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Inquiry Learning and Graduate education: Getting more out of journal clubs

Coursework for graduate students often involves seminar classes, where students are expected to read and discuss the relevant literature. Often these classes are a mixture of lectures interspersed with discussions of the literature. Depending on the size of the class, one student or a group of students is usually required to lead discussion each time. Grading tends to be a mixture of participation (both when you lead discussion and other times) and one or several examinations.

Journal clubs are another way of doing the same thing, but are usually student led. As with graduate classes, you are expected to read an article – either from the recent literature or a classic article – and discuss it. In theory, it’s a great way to learn about the reality of doing science. Through the process of reading and reviewing the paper, you learn about doing science, and you learn how to do peer review. Sadly, the reality is close to what Jorge Cham presents. Someone (the studious student who read the paper a week ago, and has annotated it extensively) drops by your lab before class, and asks “did you read the paper?” “Of course,” you mumble, as you search through your desk for the copy/print one off for the first time. On the way to the class or journal club meeting, you look at the paper for the first time (fortunately for us, it was a long walk from Plant Biology Building on South Campus across the river to Natural Sciences on North Campus, where most EEBB classes met).

phd010908s.gifOnce you get to class, you avoid eye contact while continuing to read frantically. Someone raises a point – “in the Methods, on page 1462, the author said…” You flip to page 1462, scan the page, and read while they are talking. While they are trying to explain their point to the rest of the class, you read the section. Then, luckily, someone starts to say something ponderous and pointless. Since the class is graded on the basis of participation, there will always be people who feel the need to speak in every class. Their idea of “class participation” seems to be based on the assumption that the professor awards grades based on the length of time that they speak. If things go well, this will give you enough time to figure out something intelligent to say, and so spare you the fate of the unnamed main character in Jorge Cham’s story.

phd011108s.gifReading the literature is valuable for graduate students, but for the most part I never figured out what the real point of these classes was. They seemed to degenerate into a “let’s find the flaws in the paper” sessions. Yes, that’s valuable, but shouldn’t we try to see how this paper contributed to the development of the field of ecology or evolution? Apparently not. Or, as the character in the strip says “The whole point of discussing papers only marginally related to our these is to hone our academic skills.” Oh. I see.

phd011408s.gifIn the February 29 issue of Science, the Education Forum focuses on Inquiry learning, and specifically the application of inquiry-based ideas into graduate “literature discussion” classes1. It turns out that there is method to the madness (though I strongly suspect that the “method” came later, as an attempt to rationalise something that is already an integral part of the institution of graduate education.

As the authors of the paper point out, doctoral students “develop deep expertise in their areas of research”, but also need to develop a breadth of knowledge in related areas. In addition, graduate students need to learn how to participate in and respond to peer review (the former skill is much easier to learn than the latter).

Learning the balance between breadth and depth and participating effectively in peer review are interrelated educational issues.

Graduate coursework and journal clubs contribute to the breadth of training. Sitting around and bitching about the methods teaches you the skills of peer review (skill no. 1: anonymously reducing the author of the paper to a quivering mass of jelly). But how do you learn to respond to criticism, and how do you create an assessment process that takes things like that into account? In a classroom setting, you’re likely to get feedback on your comments (usually from one of the students who feels the need to talk in every class). In a real-world situation, you are expected to think about the criticism, and then thoughtfully use the feedback to improve your statement (or petulantly incorporate what was said because you know the reviewer will expect you to do what the reviewer asked, no matter how dumb you think it actually is). But how do you assess that in an exam? As the authors of the paper point out, standard examinations are horrible venues for doing something like this. While the student is expected to use critical thinking and breadth of knowledge to answer a novel question, he or she is not expected to respond to the professor’s feedback and use it to improve the paper. In addition, there is no feedback from your peers.

In an attempt to improve on the process, the authors of the paper used a web-based forum to provide peer feedback. They wrote

A valuable outcome of this integrative project was the ability to document and assess how students integrated breadth of knowledge with depth of reasoning. This was achieved by comparing the original and revised answers, as well as the references used in both answers. The commentaries on answers from their peers were also very useful in assessing the student’s integrated learning
capability. All of the faculty observed a difference between the classroom discussion, where students mostly did not challenge each others’ comments, and the written Web postings where students were respectful but often
quite critical of answers from their peers. Anonymity of the Web format and the time provided to think about the Web postings appear to contribute to this critical feedback between peers.

An added benefit is that it evened out some gender-related differences in class participation. On average, male students made significantly more unsolicited comments in class than did female students. If the final grade incorporates “class participation”, it’s likely that male students will have an advantage relative to female students (although, again, in many discussion-based grad classes, it took more of an effort not to get an A than it did to get an A).

  1. Iyengar, Ravi, Maria A. Diverse-Pierluissi, Sherry L. Jenkins, Andrew M. Chan, Lakshmi A. Devi, Eric A. Sobie, Adrian T. Ting, and Daniel C. Weinstein. 2008. INQUIRY LEARNING: Integrating Content Detail and Critical Reasoning by Peer Review. Science 29: 1189-1190.
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