Helping Students Use
Primary Literature
Ruth Buskirk
The University of Texas at Austin
Why should we have students
investigate the primary literature?
• increase proficiency in data analysis
• gain insight in the scientific process
Why don’t we have students read primary literature more?
• not a clear set of best practices (or even goals)
• instructors lack the time to prepare for it
• instructors lack the classroom time for it
What are your goals for having your students read primary
• learn about the ‘process of science’
• be able to read graphs, interpret data
Why not these goals as well?
• appreciate that people do science
• group work in solving problems
• practice explaining science to others
These are harder:
• be able to evaluate/critique a scientific paper
• be able to suggest the next step in the research
How do you begin?
“I don’t even understand the title.”
“This is too hard. I can’t do it.”
“Don’t call on me – Joe knows the answer”
Ideas for Motivating Students
• Follow a well-structured procedure with
small goals and positive feedback along
the way
• Start off reading papers on something
you’re already intrinsically motivated to
• Begin with a short paper
• Small group work “we can learn from each other; I
can’t do it by myself”
• Repeat the process “it gets a little easier with each
Variety of Approaches to Use in Class
During lecture, show a figure from a paper. Ask students to read graph
and interpret data.
Briefly introduce a research study in lecture. Hand out copies of figure
& figure caption. Small groups discuss and share results
Students diagram a flow chart of a study; distinguish results from
Assign a short paper. Have students read paper and answer guiding
questions as homework OR take a quiz on the paper.
Add in-class discussion on the paper assigned.
During seminar class discuss figures, data, experimental design, etc.
Is This For a Grade?
Do you grade or evaluate your students on their
work on scientific papers?
• grade their reports using a rubric?
• solitary or group work?
• credit for participation only?
• mark for improvement?
for extra credit?
on exam questions?
Train Students to See the Differences
A research report (original data; full methods,
results, discussion)
A review article
A brief research note
Editor’s note introducing article
In Nature, Cell, Science
An editorial letter
A popular article
Online publication PLoS vs a web site
Introduce Students to the Author(s)
[this scientist is a person!]
Before, online search by students Go to the author’s faculty web page.
Search Pub Med for some paper titles.
Before, a short video of interview with author briefly
introducing the paper and setting context
After reading the paper, students email questions to the
author (arranged in advance)
After students read the paper, author visits class and
answers questions that students have prepared
Train students to search for the
research sponsor. Explain ‘conflict of
Have students distinguish pure and
applied aspects of science.
Teach them about funding sources, how
they differ in priorities, and why that
makes a difference.
Provide Some Guidance
• For (at least) the first paper assignment, instructor
should provide some ‘guiding questions’ designed
to build student confidence
• One approach is to begin with just the abstract
• Students make a flow chart of ideas there
• Another idea – begin with a figure, have students
think what work went into being able to produce
that figure, then read the methods
Encourage Student Evaluation of
Paper with Instructor Guidance
• What are the controls in this experiment?
• How could authors have presented this result a
little more clearly?
• What’s an alternate hypothesis that could have
been tested here?
• What is missing that would have helped tell the
Hoskins et al 2011: C.R.E.A.T.E.
(Consider, Read, Elucidate hypotheses, Analyze and
interpret data, Think of the next Experiment) method.
A constructivist model, pays attention to student
attitudes and confidence level
Research Your Own Teaching
Can you do some research on your teaching with
scientific papers? Is it worth doing?
• See a change in student attitudes?
• Measure change in proficiency?
• How do we know this training helps in the long
Pre/post tests – 15 questions on a research passage.
Lab students who read an assigned paper.
Early data from Mike Black, California Polytechnic State University
We designed our own survey (some items below) through SALG:
Student Assessment of Learning Gains
Skills. Presently, I can . . .
1) find articles relevant to a particular problem in professional journals or
1. not at all 2. just a little 3. somewhat 4. a lot 5. a great
2) critically read articles about topics raised in class
3) identify patterns in data
4) recognize a sound argument and appropriate use of evidence
Attitudes. Presently, I am . . .
7) Enthusiastic about reading scientific papers
8) Interested in discussing the subject area with friends or family
10) Confident that I can read articles in biology
12) Willing to seek help from others (teacher, peers, TA)
when reading articles
Classroom models for teaching with primary literature
C. M. Gillen, J. Vaughan, B.R. Lye. An online tutorial for
helping nonscience majors read primary research literature
in biology. Advances Physiol. Educ 28:95-99. (2004).
A. Hubert, B. T. Jacques-Fricke, S. Miller. A versatile module
to improve understanding of scientific literature through
peer instruction. J. College Sci. Teaching 39.2 (NovemberDecember 2009): p24.
C.A.R. Kozeracki, M.F. Carey, J Colicelli, M Levis-Fitzgerald.
An Intensive Primary-Literature-based Teaching Program
Directly Benefits Undergraduate Science Majors and
Facilitates Their Transition to Doctoral Programs. CBE-Life
Sciences Education. 5: 340-347
L. Tronsky, L. Wenk. First-year students benefit from reading
primary research articles. J. College Sci. Teaching 40.4
Useful Links
R. Bogucka, E. Wood. “How to Read Scientific Research
Articles: A Hands-on Classroom Exercise.”
Eco101 report on ESA workshop “101 Ways to Effectively Use
Journal Articles as Teaching Tools”
For the student – How & why read a scientific paper?
What would you like to try in
your classes?
Have more ideas to share?
More questions for Ruth?