Part 2: Can first-year undergraduates read primary scientific literature?

This is Part 2 of a three part series on introducing first-year geoscience students to the primary scientific literature in a large classroom setting. Part 1 described the motivation and desire to initiate this program, 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). 

This entry is a bit of a methods dump – how did we instruct a large classroom of students to read the primary literature. After working as a teaching assistant for an upper year seminar class in 2010, it was apparent to me that undergraduate students needed guidance on reading scientific articles earlier in their university career. Given the opportunity to incorporate research literature into GLGY 201 as the instructor this year, I jumped at the chance. The next question was “how should this be implemented?”

Many first year courses in sciences start with the basics of library research skills and referencing, but these didn’t seem to fit well within the context of the course I was teaching. There would be no writing assignment for the students to practice referencing skills, and to reference something in written format, one must understanding its contents. After some discussion about learning objectives, we came up with a few relating to scientific literature for GLGY 201: 1) students can differentiate between popular and scholarly articles; 2) students can describe the components of a scientific research paper and 3) students know how to approach reading new and unfamiliar scholarly materials. It was decided to pre-select reading for the course, and use in-class peer-instruction to augment the comprehension of these articles. It was very important to select research papers that were relevant to course content that students already had some prior background knowledge. Geology 201 is focused on three key content areas: Plate Tectonics, The Rock Cycle, and Geologic Time, so we chose one paper from each broad section. There were four classes dedicated to research literature, all four of which would include an in-class assignment. The first class was a library skills session: what type of information resources are available and when should you use them. The second, third, and fourth were group-work classes where students worked in groups to answer questions about the pre-assigned reading.

The first class was an introduction to the different types of literature (popular, scholarly) available in the library and online. This session was given by the head of the geology library Claudette Cloutier. For this session, the instructors asked students to bring a scholarly article to class, without telling them what a scholarly article was. These articles were submitted to the instructor at the end of class with answers to a couple brief questions (listed below). As Claudette introduced “what is scholarly literature” the students who brought popular articles quickly became aware that their selected pieces didn’t have abstracts, a comprehensive reference list, figures, data or the wonderful jargon that accompanies most scholarly papers. It was interesting to see the variety of articles that students procured for the session. Roughly half of my ~200 students brought a scholarly article, either a review article or peer-reviewed research. The other half brought an assortment of ScienceDaily articles (we had previously used these in class), Scientific American, New Scientist, blogs, news articles and similar popular science materials. It was also interesting to see how many students answered the question “is your article scholarly or popular” with negative sentiment if they brought a popular article to class. “Popular 😦 ” [sic] was a common answer. There’s a great role for popular articles in society, so I made a point of writing a comment for students who included this type of answer. Claudette also provided a library guide for our students (link to library guide), supporting their search for scientific materials.

The remaining three classes focused mainly on primary research literature. The structure for the classes involved pre-assigned article reading (list of articles at the end of the blog entry), accompanied by a podcast I prepared to guide them through each paper. These video podcasts (made available via Blackboard course management software) gave tips on what to look for in research articles, and were intended to assist students with understanding the complexity of scientific writing. Arriving in-class, the students formed small groups (two or three students) and were provided with a brief introduction to the questions they were asked to answer. The rest of the class was an open-book in-class discussion session, and the students were required to submit their work at the end of class. Students were coached by two instructors and four teaching assistants, who wandered throughout the classroom during the one hour session (suggest only four instructional staff are necessary per 200 students for future sessions, instead of six)The teaching team was instructed to answer any questions the students asked even if it “gave away” part of the answer. This was a learning opportunity, not a test.  Each question required a different student to function as the “discussion leader” who was instructed to guide the group’s discussion, and keep the group on track. The discussion leader system worked anecdotally well (difficult to verify) – as it encouraged peer-instruction and teamwork, rather than simply having the strongest student answering all the questions in the group. A typical set of questions would ask about 1) the objective, purpose or hypothesis of the paper, 2) the methodology used to test the hypothesis, and 3) the conclusions or importance of the research findings. The questions were fairly broad short answer questions, so any single response from the instructional team would not have been a complete ‘full-marks’ answer. Here’s an example of one of the worksheets, the rest are available at the end of the blog entry: In-class activity 1: Active submarine eruption of boninite.

The first research literature class ran fairly smoothly – the students responded to questions at a fairly high level, and very much rose to the challenge of reading a complicated article, so we decided to up the ante for the second and third sessions by bringing in the researcher who wrote the paper. In the second and third research literature classes, we selected articles authored by a faculty member from our department. In these two classes, Andrew Leier and Charles Henderson generously volunteered their time to give a five minute introduction to their research at the start of class. This provided students with a “behind the scenes” look at the scientific process, and both Andrew and Charles did a great job of identifying some of the challenges of doing science that don’t always make it into the final manuscripts. Anecdotal comments from students suggested having the researchers present in the classroom made a big difference in the students’ interest in research.

This approach was the first time primary scientific literature was introduced in a first year geology class at U of C. My next blog entry (Part 3) will describe how the students responded, how students used the resources available to them, and how I would improve this exercise for next time. I’m be interested to hear how literature is taught at other universities – please comment below if you have any feedback. If you’re still a student (or can remember when you were) how were you taught to read scientific literature?

Questions asked in the initial literature session with geology librarian:

1) is your article a scholarly or popular article?
2) is your article an original research article or a review? (in hindsight, this should have been an “if your article is scholarly” question; with a matching question for popular)
3) describe how you found your article.

Scientific Literature examined for in-class activities.

1) Active submarine eruption of boninite in the northeastern Lau Basin
2) Continental-scale detrital zircon provenance signatures in Lower Cretaceous strata, western North America
3) Calibrating the End-Permian Mass Extinction

Worksheets assigned in class: 

Worksheet 1 – Active submarine eruption of boninite
Worksheet 2 – Detrital zircon provenance
Worksheet 3 – Calibrating the end-Permian mass extinction