Part 1: Can first-year undergraduates read primary scientific literature?

This is Part 1 of a planned three part series on introducing first-year geoscience students to the primary scientific literature in a large classroom setting. Part 2 will illustrate what was done to introduce the primary literature in geosciences, and Part 3 will describe the details of how the students handled the material and what the most commonly used strategies were for the students. These events occurred in the GLGY 201 class at the University of Calgary during the Fall 2011 semester (Instructors: Leslie Reid, Ben Cowie). 

If they are provided with proper support and assigned appropriate articles, we believe they can.

One of the biggest challenges of an undergraduate degree is learning to read the primary scientific literature (in the geosciences, this can include journals like Geology, Nature Geoscience, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, and broader scientific staples like Science and Nature). Not only should students learn how to read these articles, they should develop the ability to critically evaluate the contents of these papers – and the ability to contrast peer-reviewed science with popular science media like ScienceDaily. A big question I’ve spent some time thinking about is “when should this learning process start?” At what point do undergraduates need to dig into the primary literature, and how are they instructed to approach these articles? Often students are never explicitly instructed in this important skill. However, by the time they reach senior level courses, they are expected to read papers and provide summaries, use the research literature to write research papers, and search for data and references that contribute to undergraduate theses. In first year courses students are sometimes encouraged to visit the library to develop search and referencing skills to avoid plagiarism, and provide a broad overview of resources available but aren’t specifically guided in how to approach the complexities of research literature. Encouraging undergraduate students to think outside the textbook and delve into the literature is a task that has traditionally been left to senior level courses because, “first year students don’t have enough basic geological knowledge to read cutting edge material,” or, “you cannot teach students to read primary research in a large classroom setting” or, “students won’t get anything out of reading the paper because they don’t understand all the concepts presented.” I disagreed with these statements for a few reasons: 1) students learn important geological concepts in first year classes, 2) as a ‘seasoned’ Ph.D. student, I definitely don’t understand everything in every paper I read, so I have to learn it independently, 3) if articles are selected with content that is relevant to the course, students aren’t pushed too far out of focus and 4) large classes require more planning but with careful execution and support, most learning can be achieved in a large classroom. To answer the question: “Are first year students ‘ready’ and capable of reading primary literature?” we prepared a series of reading assignments from the literature in a first year geoscience class to find out if the preconceived notions about first year students not being able to handle the complexity of scientific publishing are true. I will present our methodology and some results of our ‘experiment’ in my next few blog entries.

I’m interested in any feedback about your experience with first year students and your perceptions of their abilities with comprehension of research literature. Have you tried readings from the primary literature before in first year or upper year classes? What were the results? How big was your class? How did the students respond?

Part 2 & Part 3 will follow in the next couple days.