Teaching Metastability in Petrology Using a Guided Reading from the Primary Literature

Article excerpt


The primary research literature can often be a valuable supplement to undergraduate textbook and classroom activities, particularly for in-depth exploration of conceptually difficult areas of the Geosciences. It is also important for students to develop skills needed to read the literature in preparation for future employment or graduate school. I use guided readings of articles from the primary research literature as a tool to ease introductory and intermediate students into journal articles, as well as a way to teach good habits in journal reading. In Introductory Petrology, an article is assigned that describes the development of eclogite-facies assemblages in shear zones surrounded by metastable granulite-facies gneiss (Austrheim, EPSL 1987). Guiding questions step students through the observations and interpretations in the paper, and help lead them to the larger issues of metastability and polymetamorphism in metamorphic rocks. This approach is easy to implement in both introductory and advanced courses, and helps establish a good framework for subsequent in-class discussion.


A now-common element of undergraduate science curricula is an introduction to reading the peer-reviewed primary literature. There are a number of compelling reasons for having undergraduates read journal articles in addition to standard texts, an important one being that those students who continue in science will need to be comfortable with consulting primary sources. Reading scientific papers from the literature also brings students closer to the goals and process of scientific research, which is important to students preparing for careers in science (e.g., Janick-Buckner, 1997) and to non-science majors (e.g., Pall, 2000). The expectation of clear scientific prose from students also necessitates a solid familiarity with scientific writing, including primary sources (Moore, 1994). In particular, Geoscience students need a familiarity with the primary literature, because ca. 70% of prospective graduate students in the Geosciences select graduate institutions based on their future advisor and probable research (compare to 30% in Chemistry; Golde and Dore, 2001).

There are a number of possible approaches for exposing students to journal articles. Many times students will have to navigate the primary literature for the first time in the context of a term paper assignment. Although the term paper project itself may be highly structured (with an approved project, outline, annotated bibliography, etc.), the actual foray into the literature is often unique to the student and their research topic. As a result, the student's difficulty with the selected papers is a function of the student's familiarity with the author's methodology, the sophistication of the reasoning used (e.g., Muench, 2000), the clarity of the writing, and the student's skill in reading primary sources.

Some authors suggest a more explicit introduction to the primary literature for undergraduates. The form of this introduction depends on the level of the student and the goals of the exercise, and can include interpretation of landmark papers in the discipline (e.g., Robinson, 1987; Moore, 1994; Levine 2001), group-led exploration activities (e.g., Fortner, 1999), or structured in-class discussion (e.g., Janick-Buckner, 1997). Some other interesting approaches include the comparison of papers from the primary and secondary science literatures describing the same research results (Pall, 2000), the writing of abstracts for 'decapitated' research papers (Conrad, 1991), and a 'mock-review' of a scientific paper (Mogk, 2000). Often the general guidelines for reading scientific papers given to students have a format similar to the paper itself; concentrating on objectives, methods, interpretation, and hypothesis-testing (e.g., Janick-Buckner, 1997).

In this paper I outline an approach that I have found successful in introductory and intermediate geoscience classes: a guided reading. …