February 15, 2019

For this prof, teaching students to read scientific papers meant letting them take the lead

Dylan Cooke is an assistant professor in biomedical physiology and kinesiology. He designed a course with the aim of teaching students how to read and interpret scientific papers. Photo credit: Theresa Kitos

Dylan Cooke has found the key to teaching students how to read and understand the research literature. His secret—he gets them to show each other.

In Fall 2017, Cooke, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology, launched BPK 423, a course on neuroplasticity designed to teach students how to interpret scientific papers.  

“Peer-reviewed papers are the medium of science, which makes understanding them an essential skill for scientists and serious students. However, some papers are difficult even for experts in the field. I try to give students the confidence and the skills to tackle technical papers outside of their expertise.”

Cooke designed BPK 423 to help students build this skill by integrating several rather unconventional approaches into his course: letting students take control of class time, emphasizing the importance of failure, and assessing students based on their ability to convey, rather than master, course concepts.

Student leadership and the freedom to acknowledge confusion

Each class is led by two students, who are tasked with presenting that week’s paper and facilitating a discussion on it.

The week before the paper is addressed in class, these two students prime their peers by introducing the technical background that they will need to know to understand it. Other students then post their reactions and questions about the reading in Canvas-based groups and are invited to explain any muddy points to other group members.

“The point of the Canvas groups is to get them to think about what they don’t understand in a small and intimate space,” says Cooke. “Feeling like it’s okay to admit when you don’t understand something is a concept that I feel is important in the class and in the scientific process.”

An assessment framework that emphasizes skill development

But it doesn’t end there.

The groups report out to the class as whole, so that the lead students can get a sense of what points students still find confusing and tailor their presentation to address these.

“My goal is for them to get everyone on the same page in terms of understanding the paper as quickly as possible, so that we [have] the freedom to explore the bigger-picture ideas during our class time.”

To motivate the lead students and to emphasize the idea that it is okay not to understand everything right away, Cooke weights assessment heavily toward skills like organization of ideas, clear communication and practiced presentation of graphics. His assessment of content mastery is based on the students’ ability to identify which are the important experiments and ideas rather than the mastery of technical details. 

Tweaks and adjustments

Cooke developed the course in the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Rethinking Teaching (now Rethinking Course Design) workshop. For his second offering of the course in Fall 2018, he made a number of adjustments based on practical considerations.

“In the first iteration, I didn’t have the Canvas groups report out. Instead, I read all 75 pages of individual student reactions and discussion each week. It was great because I was omniscient. I knew exactly what areas the class was struggling with—but it took a lot of time. Now the leaders and I get a condensed summary of the remaining questions, which is much faster to read.”

As well, he had to learn to let go of how much and what content would be covered.

“I choose papers they will like, such as newer and shorter papers. Some might not be as important scientifically, but it’s not about the content, it’s about getting them excited about the science, so they are motivated to practice skills.”

The impact on students has been significant. One student described it like this: “The course itself was super helpful. I am really, really learning how to read figures, I feel like a real scientist—it’s so cool! I feel like I now know how to read scientific papers … Given enough time and resources I feel like I could read a paper on any topic ... It feels good to be at this level of understanding.”

Related links

Dylan Cooke’s faculty profile page