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Is it too early?

Anil Kumar Challa, University of Alabama Birmingham

Initiating undergraduate students into reading primary scientific literature.

Undergraduate science education in India is predominantly driven by syllabus that is set by the Boards of Studies in University Departments.  Most syllabuses reflect some standard textbook in the market.  Except for the rare enlightened havens exploring student-centered learning, teaching and instruction closely follow these textbooks, through the traditional lectures.  The diligent students religiously follow the notes given by teachers, and the more motivated students ‘refer’ to well-known textbooks to make their own notes.  Students with access to the World Wide Web have more sources to explore and learn from, but most seem to be restricted to Wikipedia and popular results of Google searches.  In all these cases, mentored reading of current literature concerning primary research is very limited, if not entirely absent.  One anecdotal reason given for this situation is that undergraduate students should focus more on the information gathering and broadening their knowledge-base from textbooks; reading about current research from primary literature can wait until students enter Masters/postgraduate programs (in rare occasions), or in many cases, a PhD program.

While many students might be quite happy with nothing more than ‘class notes’, and just enough material to pass the exams, the motivated and enthusiastic ones do not get challenged and are quite likely left in a state where they do not realize their own abilities.  Enabling students to read about latest findings in science either from the primary literature or from contemporary commentaries can be rewarding to all the parties involved.  Here, I write about a few such experiments that I was involved with.

Reading ‘Perspectives’ from Science and ‘New and Views’ from Nature

I was once involved with establishing and running a training program for undergraduate students of biotechnology[1].  The program mainly focused on hands-on training of basic methods of molecular biology and DNA science.  The goal of the program was not only to develop technical skills but also strengthen the conceptual foundations in students.  With an idea of introducing current trends at the forefront of the research enterprise to the students, we made students read commentaries of notable research articles.  We selected ‘Perspectives’ articles from Science magazine and ‘News and Views’ articles from Nature magazine that we felt were relevant and interesting to students.  Each student got a different article, which they had to read, comprehend, summarize and present in a 5 minute talk on the last day of the program.  Since we had the luxury of small numbers in every training session, we had the advantage of spending time with individual students and guide them in their reading exercise.  While this exercise received mixed reviews on the whole, many students were excited about reading something that is at the cutting edge of science - something that is beyond their textbooks; some took the challenge of reading and understanding the articles very positively, while others did not (quite) enjoy the process.

Reading an article from Nature Reviews Genetics

In another instance, I was asked to teach the ‘biology’ parts in a bioinformatics certificate course for undergraduate students.  While the students were supposed to know concepts and methods behind gene sequencing, nobody seemed to have a reasonable comprehension of genome sequencing.  With hopes of putting the learning into students’ hands, I decided to give a very nice review article on the “Strategies for the systematic sequencing of complex genomes” (Green, 2001; Nature Reviews Genetics).  All the students were asked to read the paper ahead of class meetings, and the class meetings would be dedicated to discussing the review article. 

The initial class meetings were very quiet since none of the students (had) read the article.  Almost all students felt intimidated to read the review article and the brave ones had quite a few challenges.  So, we modified the plan to read and discuss the article in class.  The in-class reading was a little more helpful to complete the exercise but the overall experience was not entirely satisfactory.


There were two things that I learned through these two experiments with students reading current research literature.  Undergraduate students in the United States, at least in the senior levels, routinely read primary research articles and there is no reason students elsewhere cannot do that.  Although it is intuitive, my first learning was that students in small colleges in India are also capable of reading research literature.  And, it is not too early for them to start reading research articles.  The second point I learned was about the way I introduced research literature to students - I had to do more work beyond handing out research articles to students; I had to take a more methodical approach to make the experience meaningful and enjoyable to the students. It was important that I found an effective way either by experimenting with different methods or look for established methods that are already in use.


A couple of years after doing these incomplete classroom experiments with undergraduate students, I learned about a few efforts in American (US) undergraduate programs.  One particular effort, developed by Dr.Sally Hoskins, seemed very effective.  Dr. Hoskins at the City University of New York developed an approach on the “Selective Use of Primary Literature”, which “Transforms the Classroom into a Virtual Laboratory”[2].  She calls it the C.R.E.A.T.E. approach - Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment.  This is “a new teaching approach that uses intensive analysis of primary literature to demystify and humanize research science for undergraduates.”  Evidence is building that this approach “shifts undergraduates' self-assessed ability to read and analyze journal articles, their attitudes about science, and their epistemological beliefs.”[3]

Undergraduate biology teachers enthusiastic about introducing primary research literature to their students can use the C.R.E.A.T.E approach and provide them a rich and exciting learning experience.  Since reading and critical analysis of research articles is vital to the practice of science, it is important to introduce primary literature to students early in their undergraduate education.  The early introduction is necessary because it takes guided learning and patient practice over a (period of) few years to gain skill and mastery.

Addendum:  The editorial article in the latest issue of GENETICS focuses on the importance of introducing primary research literature via peer-reviewed scientific articles to undergraduate students.  Beginning with the August 2012 issue, this journal is publishing a new feature called ‘Primers’ designed to make current research articles useful to undergraduate students.  These articles have OPEN ACCESS making them available to all undergraduate teachers and students 

[1] The teaching program was a part of education initiative of Indigenèse Biotechnologies, www.indigenese.com

[2] Hoskins, S., Stevens, L., and Nehm, R., (2007) Selective Use of Primary Literature Transforms the Classroom into a Virtual Laboratory.  Genetics, 176 1381-1389.

[3] Hoskins SG, Lopatto D, Stevens LM., (2011) The C.R.E.A.T.E. approach to primary literature shifts undergraduates' self-assessed ability to read and analyze journal articles, attitudes about science, and epistemological beliefs. CBE Life Sci Educ.10(4):368-78.


Undergrad students in India are attached to the "question

Undergrad students in India are attached to the "question and answer" approach to learning. So, one way to get them to read scientific literature could be to design take-home questions to guide the reading assignment. They may come up with wrong answers or copy pasted answers, but discussing the same in class will, over time, enhance their interest in reading, and enable them to better understand science articles.

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