An Instructor's Guide
To Engineering Lab Writing
Preparing a complete laboratory activity that includes the opportunity for students to write to learn is challenging and requires attention to many details, including preparation, delivery, and feedback. But, lab writing is an invaluable tool to build students' written communication skills, technical literacy, and encourage clarity and subtlety as they inquire about any topic.
This Instructor's Guide details the design of lab writing experiences, including
developing learning objectives to support both technical learning and writing ability
designing an effective and contextualized assignment
delivering an engaging and student-centered laboratory activity
providing lab writing-specific support to your students using the Student's Guide to Engineering Lab Writing
designing an assessment rubric that defines levels of performance and clarifies expectations, and
planning for feedback to improve student performance in future laboratory writing submissions.
An example laboratory that employs all of the best practices outlined here is provided below.
Crafting learning experiences for your students is a highly individual act that depends on you, your available equipment, your institutional support, and the time you have to devote to preparation. We hope that this Guide gives you some tools to meaningfully incorporate and support writing learning outcomes as you craft your own lab experiences.
An Instructional Design Example
This example outlines the instructional design for a first lab in a Mechanics of Materials course. The instructor decisions and tools are all described in detail so that another instructor might follow a similar approach that takes advantage of the best practices outlined in this guide, including
The topic for this example laboratory is creep, a time-dependent deformation that occurs under sustained loading. The experimentation is conducted using a simply supported beam loaded with fixed weights. Beam deflections are measured using a digital dial indicator.
The learning objectives for this lab are written based on the best practices outlined in the Learning Objectives page.
Writing Learning Objectives
The writing learning objectives for this laboratory were chosen according to the recommendations in this guide without modification. These objectives are not intended to be modified and they serve as the basis for writing instruction for an entire course or curriculum. Format, Results, and Analysis were the focus of this first lab, so that students would attempt a complete lab report but develop specific skills in presenting results using effective tables and plotted data and analyzing them to make statements about the quality of the results. The intention in future labs would be to further develop skills according to the other writing learning objectives.
The format, results, and analysis learning objectives are
Format - Demonstrate appropriate genre conventions, including organizational structure and format (i.e., introduction, body, conclusion, appendix, etc.).
Results - Illustrate lab data using the appropriate graphic/table forms.
Analysis - Analyze lab data using appropriate methods (statistical, comparative, uncertainty, etc.).
Technical Learning Objectives
The technical learning objectives chosen for this laboratory were relatively simple given that it is the first laboratory. Creep as a physical phenomenon appears in many situations in the built environment and requires relatively little understanding of mechanics quantities other than deformation, making it a useful topic to begin a lab-based course that will rely on the regular measurement of deformable objects.
The technical learning objectives for this lab are
Explain creep behavior.
Identify the function that best describes primary creep behavior.
Apply a trendline and use it to interpolate or extrapolate the physical response of a system.
Discuss the quality of deformation measurements.
The assignment for this lab follows the best practices described in the Assignments page. A memorandum, contextualized to be from a client requesting engineering services, provides the audience for the student's response in memorandum form, as well as an example of the memorandum genre for the student to mimic. Appended to the memorandum are more details addressing the laboratory report expectations that reference the writing and technical learning objectives described above.
Why is this important?
Describe where creep and relaxation considerations are important in common objects and more technical engineering works: bookshelves, ukulele (body creeps, strings relax, resulting in tuning going flat), retaining walls, prestressed concrete girders.
How does this relate to prior knowledge?
Reach back to physics for knowledge of Hooke's Law (F=kx) and measurement experience.
Ask about writing experiences in writing courses and prior science courses.
Provide (technical) information
A pre-lab lecture, using Socratic questioning, is used to develop the trends associated with creep and relaxation. Board material is prepared to address the technical learning objectives.
The laboratory experiment itself provides the experience upon which the students will build their understanding.
Stimulate critical thinking
Questioning is used throughout the lab to elicit student suggestions to build the experimental design (a detailed procedure, frequency of data collection, structure of table to collect the data) and predict behavior.
Because laboratories are natural places for inquiry, student exploration and questioning can be encouraged easily in these environments.
Provide opportunities to apply knowledge in a familiar context
Walk students through the development of the experiment, the analysis of the data using Microsoft Excel, and preparation of the lab report memorandum, including table and figure development and labeling.
Provide opportunities to apply knowledge in unfamiliar contexts
The expectation is that students will continue to use the writing skills developed in this lab in other labs throughout the term. They are asked to complete the lab by adding writing in the other sections (introduction, methods, discussion, conclusions), but they have been provided significant scaffolding of skills related to the target writing learning outcomes (format, results, analysis).
The structure of writing development throughout the course can be outlined for students in this lab as well, so they know that more instruction is coming.
Ultimately, the laboratory experiment was conducted according to the students' experimental design, developed through discussion.
Assessment Rubric Design and Application
A subset of the complete assessment rubric was used for grading. The rubric entries for the writing learning objectives were used without modification while performance criteria were written for the technical learning objectives so that a complete scoring rubric was created for the entire laboratory assignment. The rubric was provided with the assignment so students could anticipate how the report would be evaluated.
Feedback to the Student
Graded student work is shown here with feedback consistent with the recommendations on the Feedback page. This laboratory was specifically designed to introduce students to laboratory report writing with a focus on just three of the lab writing learning objectives. Thus, comments on sections related to other learning objectives (like introduction and conclusion) will be reserved for later labs.
Revise and resubmit was not offered for this assignment, but could be offered if the quality of student work broadly does not meet expectations.
Peer review was not used in this case, but is an excellent instructional practice. Asking students to apply a scoring rubric to another student's work ensures that they learn to review the rubric, apply it to their own work, and produce better work as a result, making the most of the instructor's effort to prepare a detailed rubric. It is particularly effective in early labs (like this one) to build good habits.
Preparing a complete laboratory activity that includes the opportunity for students to write to learn is challenging and requires attention to many details, including preparation, delivery, and feedback. But, it is an invaluable tool to build students' written communication skills, technical literacy, and encourage clarity and subtlety as they inquire about any topic.
This page has detailed the design of a complete laboratory module, including
Crafting learning experiences for your students is a highly individual act that depends on you, your available equipment, your institutional support, and the time you have to devote to preparation. We hope that this page has given you some tools to meaningfully incorporate and support writing learning outcomes as you craft your own lab experience.
How is this Guide Different than Other Resources?
This guide has been created to promote lab writing instruction and support engineering instructors new to lab teaching with best practices in all aspects of instructional design for laboratory teaching. A Student's Guide to Engineering Lab Writing, based on the same learning objectives and laboratory report organization, allows an instructor developing their labs with the approaches outlined here to find consistency in both content and organization.
What about AI Writing Tools Like ChatGPT?
Artificial intelligence tools and large language models like ChatGPT are disrupting traditional writing instruction. This guide is intended to support instructors who teach early engineering lab courses, but the tools to support writing instruction are changing dramatically along with the tools students use to write. This Guide will be updated regularly to address changes in this space to address
how students can and should use AI writing tools
how instructors can incorporate AI writing tools ethically and effectively in the classroom
how instructors can use AI tools to better support students, like offering immediate feedback using purpose-trained AI
You can find more guidance on using ChatGPT for teaching engineering lab writing on our dedicated page.
There are textbooks intended to support student science writing and laboratory report writing:
Katie C. Russell, Jeffrey Donnell, Sheldon Jeter (2022) Writing Style and Communication Skills for Undergraduate Engineers, 5th Edition. Available at: http://www.collegepublishing.us/textbooks
Michael Alley (2018) The Craft of Science Writing. Available at: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4419-8288-9
A companion website for Michael Alley's book is available at: https://www.craftofscientificwriting.org/teaching.html