The Journal Club Toolkit
by the Understanding Evolution team
Many undergraduate biology instructors want to help their students learn about authentic scientific practices by engaging them with the primary literature. However, scientific articles present serious challenges for typical undergraduate students. These challenges include: understanding the biological concepts that the research addresses, 2) translating unfamiliar vocabulary, 3) navigating the unusual format of a scientific paper, 4) making sense of statistics, references, and other unique aspects of scientific writing, and 5) synthesizing the paper in an independent analysis or critique. The Journal Club Toolkit is designed to help students overcome these challenges, while delving into fundamental concepts of evolutionary biology.
What's in the Toolkit?
The Journal Club Toolkit includes three reading guides for scientific papers, a set of research articles on key concepts in evolutionary biology that provide a gentle entrée into the primary literature, and a guide for students leading a discussion of a journal article:
- Dissecting a scientific paper I — Students read a 2008 paper on the role of parasites in stabilizing the fig-pollinator mutualism alongside an interactive guide that explains each section of the paper and draws the reader's attention to important points in the article. This guide is also available in PDF or Word format, along with a PDF of the journal article.
- Dissecting a scientific paper II — Students read a 2005 paper on the fitness consequences of mate choice alongside an interactive guide that asks the reader to answer key questions about each section of the article. This guide is also available in PDF or Word format, along with a PDF of the journal article.
- Dissecting a scientific paper III — This guide (also available as a PDF or Word document) can be used with any research article (e.g., the papers listed below). It asks the reader to answer key questions about each section of the article.
- Recommended reading - These freely-accessible journal articles from PLoS were selected because they address a diverse array of concepts in evolutionary biology and involve a relatively straightforward research methodology that should be approachable by undergraduates.
- Tips for students leading a journal club discussion — Students can learn a lot from leading (as well as participating in) discussion of a journal article. This guide (also available as a PDF or Word document) breaks down the process of leading an effective analytic discussion.
How to use the Toolkit
The Journal Club Toolkit was designed to be implemented in the discussion section of an evolution course or of an evolution-oriented introductory biology course; however, instructors are encouraged to adapt the above materials to suit their needs and the constraints of their class format. In a typical weekly discussion section, the materials from the Toolkit might be implemented as follows:
- Week 1 — Students read Dunn et al. (2008) and Dissecting a scientific paper I on their own. In section, the teaching assistant explains the purpose of a journal club and leads a discussion of the paper, implicitly modeling the discussion on the Tips for leading a discussion document.
- Week 2 — Students read Head et al. (2005) and work with a partner to write answers to the questions in Dissecting a scientific paper II. The teaching assistant collects these answers and grades them with a check/check-plus/check-minus system. In section, the teaching assistant introduces students to the Tips for leading a discussion document and leads a discussion of Head et al. (2005). During discussion, the teaching assistant refers back to the Tips document in order to explicitly demonstrate different strategies for leading discussion.
- Week 3 — Students read a selected recommended paper and write answers to the questions in Dissecting a scientific paper III. The teaching assistant collects these answers and grades them with a check/check-plus/check-minus system. In section, the teaching assistant again models the process of leading a discussion, referring back to the Tips document. Depending on class size, individual students, pairs, or small groups sign up to lead discussion in future weeks.
- Weeks 4-12 — Students (or groups of students) lead discussion. If desired, the instructor may require all students (or just the students leading the discussion) to turn in responses associated with Dissecting a scientific paper III. For more advanced students or later in the semester, discussion leaders may select a paper on their own, pending approval from the instructor.
If you've adapted these materials to suit your needs, we'd love to hear about it. Just contact us.