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.