One skill I work to develop in my AP Biology students is the ability to read and understand scientific research articles. I believe this skill is important and practical. Too often, students read the abstract of a research paper and think that’s all they need to do. I disagree and think college students need to be able to read an entire research article and be able to discuss it. So, I developed an assignment to assist students in this task in High School.
For my next unit, students want to study the cell cycle in relation to diseases. Using their interests in future careers, I scoured Google Scholar (scholar.google.com is a great search engine for research articles) for articles related to what they had shared with me as their interests. For this first round of dissecting research articles, I decided to find the articles for them. Next time we do this, though, I will have the students find the articles themselves.
Research articles published in journals can be overwhelming and full of hefty language and acronyms. I want students to be able to work with those obstacles. I devised a strategy to assist students in breaking down an article. The strategy is attached here as a handout I provide the students. I have found these steps and the pace critical in order to reduce the temptation of just reading the abstract. Though this process takes a few weeks, I do not devote a lot of class time to it, but instead we spend class time working through the current content, in this case the cell cycle. There are check-in points, though, and opportunities for students to receive feedback on their progress and help as needed.
Though I preview the articles before handing them out (or approving them next round), I do not read them all the way through. This allows me to be an active audience member when they present while still having enough understanding of the study to guide the students through the process.
One last thought – students will be citizens and consumers of research soon, if not already. Tasks that require them to read, understand, and make sense of an article like this should also encourage critical thinking about the methods, outcomes, and conclusions drawn by the authors. Informed decisions require understanding what you read and the motivation of the authors. I hope my students leave with the skills to assess claims thrown their way in the future.