October 2020

Yanisa Haley Scherber, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

According to Open Doors (2019), which is a research organization funded by the U.S. Department of State, engineering is the number one university major chosen by international students in the United States. Despite this fact, many universities do not offer or require academic writing courses specifically catered to the unique needs of international engineering students, who may have limited exposure to the academic writing requirements expected of undergraduates in the United States.

It is with this in mind that I have developed the following moves structure analysis, which is a detailed analysis of a particular genre intended to acquaint learners with the prototypical structure expected of that genre and is broken down into specific steps or “moves” (Swales, 1990). In this analysis, I have examined the undergraduate engineering lab report genre. It is my intent that this analysis helps deconstruct the undergraduate-level lab report genre for future use in a university setting. Ideally, the forthcoming analysis would be used to contribute to an Academic Writing for Engineers course or an entire English for EngineersBridge/Pathway program that is intended for second language writers within a university’s College of Engineering; however, the analysis and information provided in this article may be adapted to meet varying curricular needs, on which I will elaborate.

Structure of Moves

To facilitate the creation of this moves structure analysis, authentic lab reports within the fields of mechanical, civil, and environmental engineering were sampled from the Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers, which consists of student papers from undergraduates in upper division courses or graduate students in their early years of graduate study. For this specific analysis, two undergraduate reports and one graduate report were sampled. An outline of the moves structure condensed from these documents follows:

1. Title Page (optional)

a. Title of report

b. Memo-style (optional)

2. Summary/Abstract (optional)

a. Background/motivation for completing the experiment

b. Brief summary and description of the experiment and procedures

c. Concluding statement(s) with the findings and interpretation of these findings

3. Introduction

a. Heading labeled as Introduction

b. Motivations for completing this experiment

c. Review of literature and current understanding (optional)

i. Recent or relevant findings

ii. Figures (if necessary)

d. Experiment design (required overall, but optional to be contained within the introduction section)

i. Detailed procedure/steps completed in the experiment (required overall, but optional in the introduction section—the level of detail of this procedural information should be congruent with the following Procedures section so that a detailed account is included but not redundant)

ii. Information on the lab members and their roles in the experiment (optional)

iii. Statement of purpose of the document (optional)

4. Experiment Design and Procedures (required overall, but information on the experiment design may optionally be included in the introduction section instead)

a. Heading

i. Various titles accepted, but they must label the structure of the following section appropriately (e.g. Procedures, Methodology)

b. Reference to previous methods/research (optional)

c. Methodology/official standards and specifications followed (optional)

i. Heading (optional)

ii. Name of corresponding specifications (e.g., ASTM C-193, ASTM C-196)

iii. Additional details on how the specifications were used for this particular experiment (optional)

d. Procedures (required overall, but optional here if it has been provided in the introduction section)

i. Numbered or bulleted (optional)

e. Formulas used and explanations of these formulas (optional)

f. Calibration of instruments (optional)

g. Proposed new method/research design (if necessary)

5. Data Results and Analysis

a. Heading

i. Various titles accepted, but they must label the structure of the following section appropriately (e.g., Data Results, Data Results & Analysis)

b. Figures and tables with required in-text descriptions; optionally included below-figure/table descriptions

c. Clear statement of results

d. Discussion of findings (required overall, but optional in the results section)

i. Researcher interpretation of the results

ii. Limitations (if any)

6. Discussion of Findings (required overall, but optional as a new section—the level of detail of this discussion information should be congruent with the preceding Results and following Conclusion sections so that a discussion of the findings is included overall but not redundant)

a. Heading labeled as Discussion

b. Researcher interpretation of the results

c. Limitations (if any)

7. Conclusion

a. Heading labeled as Conclusion or Conclusions

i. An additional topic (e.g., Conclusion & Recommendations) (optional)

b. Reiteration of the experiment goal(s) and findings

c. Recommendations for future research (optional)

8. References (optional)

As can be observed from the preceding structure analysis, this genre is customizable within somewhat established bounds, and many of the elements of the undergraduate lab report are listed as optional. However, I would like to emphasize that this structure should be viewed from a more integrated (rather than sequential) perspective. By taking an integrated approach (i.e., looking at the structure holistically and not as a list of individual items), this configuration of optional and required components can be negotiated to fit the needs of the specific experiment and wants of the individual student, in order to develop a cohesive lab report. Additionally, many of the components listed as optional are, in fact, required somewhere within the document, but the locations of such information can vary, which results in the “optional” classification of many components. For example, Section 4d (information on the experiment’s procedures) is required in either Section 3 (Introduction) or Section 4 (Experiment Design and Procedures), but it is optional in this specific location (Section 4d). On the other hand, there are some components which appear truly optional, such as a title page (Section 1).

Though having such a detailed structure with many optional components may create a challenge for students to determine which (if any) optional steps to include and where to include certain information, I believe this is a useful challenge for this group of students, as it will likely help develop students’ critical thinking skills and get them into an “engineering mindset.” Additionally, this would also give students an opportunity to have more agency in their writing, which can help implicitly teach these students that there is more than one way to complete their future lab reports.

Teaching Suggestions

As stated previously, this moves structure analysis was originally developed for an English for Engineers Bridge/Pathway program or an Academic Writing for Engineers standalone course, but I believe this analysis could also be used in academic writing courses of differing programs and needs, such as for intensive English programs throughout the United States, regular one-on-one tutoring for international engineering students, or EFL programs designed to prepare engineering students to attend universities in the United States or another English-dominant country. Within these programs or tutoring settings, the analysis could be used to facilitate a career exploration into the engineering field for younger students or as a supplementary guide for students who may already have an engineering background but are looking to take engineering coursework in English or to work for an engineering company that communicates in English. This analysis would likely be beneficial for high-intermediate or above level students who are interested in using English in their future engineering pursuits.

In particular, I do recommend using this moves structure analysis as a medium for more detailed instruction, as opposed to solely providing this as a guide without instruction or explanation. Perhaps the latter method would be beneficial for some students, but overall, I believe the highest level of success can be achieved from using this moves structure analysis as a starting point for introducing this new genre, with instruction supplemented by authentic undergraduate lab report or academic writing samples.

From a practical perspective, one of the most important considerations to remember when teaching this genre is to avoid teaching it too formulaically. Given that the format of the structure analysis already implies a very formulaic nature to the genre, it is important that teachers communicate how choice, agency, and creativity can still be incorporated to avoid any inaccurate interpretations of the steps as rigid rules by early learners. This can be managed by showing samples of lab reports that differ in structure, writing style, language proficiency, experiment type, and/or length.

This structure analysis could be used for units of varying length. For example, a shorter unit (e.g., 1–2 weeks) could focus on the lab report genre as a whole and how it is used in the engineering field; a full unit (e.g., 3–5 weeks) could add additional focus to academic writing and language; and a full course (e.g., one semester) could be designed to contain three units: academic writing and language overview as Unit 1, Sections #1–4 (Title Page, Summary/Abstract, Introduction, Experiment Design and Procedures)as Unit 2, and Sections #5–8 (Data Results and Analysis, Discussion of Findings, Conclusion, References) as Unit 3, culminating to the final course project of a full lab report. In my example of the full course, Sections 1–4 and 5–8 were separated because Sections 1–4 are conducted prior to the experiment, and Sections 5–8 are conducted postexperiment; however, the exact direction of instruction could vary based on the needs of the students. Additionally, following are some sample activities which could be adapted to any of the above unit lengths:

  • Peer review of sections or an outline of a lab report
  • Cut up sections of sample lab reports and have students rearrange them in small groups, then go over each sample as a class
  • Provide sections of a lab report to small groups and have them identify where the various moves are, and if any (optional or required) moves are absent
  • Explain or conduct a sample experiment and have students outline which moves should be used and in what order, either individually or in small groups
  • Small group discussions on which optional moves would be required in which types of experiments


This article provided a sample moves structure analysis of the undergraduate lab report genre for international engineering students to be used in the classroom. In addition, I provided some elaboration and suggestions on how to utilize this analysis in the classroom. This analysis may be beneficial in multiple teaching environments, and I suggest that it be used as a material which is expanded upon in a classroom environment, ideally incorporating many samples of authentic undergraduate or academic writing.


Open Doors. (2019, November 18). Fields of study. https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Data/International-Students/Fields-of-Study

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press.

Yanisa Haley Scherber is working on her MA in applied linguistics and TESOL at the University of Alabama. Her experience includes working as a writing center tutor; teaching first-year composition; teaching ESOL at a community college, university, and community-language program; and teaching in an international teaching assistant (ITA) program.