Thursday, September 27, 2007

Should undergraduates learn to read scientific papers?

Over at the biology blog Sandwalk, Larry Moran triggered a discussion of whether or not undergraduates should be encouraged to read and evaluate scientific papers. He thinks they're not ready for this challenge, but a number of the people commenting think differently. Here's my contribution:
Students in my first-year biology classes have an option of reading a scientific paper and writing a report on it; this replaces 15% of midterm+final exam marks. I provide a list of papers by local authors that aren't likely to be too technical, but they can select a different paper if they like. I don't vet their paper choices, and give them only a small amount of guidance.

Those who choose to do this find it very challenging, often telling me that "I had to read the paper six times before it started to make sense!". But they also find it very rewarding; they're proud to have accomplished this difficult task, and feel that the experience will give them an advantage over other students in future courses.


A said...

First, I would like to say that I stumbled across your blogs (this and RRResearch) this afternoon and applaud you for your openness towards the dialogue of research and teaching.

More to the point though, when I read the phrase "Should undergraduates learn to read scientific papers?" I was shocked. Is this even a question? I recently graduated from undergrad, and am pursuing a teaching/lab assistant postion at my alma mater before heading off to grad school. Throughout undergrad, my college had an enormous focus on using scientific literature, and being able to find it on your own. While constraints are obviously different at a small private college where I attended versus a large university, it boggles my mind to think that anyone might graduate with a BA/BS in the sciences and not be able to read a scientific paper.

One way it is implemented here at the freshmen/sophomore level is assigning key papers that tie in with a concept being discussed in the course. Rather than writing an essay summary of the paper, students must fill out a sheet with boxes for specific types of info. For example:

"What was the hypothesis(es) of the researchers?",
"What methods were used?",
"What conclusions did the researchers draw?",
"What data are each conclusion based on",
"Are the conclusions sufficiently supported by the data?", etc.

Another section had the students write down terms in the article they were unfamiliar with, and find the definition of them. I can remember this part being especially helpful to me when I was just starting. I can't even begin to imagine where I would be without having learned this skill early in my career.

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