First-Year Students Benefit from Reading Primary Research Articles

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Most science faculty have goals for their students related to understanding the nature of science. They hope their students will learn to generate ideas, test them, make decisions based on evidence, and evaluate claims and counter claims (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1989; National Science Foundation 1996; National Science Teachers Association 1987). These outcomes entail complex scientific inquiry skills and understandings that can be difficult to teach and are often nearly absent in science textbooks (Abd-El-Khalick, Waters, and Le 2008). Primary research articles illuminate aspects of scientific inquiry that textbooks ignore, discussing the research question, the authors' hypotheses, the experimental design, and the results. Many research articles illustrate the "spiral" nature of scientific research, discussing the origin of the research question, alternative explanations for the data, and ideas for further research that could help distinguish among competing claims (Muench 2000; Yarden, Brill, and Falk 2001). Engaging students in critical evaluation of primary articles can be a powerful pedagogical strategy to teach thinking skills related to the scientific research endeavor. The articles, when chosen well, also add to the subject matter objectives of the course.

There are many fine examples of programs that successfully engage upper-level science majors with the primary literature (e.g., Herman 1999; Houde 2000; Janick-Buckner 1997; Klemm 2001; Roberts 2009). At Hampshire College, we believe that early experiences reading primary literature affect how students approach scientific problem solving over their college careers. We often hear doubts that students can reason about experimental design and data interpretation concerns if they lack the requisite science knowledge. In this article we present evidence that first-year college students can learn to read primary literature and that doing so improves their understanding of the scientific process. We discuss how it is used at Hampshire College and ways to adapt its use in varied teaching contexts.

In the first-year introductory science program at Hampshire College, students choose focused, topical courses according to their interests (e.g., Human Biology taught in a case-based approach; a physiology course, How People Move; and a geology course, Geological Controversies). Within these courses, students are taught explicit strategies for critically reading primary literature. For example, when students are given their first research article, many faculty support students with the handout in Figure 1, "Tips for Reading Primary Literature." Then, students typically go through several cycles of reading primary articles and providing individual and/or group responses to structured questions. Assignment structure and use of class time allow for explicit discussions about the role of prior research and theory in developing a research question and hypothesis. Students are taught to evaluate research designs and results, and they develop evidence-based explanations of scientific phenomena.

As the culminating experience of most 100-level courses, each student focuses on a course-related topic, forms a question, and finds evidence in the primary literature to answer that question. Students report their findings in a paper that is subject to critique and revision. The faculty use primary literature in the general coursework in order to scaffold the development of the skills needed for students to succeed in their independent research. Though Hampshire College's first-year courses are not typical, many of the individual assignments can be used in larger, more traditional courses or in upper-level seminars (see Figure 2 for a list of ideas).

When primary literature is used in college, faculty often select historically pivotal research articles (Levine 2001), edit articles to make them more accessible (Levine 2001; Smith 2000), or assign the abstracts alone (Rettig and Smith 2009). …