Lab Reports and Scientific Papers: A Practical Reason for Understanding Rhetorical Situations, Part 1

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One of the basic concepts that college undergrads encounter in their rhetoric and composition classes is the idea of the rhetorical situation and the need to be able to correctly assess different rhetorical situations and to adapt their writing to fit them.

Simply put, rhetoric is using language to educate, entertain, inform, or persuade. A rhetorical situation consists of the circumstances in which you find yourself writing.  Factors which usually comprise a rhetorical situation include the writer, the purpose, the audience, the topic, and the culture in which you write.

Although a paper you might write for a humanities class and a biology class have some similarities (clarity, a well-supported thesis, specific support, and good grammar, for example), there are some differences based the different rhetorical situations brought on by writing within different disciplines.  It’s sometimes hard for students to understand why what one teacher wants in an assignment is not the same as what another one requires.  This sometimes seems arbitrary to them, but more often than not, it’s related to differences in the rhetorical situations brought about by writing in different academic disciplines which are their own discourse communities with their own rules and expectations.  Understanding those differences will help you do better on your assignments in the hard sciences.

The first area to look at is how lab reports and scientific papers are structured.  Scientific writing follows a very specific format.

Most lab reports and scientific papers are made up of the following parts: title page, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussions, and references.  The title page includes the name of the paper or experiment, the authors of the paper or students included in conducting the experiment, and the date.  The abstract summarizes the purpose, findings, and conclusions of the experiment whereas the introduction contains a statement of objectives and background information.  In the methods and materials section you should provide a list of the materials used and the procedures used for the experiment or study.  The results section contains the major findings of the study or experiment. You should include any calculations or data in this section.  Next, the discussions section is where you provide your interpretation or analysis of what you presented in the results section.  Finally, in the reference section you want to provide a full citation for any source material included in your paper or report.

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