A Journal Club Workshop That Teaches Undergraduates a Systematic Method for Reading, Interpreting, and Presenting Primary Literature

By Robertson, Katherine | Journal of College Science Teaching, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

A Journal Club Workshop That Teaches Undergraduates a Systematic Method for Reading, Interpreting, and Presenting Primary Literature


Robertson, Katherine, Journal of College Science Teaching


It is well recognized that inquiry-based learning and the use of primary literature improves undergraduate teaching (American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training, 2008; Carnegie Institute, 2009; National Research Council, 2003). Reading, understanding, and interpreting primary literature challenges students to "think scientifically" (Alberts, 2009) and is essential for success at graduate school or in technical careers (Alberts, 2009; Janick-Buckner, 1997). In addition, reading primary literature involves higher-level cognitive activities (synthesis and application) known to facilitate understanding (Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). A recent, comprehensive survey of >150 faculty at various colleges and universities (Coil, Wenderoth, Cunningham, & Dirks, 2010) identified reading and evaluation of primary literature as one of the most important skills for undergraduates to acquire (4.5 out of 5 on a Likert scale). However, the same study also reveals that many professors spend too little time teaching students how to master these skills.

Although many researchers have emphasized the importance of using primary literature in the classroom and describe in detail how to incorporate it into a course or curriculum (Coil et al., 2010; Glazer, 2000; Jensen & Narske, 2010; Kitazono, 2010; Klemm, 2002; Kozeracki, Carey, Colicelli, & Levis-Fitzgerald, 2006; Mulnix, 2003; Pence & Losoff, 2011; Smith, 2001), very few describe a systematic method that students can use to read primary articles. In practice, students are often simply told to read a primary article by themselves, to identify key concepts, and to come prepared to discuss the article in class. However, many students are intimidated by primary articles and simply don't know where to begin (Smith, 2001). When left to their own devices, students often read articles passively from cover to cover rather than dissect and evaluate them. I and others (Janick-Buckner, 1997; Klemm, 2002) have argued that students need to be told exactly what to look for in scientific literature. I additionally argue here that they also need to be told where to look for it.

This article describes an active-learning style, mini-workshop that I have developed, which teaches students a systematic method for reading primary literature. The mini-workshop, rather than being a whole course, takes ~4 class periods to complete and can be incorporated into any existing course or journal club activity. For example, Klemm (2002) wrote an excellent model for a literature-based case study in which students participate in four, sequential stages: understand what is described in a paper, assess the experimental strategies and results, integrate the paper with the general body on knowledge, and create new insights and hypotheses. During the assess stage of his model, students are asked to "identify the core principles" and to "critique the methods and results" (Klemm, 2002). This is a perfect place in which to incorporate the journal club mini-workshop to enable them to do this correctly. There are many examples of similar initiatives, which involve different levels of reading and analysis, but none that describe how students should actually do this. Rather than describing how I incorporate the workshop into my courses, I have focused here on how it may be used to instruct students in the art of reading scientific literature.

Briefly, I first teach the students how to make a worksheet for themselves that helps them to itemize the main points they should look for in a primary article. This worksheet is based on the scientific method, with which the students are well versed. Then, I show them where to look for those items. For example, one item on their worksheet might be "question." By actively looking for the question(s) being addressed by the research, students are better able to clearly identify the goals of the research. Many of my students are surprised to find that often for the question, they need look no further than the title. …

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