remember to include analysis into errors and methods used, and if you’re in second year, use chi-squared tests if relevant. You might as well show off all your knowledge!
Now that the writing is underway, it’s time for the most time-consuming part: the diagrams! As I said before, make the diagrams look good. Simplify the graphs by removing text from the graph into the figure captions, and ensure that the font size of the axis titles and numbers are the same as the figure caption font size. I like to fiddle around with the line thicknesses and colours, and make fancy diagrams to help explain complicated concepts.
6. Make it look pretty
Now the report is almost finished and it’s a matter of sorting out the finer details, such as aesthetics and referencing. Reports written using LaTeX are usually much nicer to look at, and I highly recommend it to any second years. Look at the complete report and fix anything which looks odd.
7. Print and show
Once you have finally finished your report, print it off and give it a read. Make changes to make it flow better, cut down words if you’re over the page limit and repeat the process until you’re happy with it. If possible, give it to a friend to read to make sure it all makes sense. Read the report again after a few days with fresh eyes to make sure you didn’t miss anything, and finally your lab report is finished! Time to celebrate! 😀
Overall, lab reports are a learning process and very few people do well in them initially, so don’t be discouraged! I’ve learned a lot through the process of writing them, and have also gained a much better appreciation for scientific literature and research.
I hope you found this useful! If you have any questions or tips of your own, feel free to comment below!
I’m just a student and my lab reports are by no means perfect! Different markers have different preferences, but this is what worked for me. Use this only as a supplement to the advice given by lecturers, hopefully it will help to get those extra marks!