Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

A Journal-Club-Based Class That Promotes Active and Cooperative Learning of Biology

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

A Journal-Club-Based Class That Promotes Active and Cooperative Learning of Biology

Article excerpt


A journal-club-based class has been developed to promote active and cooperative learning and expose seniors in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology to recent research in the field. Besides giving oral presentations, students also write three papers: one discussing an article of their own choosing and two discussing articles presented by other groups. Several strategies to select the articles that students discuss have been tried. In the fall 2008 semester, the selection was based on the series of online seminars from the American Society for Cell Biology (iBioSeminars) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Holiday lectures). Students watched a subset of these seminars and picked one as their topic of research. After a search for recent publications by the investigator who presented that seminar, the students chose one article in coordination with the instructor. This report describes how the class is organized as well as the different strategies tried and their results.

Perspectives in Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology is a three-credit-hour, writing-intensive, elective class with an enrollment of approximately 20 seniors. In this class, students learn biology through the analysis and discussion of primary scientific literature. Students read selected articles and analyze and discuss their content via oral presentations and written papers. The oral presentations follow a journal-club format, in which students introduce an article to the class, presenting background information, methods used, and the results and their significance. Although journal clubs are ubiquitous in graduate-school curricula, they are rarely used at the undergraduate and high school levels except to supplement educational activities (Hall and Wolfson 2000; Roberts 2009).

In the perspectives course, the content of the articles is discussed, students work in small groups, and the instructor functions as a facilitator rather than as a lecturer. The class helps students to acquire new knowledge and to apply and clarify the concepts learned in other lecture-based courses. Students also acquire critical-thinking and oral and written communication skills, and learn how scientists design, perform, interpret, and disseminate their research. They also learn how to perform literature searches that go beyond textbooks and popular online search resources such as Google and Wikipedia.

This class has been taught for three semesters to students majoring in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, following similar journal-club formats. I am convinced that a strategy that involves "only" the reading and discussion of scientific articles is a very effective way to teach biology and furthers the undergraduate students' interest in science (Handelsman et al. 2004; Alberts 2005). This article explores how the course is structured, students' reactions to it, and the different strategies used to select the articles for discussion.

Organization of the course

Most of the students who enroll in this course declare that they have some familiarity with scientific articles from their previous classes. Still, students seem surprised (and sometimes intimidated) when told in the first class meeting that they are expected to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the articles under discussion, despite the jargon, complex content, and obscure description of the methodology. To understand an article, they are told, means to recognize why and how a particular study was undertaken, what was accomplished and/or learned, and whether the results and their interpretation by the authors are accurate and significant. To depict in clear terms the level of expectation and stress the difference between "reading" and "understanding," an example is given that is based on the similarities between written English and Spanish. On this basis, any English-speaking person can "read" (i. …

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