Teaching undergrads how to read scientific journal articles

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By one of those funny coincidences, a day after we spent a science literacy class in iSci discussing some of the nuances of reading a scientific paper, Rob Weir’s ‘It’s not Harry Potter appears in Inside Higher Ed detailing the same thing.

In the program, students are thrown into the deep-end of information research very quickly, and are expected to begin combing scientific articles in first year. As a result, we hear cries of: “I don’t know how to read this!” In response, we delivered two classes on this topic.

Part I

In the first class, I adapted the activity from How to Read Scientific Research Articles: A Hands-On Classroom Exercise by Bogucka and Wood (2009). In preparation for the class, I tracked down papers from a number of disciplines that had an explicit introduction, methods, conclusion, discussion format. I then carefully cut these papers up into sections, and distributed each section to students in such a way that pairs (or individuals) had one section of one paper.

This individual ‘bit’ of the paper became fodder for a series of questions I presented on a handout, designed to get the students thinking about what kind of information was in that section, and how much they could understand of the overall paper.

[scribd id=50951177 key=key-hv11rdnv3byjmps42ee mode=list]

After this, they were asked to sit in groups that formed all of the sections of the larger paper, and discuss what they could glean from each section, eventually putting the paper together in a cohesive whole.

The activity culminates in a discussion of what sections provide the most context, and how we can use this information to decide on how we might tackle reading a paper — what order of reading would be most efficient?

Part II

We heard some feedback that while the activity in Part I gave insight into the order in which to read a paper, it didn’t actually help with the inherent problem of trying to read the text. As a result, we decided to try something a little different in Part II. For this class, students were asked to bring in scientific papers that were relevant to the research they were doing for their current project.

Using a series of instructions and leading questions (see the Prezi, below), we asked them to think about motivations (why did you choose this paper), barriers (what will hinder your understanding), paper elements (find the purpose, hypothesis, important result, etc.) and finally the relevance of the paper to their research.

Along the way, we tried to drop-in advice and hints not unlike what Weir suggested. The ‘small doses’ suggestion is important, I think. In addition, I think ‘don’t sweat the stuff you can’t understand’ is worth mentioning. Students can too-easily get bogged down in all the parts of a paper that are above their level of comprehension. Rather than do that, focus on the parts you can understand: the purpose and hypothesis, the plain-English discussion and significance. Later, when they are more adept, they can spend more time examining the details of the methods and results.

3 Responses to “Teaching undergrads how to read scientific journal articles”

  1. crowther

    I think the not-getting-bogged-down issue is absolutely essential. When I have undergrads read primary literature, I give them a study guide that gives them permission to ignore certain parts, or gives them the “Cliff Notes” for those parts. This is because they often don’t know what they can safely ignore.

    • ac

      Thanks Greg, that’s an interesting idea. Is the study guide you provide specific to the article they’re reading, or is it a general guide to reading the scientific literature? I’m curious because the former sounds like it takes some prep time, while the latter is something I would very much like to see. 🙂

    • AC

      Greg – I did the legwork (I am a librarian, after all) and found your guides to the primary literature [http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Teaching/lit.shtml]; part assignment, part guide. I’ll check out some of your other writings.


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