When you’re in college, and even in high school, your teachers and professors will ask you to communicate about your studies in the form of scholarly writing. In many subjects, scholarly writing can take the form of an academic report. These reports often mimic the formatting of the standard scholarly papers in your field. In this way, they act as training for your future career in research or academia. So it's important to take them seriously, format them correctly and dig into the research as if the study of that subject was your job.
What Are Academic Reports?
An academic report is a piece of writing produced for class that uses a formal style to convey information learned through reading and experimentation. Academic reports are a required part of many fields of study, including chemistry, physics, biology, sociology and even humanities like political science.
What differentiates an academic report from an essay is that an academic report focuses on presenting information obtained from research and reading rather than discussing opinions of other writers. Essentially, academic reports are more empirical.
Academic reports in various subjects share standard formatting guidelines. For example, all reports in the sciences must include certain subheadings. These subheadings correspond to the scientific method, and their inclusion makes the replication of experiments easier for other scientists during the process of peer review.
Unlike essays, academic reports can and should use different visual forms, such as graphs and tables. A report doesn't need to use a bibliography if it doesn’t refer to other texts for information. However, as a student, it's better to include background research because in most cases, you're not yet an expert in the field.
Know Your Assignment
Before you start writing, read your teacher’s assignment carefully. Many teachers include additional parameters for their assignments that you would not know by just reading a how-to on the internet. Make note of the parts of the assignment that you think you'll forget.
Your teacher’s instructions will most likely include their desired report writing format. If you’re writing a report in a subject you have been taking for a while, the teachers may assume that you already know the format they require. If you're unsure, ask your teacher for the specific requirements. You can also look at report writing samples online. Even if you already know the format, sometimes it's good to look at a visual example before you start writing. Don’t assume you have everything memorized. Assuming it's a quick way to make mistakes.
Determine Your Intent
After you understand your teacher’s instructions, figure out what you’re going to write about and how you’re going to write it. In other words, determine your report’s subject, purpose and intent.
Here’s an example: Your teacher has given you an assignment to create an experiment that uses chemistry to explain something in your environment. First, you would figure out what you want to explain. You might decide to study your town’s water quality. To determine your subject, write your idea in the form of a question. You might write: Is the water quality in our town potable according to EPA standards? Your report will use research and evidence to explain the answer to this question.
Read Up on Your Subject
Doing background research is an integral part of writing any report. Background research can prove the validity of your subject. It can also help you by giving you information you might have had to determine from research in the field. In other words, background research makes your field research easier and gives you less work in the long run.
To find previous research done on your subject, first, ask your school’s librarian which scholarly research portals are available on your school’s website. These portals, such as JSTOR and Wiley Online, allow you to access scholarly papers published on your subject without having to pay to read them. However, if your school doesn't have this option, next check with your local public library for free resources. Google Scholar is a good, free online alternative. But be wary of websites like Wikipedia that lack fact checking or peer review.
As you read, be sure to make a list of all of the papers you'll reference when you write. Even if you don't quote them directly, academic integrity requires you to make note of them in your works cited.
Find Something New
The next step in writing your report is to find new information. You already read up on your subject, so now it’s time to create an experiment to answer your question. As you work, write down every step you take. Everything you do will need to be noted in your report.
If you're investigating the water quality of your town, you might select a random sample of houses and ask those people if you could take a sample of water from their tap. After you have collected your samples, you would analyze them using your lab’s equipment and record the results. Use an appropriate method of statistical analysis to analyze those results. Then, create a visual representation of them with graphs and tables.
Methods of discovery for other subjects are similar. You might instead decide to analyze the rhetoric of a political candidate for your political science class. One way you could go about this is to determine the most common words the candidate uses while giving speeches. Tabulating these words and comparing them to the content and messages of the speeches themselves might give you plenty to analyze in a written report.
Outline Your Paper
After you have performed your experiments and collected data, now you need to arrange that information in a way that is both easy-to-read and appropriate for your field of study. If your report is for a class in the sciences, you'll probably need some variation of these subheadings: introduction, materials, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Sometimes abstracts and appendices are also included. Again, follow your teacher’s specific guidelines in order to know that you’ve gotten things right.
The introduction of your report will describe your reasons for conducting your experiment. It will answer this question: What motivated you to pursue the results of this experiment? The introduction will also summarize other parts of your paper.
The materials section is fairly simple. Under this subheading, you'll need to list the materials you used to perform your experiment. Make sure your list is accurate. The point of this section is to make it easier for other scientists to replicate your experiment.
The methods section is essentially a step-by-step guide on how to perform your experiment. If you think of your experiment like a dish, then the methods section is its recipe, giving instructions to other people, so they might perform your experiment, too.
The results section presents raw data as well as analyzed data. The results section will include tables and graphs. It can include some explanation, but it should not go into too much detail.
A detailed discussion of results is reserved for the next section, aptly called the discussion. The discussion section will explain your experiment’s results, and tell the reader why those results matter. The discussion section could also discuss the validity of the data and possible ways the experimenter would change their methods in order to get better, more satisfying or more accurate results.
The last part of your paper is the conclusion. Like in an essay, the conclusion summarizes the rest of the report. It also circles back to the introduction. It asks the question: Have the results of the experiment satisfied the reason it was pursued?
While you're creating your outline, address each of these required subheadings with a few bullet points. There's no need to go into great detail until you write the report itself.
How Do You Write a Book Report?
In some ways, writing a book report is very different from writing an academic report. While both require formal writing, writing a book report is often more like writing an essay about the book than it's like reporting academic findings. Book reports generally don't need sections, and they don't need to list procedures and the like. However, refer back to your assignment for specifics on how your teacher or professor would like your work completed.
Compose Your Report
While you're composing your report, be sure to maintain higher-level academic diction. Flesh out the ideas in your outline, offering explanation and further references were necessary.
In a scientific report, some of your sections will include more writing than others. For example, your materials section may just be a simple list. However, some teachers might require that you give an explanation for each item on your materials list, defining how it was used and discussing alternatives. The results section may also have a low word count, as it's mostly composed of numbers and graphs. The introduction, discussion and conclusion will be heaviest on verbiage and analysis. If you struggle with writing these sections, remember you're simply describing what you have done and why it matters. Also, don’t forget that your first draft will always be messy. You can fix small mistakes when you're revising.
Review and Revision
Once you finish the first draft of your report, read it over once yourself. Mark any place in the text that seems light on reasoning or explanation. Fill these places in before you do anything else.
After you have made additions and developed the content of your report, read it over again looking for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Correct these errors yourself, and then find a classmate, friend or teacher, and ask them to read your report, too. Make sure the person you ask is someone you can trust to give you a thorough critique. If your mother tells you that everything you write is perfect, she’s probably not the best choice for revision buddies.
Ask the person critiquing your report to make marks on your paper indicating mistakes or places with underdeveloped reasoning. Afterward, read what they have written and edit your paper accordingly. The best revision strategy is to ask more than one person to read all of your work. Having a variety of opinions will give you a more accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Before you turn in your report, give it one last look over. Do you see any grammatical mistakes? Have you included everything your teacher asked for in their assignment? If everything looks good, it’s time to print out the final draft of your work. Format your report according to your teacher’s guidelines. You can even go the extra mile by presenting it in a folder or clipping it into a binder. You have spent a lot of time and energy on this project, so treat your work with respect.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and freelance writer from Daytona Beach, Florida. Her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Glamour and elsewhere.