High school students and lower level undergraduates see textbooks as the ultimate sources of information. If you want to know, look it up in a textbook. If there’s a discrepancy between what your instructor says and what the textbook says, trust the textbook. There is no more authoritative statement than the textbook. At some point in their undergraduate career, they are introduced to something else – peer reviewed literature. It doesn’t fit well into the established hierarchy of information which places textbooks above “magazine” articles. Students are often left to muddle through things, and a large proportion probably never figure out what “peer reviewed literature” really means.
Eventually, most undergrads arrive at a class that expects them to do a project that requires them to access “outside sources” – going beyond their textbooks and lecture notes. When the instructor assigns the work, he or she usually assumes that the students will look to primary, peer reviewed literature. But for the undergrad who doesn’t really understand what’s what, it means something different – paper copies of New Scientist and Scientific American back when I was an undergrad. And today, the internet.
More savvy instructors explicitly limit the number of references students can make to websites or textbooks, and ban Wikipedia outright. While this achieves the instructor’s goal of pushing students toward higher-quality resources, it also seems pretty capricious to students (“he said no websites, so I don’t think I can use the journals available through the library’s website, I have to go and use the paper copies”). The underlying problem is often that students don’t understand what it is that constitutes peer reviewed literature. The fact that major journals are available online (at least through university websites) further muddies the issue.
In a paper published in the Journal of Natural Resources & Life Science Education, (and available online for free until the end of February) William Berzonsky and Katherine Richardson look at the issue of teaching undergraduates how to use peer-reviewed online literature. Both undergraduates and established researchers have a preference for online sources. But not everyone is able to use online tools effectively
Surveys indicate that both students and professional scientists prefer utilizing online scientific literature… Likely contributing to this preference is the expanded accessibility of online literature… deployment of Google Scholar, and the availability of a variety of searchable scientific literature databases…
Unlike hardcopy serials… students must somehow validate online research literature as being peer-reviewed for accuracy and scientific content. Experts in searching literature online remain focused on their task, efficiently use key words associated with their topic … and look for specific cues to determine accuracy and validity of content… But undergraduates may not fully understand the scientific process … let alone the peer-review process for scientific literature. Hence, for them, identifying and validating online peer-reviewed scientific literature can be daunting. A complicating factor is that undergraduates often lack the vocabulary and literacy to adequately address abstract scientific research problems…
To help solve this problem, Berzonsky and Richardson designed a system to help students understand the nature of peer reviewed science. This involved meetings with a librarian (Richardson) and online tools. To see how much students learned, they used a paired pre-test and post-test (i.e., they asked the same questions before and after, and used it to determine what they learned). The students’ initial lack of understanding was quite notable, but not surprising. The system seemed to work rather well. They noted that many students said that they should have learned this before the final year of their undergrad. I suspect that they online tools they developed would be useful even if it wasn’t feasible to have the students meet with the librarian (as you might have in a class with 100 or more students). They concluded that
Aside from teaching students how to conduct effective online searches for scientific literature, the faculty–librarian partnership led to Senior Seminar students having a better understanding of what constitutes peer-reviewed scientific literature. Once Senior Seminar undergraduates had a good understanding of what they were seeking, they became more confident in their ability to search for and find the required peer-reviewed literature for the course.
Berzonsky, W.A., Richardson, K.D. (2008). Referencing Science: Teaching Undergraduates to Identify, Validate, and Utilize Peer-Reviewed Online Literature. Journal of Natural Resources & Life Science Education, 37(1), 8-13.
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