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Structuring a report

A key feature of reports is that they are formally structured in sections. You need to understand the function of each section of your report so that you can structure your information appropriately.

Click on the tabs below for examples of sections commonly used in reports and a description of the purpose of that section.

Abstract

This is sometimes called the Summary or Executive Summary. It is a short overview, to help the reader to make an informed decision about whether to read the whole report. The length depends on the extent of the work but it is usually a paragraph or two and always less than a page.

Think of an abstract as a series of short answers to questions. For example:

• What is the purpose of the work?
• What methods did you use for your research?
• What were the main findings and conclusions reached?
• Did your work lead you to make any recommendations for future actions?

Introduction

The Introduction may also be called Background or Context. Explain the rationale behind the work, what you have been asked to do (or what you have chosen), the reasons for doing it and the background.

State what the report is about. What question are you trying to answer? If it is a brief for a specific reader (e.g. a feasibility report on an AI project for a client), say who they are. Describe your starting point and the background to the subject, explaining the research that has already been done.

If you have been asked to include a Literature Survey later in the report, you only need a brief outline of previous research in the Introduction. State the relevant themes and issues. Why are you being asked to investigate them now?

Explain how you are going to respond to the brief. If you are going to test a hypothesis in your research, include this at the end of your introduction. Include a brief outline of your method of enquiry. State the limits of your research and reasons for them, for example: ‘Research will focus on native English speakers only, as a proper consideration of the issues arising from speaking English as a second language is beyond the scope of this project.'

 

Literature survey

Also called a Literature Review or Survey/Review of Research, it provides the background to your research. It is a survey of books, journals, authoritative websites and sometimes conference papers that have been published on the topic of your report. It should only include studies that have direct relevance to your research.

A literature survey should be written like an essay in a discursive style, with an introduction, main discussion grouped in themes, and a conclusion.

Introduce your review by explaining how you went about finding your materials, and any clear trends in research that have emerged. Group the texts you found in themes. Write about each theme as a separate section, giving a critical summary of each piece of work and showing its relevance to your research.

Conclude with how the review has informed your research (things you'll build on, gaps you'll fill etc).

 

Methods

Also called Methodology. The Methods section is a factual account of the activities you used to collect your evidence. You are stating facts. Write your Methods section in such a way that a reader could follow your description to replicate your research.

State clearly how you carried out your investigation. Explain why you chose this particular method (questionnaires, focus group, experimental procedure etc), including techniques and any equipment you used. If there were participants in your research, who were they? How many? How did you select them?

Write this section concisely but including all essential details. Say what you did, step by step, including everything that is relevant.

 

Results

(Also called Data or Findings) In this section, you state your findings. Use the format that will achieve this most effectively, e.g. text, graphs, tables or diagrams.

Think about how the data will look to the reader. Choose one format and don't repeat the same information in two forms. Label your graphs and tables clearly. Give each figure a heading and describe what the figure demonstrates.

Writing in this section should be clear, simple and informative. Save your interpretation of the results for the Discussion section.

 

Discussion

The Discussion places your evidence in the context of the background. It will probably be the longest section and may take the most time to write.

Here, you bring everything together. You show how your findings relate to the brief and the previous research in your literature survey. Write in a discursive style. You need to discuss the reasons for your findings, using evidence from previous research to back up your explanations.

You can mention if there were any problems (for instance, if your results were different from expectations, you couldn't find important data, or you had to change your method or participants). Explain how they were or could have been solved.

 

Conclusion

The conclusion is a short section with no new arguments or evidence. Sum up the main points of your research. How do they answer the original brief?

This section may also include recommendations for action and suggestions for further research.

 

 

Reports for different briefs require different sections, so always remember to check carefully any instructions you've been given.

Activity

This quiz contains 8 multiple choice questions. You should read the short extracts from reports and decide which section of the report it belongs to.

Click on the question headers below to proceed:

Question 1

Which section of the report is this from?

"There were several barriers identified by the pharmacists to Informed Shared Decision Making (ISDM). One major barrier was perceived lack of collaboration between pharmacists and physicians. Some of the pharmacists said that they were often reluctant to intervene because physicians were not receptive to their interventions. The current literature agrees with this point of view, suggesting that most pharmacist-physician relationships in the community setting are not at a stage to allow seamless interdisciplinary collaboration. However it was surprising to find such a large number of pharmacists from the hospital category also express lack of teamwork as a barrier"

Kassam, R., Volume-Smith, C., and Albon, S.P. (2008). "Informed Shared Decision Making: An exploratory study in pharmacy". Pharmacy Practice, 6(2), 57-67

Correct!

This can be identified as part of a discussion section: it explains the results of the experiment, linking it back to similar findings in the background literature, and offering a judgement about the results, "it was surprising to find..." The writing style is analytical and explanatory with longer sentences.

 

Incorrect!

This can be identified as part of a discussion section: it explains the results of the experiment, linking it back to similar findings in the background literature, and offering a judgement about the results, "it was surprising to find..." The writing style is analytical and explanatory with longer sentences.

 

Question 2

Which Section of the report is this from?

"In the fatal accident case outlined, health and safety legislation had been at best misunderstood and at worse ignored. Consideration of fundamental aspects of health and safety planning under the Construction Design and Management Regulations (1994) was clearly lacking, with deficiencies apparent at both pre-contract and sitework stages. Moreover, there was disregard to fundamental health, welfare and safety provision under current legislation".

Griffith, A. (2004). "Health and Safety Planning for Demolition Projects". Construction Information Quarterly, 6(1), 3-8.

Correct!

This is a conclusion: it is making a final summing up of the findings of the report. The style is direct and clear, with one main conclusion per sentence.

 

Incorrect!

This can be identified as part of a discussion section: it explains the results of the experiment, linking it back to similar findings in the background literature, and offering a judgement about the results, "it was surprising to find..." The writing style is analytical and explanatory with longer sentences.

 

Question 3

Which Section of the report is this from?

"During the first 33 weeks, the mean weight decreased among those who completed the course by 5.0kg (6.5%) in women (p<0.001) and 11.1kg (8.25%) in men (p<0.001). The initial weight loss was maintained during the first year, but during the second year some of the body weight was regained (1.2kg among women and 6.5kg among men). However, at 2 years the mean weight was still significantly decreased by almost 4% in both sexes".

Andersson, K., and Karlström, B., Petersson, H., Öhrvall, M., and Zethelius, B. (2008). " A Two-Year Clinical Lifestyle Intervention Program for Weight Loss in Obesity". Food Nutrition and Research, 52.

Correct!

This is taken from a results section: it describes the results of the experiment; no explanations are given in this section, as that comes in the discussion. The style of writing is direct, clear, and simply describes the findings.

Incorrect!

This is taken from a results section: it describes the results of the experiment; no explanations are given in this section, as that comes in the discussion. The style of writing is direct, clear, and simply describes the findings.

Question 4

Which Section of the report is this from?

"Tourism-led development is clearly an emerging theme in South African Local Economic Development (LED) (Rogerson, 1997, 2001), with tourism promotion geared towards community development being perceived as a viable growth option (Goudie et al., 1999; Kirsten and Rogerson, 2002; Mahoney and van Zyl, 2002). However despite the prominence accorded to tourism in South Africa's broad development vision and in many local level strategies, as Rogerson notes, in studies of LED '...tourism-led LED is markedly under-represented and little discussed' (Rogerson, 2002: 1)".

Binns, T., and Nel, E. (2002). "Tourism as a Local Development Strategy in South Africa". The Geographical Journal, 168(3), 235-47.

Correct!

This can be identified as an introduction or literature review section: it compares and contrasts the previous findings of other researchers. The writing style is analytical, as it does not just summarise the research, but notes trends and also gaps.

Incorrect!

This can be identified as an introduction or literature review section: it compares and contrasts the previous findings of other researchers. The writing style is analytical, as it does not just summarise the research, but notes trends and also gaps.

Question 5

Which Section of the report is this from?

"Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect. We studied this effect with emotionally relevant materials and investigated whether testing facilitates learning only because tests offer an opportunity to restudy material. In two experiments, students studied prose passages and took one to three immediate free-recall tests, without feedback, or restudied the material the same number of times as the students who received tests. Students then took a final retention test 5 min, 2 days, or 1 week later. When the final test was given after 5 min, repeated studying improved recall relative to repeated testing. However, on the delayed tests, prior testing produced substantially greater retention that studying, even though repeated studying increased students' confidence in their ability to remember the material. Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it".

Roeduger, H.L., and Karpicke, J.D. (2006). "Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention". Psychological Science, 17, 249-55.

Correct!

This is an abstract: it offers a one paragraph summary of the whole experiment. The style is concise and informative because a lot of information needs to be conveyed in few words. There is one sentence describing the context, methods, results, and conclusions.

Incorrect!

This is an abstract: it offers a one paragraph summary of the whole experiment. The style is concise and informative because a lot of information needs to be conveyed in few words. There is one sentence describing the context, methods, results, and conclusions.

Question 6

Which Section of the report is this from?

"Sixteen crabs were fasted for 24 hours and then tested. In control tests, seawater was used on both sides of the Y-maze. each crab was allowed to acclimate in the maze for 8-12 hours and then tested with the effluent and seawater control. This was then repeated for the other muscle species about 10 hours later. Initial response tests were completed within 24 days".

Ristvey, A., and Rebach, S. (1999). "Enhancement of the Response of Rock Crabs (Cancer irrotatus) to Prey Odors following Feeding Experience". Biological Bulletin, 197(3), 361-67.

Correct!

This is a method section: it is a concise, step-by-step description of how the experiment was conducted. The sentences are short and to the point, with no unnecessary description.

 

Incorrect!

This is a method section: it is a concise, step-by-step description of how the experiment was conducted. The sentences are short and to the point, with no unnecessary description.

Question 7

Which section of the report is this from?

"It may at first seem somewhat surprising that acid-charcoal treatment has so little effect on the structure of serum albumin, since this protein undergoes a molecular unfolding at acid pH which exposes hydrophobic residues to the solvent, and charcoal has a tremendous affinity for such hydrophobic surfaces. A possible explanation may be that at acid pH charcoal particles do in fact become tightly "coated" with albumin which is not substantially released. Lau et al. (37) have shown that albumin treated Norit has different absorptive properties than does untreated charcoal."

Chen, R.F. (1967). "Removal of Fatty Acids from Serum Albumin by Charcoal Treatment". Journal of Biological Chemistry, 242, 173-81.

Correct!

This is a discussion: it offers an explanation for the results of the experiment. It also ties these findings back to the literature from the introduction. The prose style is longer and expresses judgements, offers explanations for these and backs them up with evidence.

Incorrect!

This is a discussion: it offers an explanation for the results of the experiment. It also ties these findings back to the literature from the introduction. The prose style is longer and expresses judgements, offers explanations for these and backs them up with evidence.

Question 8

Which Section of the report is this from?

"It may at first seem somewhat surprising that acid-charcoal treatment has so little effect on the structure of serum albumin, since this protein undergoes a molecular unfolding at acid pH which exposes hydrophobic residues to the solvent, and charcoal has a tremendous affinity for such hydrophobic surfaces. A possible explanation may be that at acid pH charcoal particles do in fact become tightly "coated" with albumin which is not substantially released. Lau et al. (37) have shown that albumin treated Norit has different absorptive properties than does untreated charcoal."

Fong, T., Nourbakhsh, I., and Dautenhahn, K. (2003). "A Survey of Socially Interactive Robots". Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 42, 143-66.

Correct!

This is taken from an introduction: it gives a brief overview of the context of the report, and also mentions a previous body of research on which this experiment will build. Although the introduction gives a general overview, it is targeted to the specific experiment, and is not too broad.

Incorrect!

This is taken from an introduction: it gives a brief overview of the context of the report, and also mentions a previous body of research on which this experiment will build. Although the introduction gives a general overview, it is targeted to the specific experiment, and is not too broad.

 

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