Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How to Read a Scholarly Article

I recently received a request from a faculty member: We're finding that some of our students are having a hard time figuring out how to read a journal article. Do you have a resource you could share?

While at the time I didn't have anything on hand, I had been mulling over this topic for a while.  Reading scholarly articles is not a skill that comes naturally.  In fact, very little of a traditional high school education prepares a college freshman for the piecemeal way a skilled reader tackles a scientific paper.  But as I tell my students (tip o' the hat, Becky Canovan!), research articles are not romance novels—you don't read them beginning to end.

How, then, to teach students the proper way to wade into the world of literature reviews and methodologies and discussions?  North Carolina State University has a pretty nifty online tutorial called "Anatomy of a Scholarly Article," which I used as inspiration.  I liked the way they broke the article down into its component parts, and discussed the visual and contextual clues to use when deciding what's what in the maze of headings, statistics, and citations.  I also really appreciated that they found a good way to move the focus from the content of the article to the structure of the article.  It would be nearly impossible (or at least straining) to read "A Cognitive Model for the Representation and Acquisition of Verb Selectional Preferences," simply because the font is so small.  However, I was going to be working with these upper-level research methods students for fifty minutes, and it was hard to envision an interactive class session using only this online tool.  So, I did what I usually do: I went analog.

As you'll see below, I made a fake journal article, with fake publication information, fake authors, a fake abstract, and a fake publisher (the Library!).  And with a little help from my friend, the Lorem Ipsum generator, I was able to create fake content that wouldn't distract from the structure of the article. 

I then added headings (methodology, discussion, conclusion), parenthetical citations in the literature review section, a table and a figure, and a bibliography.  Finally, I labeled each part I wanted students to be able to recognize with a number 1-13.

In class, I broke students into small groups and handed each group two real article print-outs with the corresponding database citation/abstract stapled on top (since this is often what students see first when searching).  I asked the groups to decide which articles they could use for their research (assuming they were researching that topic), and which articles were probably not scholarly enough, and had them explain their decision to the rest of the class based on what they saw.  This got them tuned into the physical cues of an article and prepared them for the next step.

I then passed out the fake scholarly article I had made, and asked them as small groups to tell me which 3-4 of the numbered features were most important when deciding whether the article was scholarly.  The groups' responses varied slightly, but mostly focused on the authors, the authors' credentials, the bibliography, and the publication information.  Then I asked the small groups to decide which of the numbered features were most important in understanding the article.  Again, responses varied slightly, but most focused on the abstract, the introduction, the methodology, and the discussion/conclusion.  I also made sure to ask students what the literature review section was (it was numbered but not labeled), and how it could be useful to them.  Finally, we chatted about the best strategies for reading a scholarly article for understanding (I made sure to include the professor in this conversation), noting the benefits of different approaches.

What I observed was that these students gained a much more nuanced and context-based understanding of the structure of a research article, and I suspect they ultimately understood the concept much better than they would have had I merely pointed out the different features and sections on the screen.  Their small-group conversations were rich, and the process of reaching a consensus pushed them to reason with each other in choosing which sections of the article to focus on.  Granted, I've only tried this activity once and with a stellar group of students, but I will definitely be pulling this trick out of my hat again.

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