April 17, 2018

Students don’t know how to read research papers—and they need to be taught

Senior lecturer Nienke van Houten (Health Sciences) conducted a study to see how students use research papers. She found that they lack critical reading skills.

Nienke van Houten is exploring how to help students recognize the difference between rigour and truthiness in research papers.

“With the rise of pseudo-scientific research, there is an increasing need to equip our students with critical reading skills early, so that they can discern between what is and isn’t academically grounded knowledge,” explains van Houten, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

To determine what kinds of instructional practices are needed to support this kind of literacy, van Houten first examined how students read primary literature—an area she says has been largely unexplored. (Van Houten’s research is being supported through a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines.)

Although she is only partway through her study, she says that her results have already illuminated some concerning patterns regarding student reading.

Avoiding the difficult areas

In the first phase of her research, van Houten had two groups of science students, one composed of first-year students and the second composed of third- and fourth-year students, read research articles and then complete surveys focused on how they navigated those articles.

“Even in those rare cases that the students do look at the data section, they are reading the author’s narrative as opposed to trying to interpret the charts and graphs for themselves.”

“What we found was that most students are avoiding the technically difficult areas, instead looking to the introduction and discussion sections for comprehension. Even in those rare cases that the students do look at the data section, they are reading the author’s narrative as opposed to trying to interpret the charts and graphs for themselves.”

This tendency, she notes, is best summed up by the comment of one participant, who stated, “I don’t understand the methods sections, so I just trust the researcher.”

Van Houten says the situation is particularly troubling in the case of more experienced students. “They have taken statistical courses and know they should be applying those skills to look at the data for themselves, but they seem to be having trouble transferring those skills to reading papers.”

A need for explicit instruction

In the second phase of her research, van Houten conducted one-on-one interviews with students from a range of disciplines. As part of this process, participants were given a research article and asked to identity two main points and their accompanying evidence. The intent, she says, was to move beyond assessing what students think they do, to seeing what they actually do.

“In only three out of the 19 interviews were students able to identify reasonable conclusions and cite the correct supporting data. We want them to be able to point to evidence, interpret figures, understand the differences in experimental design, but my research suggests that this is just not happening.”

The problem, explains van Houten, is that students are given little explicit instruction in how to read research papers: “Analyzing and interpreting peer-reviewed articles is a very specific skill, and just taking a statistics course isn’t going to get you there. We instructors need to be offering our students learning interventions explicitly focused on how to make sense of research papers, and we need to do so early on in their careers.”

Next steps

Although van Houten is planning to develop strategies that instructors can use for exactly this purpose in the next phase of her research, she says that one tool she has already implemented in her classes is the Figure Facts Template, a chart framework that guides students to interpret data and methods sections by responding to a series of simple questions.  

“We don’t want our students to just trust what they read is true; that can be a very dangerous road—what we want is for them to have the skills to decide for themselves.”

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