Barriers Faced by Undergraduate Students when Reading Primary Literature

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Nienke van Houten, Faculty of Health Sciences

Project team: Emily Leaman and Kirk Hepburn, research assistants

Timeframe: December 2014 to June 2016

Funding: $5,000

Courses addressed:

  • HSCI 100 – Human Biology
  • HSCI 477 – Senior Seminar in Vaccine Immunology

Final report: View Nienke van Houten's final project report (PDF)

Description: One of the hallmarks of scholarship includes critical reading and assessment of primary literature in a given field. This skill is imperative as it allows a student to synthesize concepts from multiple sources to gain a deep understanding or nuanced view on a topic, and is an important skill in many professional contexts. While the student process of deep vs. surface learning has been examined for several decades (Marton & Säljö, 1976), it needs more investigation into student practices of interpreting biomedical literature (van Lacum et al., 2012).

I have observed that students first read the introduction, followed by the discussion and the text associated with the results.  They typically avoid the methodology section, and focus on text rather than independently interpreting figures in the results section. The implications are that students take the author’s descriptions at face value and don’t form their own conclusions of the data. These trends were documented by an informal study that I conducted of second year students (van Houten, 2012) and have been observed anecdotally (Spiegelberg, 2014), and systematically (van Lacum et al., 2012) by others. This approach may be due to student attitudes towards reading.

The project will proceed in two stages. Stage One will compare attitudes towards primary literature within and between two courses: first year general biology (HSCI 100 Human Biology), or a fourth year specialized seminar (HSCI 477 Senior Seminar in Vaccine Immunology). Students will complete a survey informed by previous work in this area (Biggs, 1987; Enwistle & Ramsden, 1983). Responses will be assessed for strategies shared by students enrolled in the same course and then compared between courses to identify broad similarities and differences in approaches. Stage Two will uncover individual student approaches to primary literature by using think-aloud one-on-one type interviews (van Someren et al., 1994). Taken together, the information will be used to develop targeted interventions for enhancing literature review skills and these will be systematically assessed for efficacy. Assessment of interventions will be considered in subsequent grant projects.

Questions addressed:

  • What experience do students have in reading primary literature?
  • What are the student attitudes to reading articles? Does this differ between sections?
  • How do students approach reading? What do they prioritize? Do they cross-reference sections? How do they approach gaps in knowledge?
  • How do students approach depth of understanding?


Biggs, J.B. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

Entwistle, N. J., & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding student learning.  London: Croom Helm.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I - Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.

Spiegelberg, B.D., (2014). A focused assignment encouraging deep reading in undergraduate biochemistry. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 42(1), 1-5.

van Houten, N. (June 27, 2012). Boiled or Fried? Using Potatoes to Cultivate Appreciation of Scientific Methods. [Blog entry]. Retrieved from:

van Lacum, E., M. Ossevoort, H. Buikema & M. Goedhart. (2012). First Experiences with Reading Primary Literature by Undergraduate Life Science Students. International Journal of Science Education, 34(12), 1795-1821.

van Someren, M.W., Barnard, Y.F., & Sandberg, J.A.C. (1994). The think aloud method: A practical guide to modelling cognitive processes. London: Academic Press.

Knowledge sharing: As faculty teaching fellow, I organize casual conversations, seminars and workshops that relate to teaching and learning scholarship, thus I would share my experience within my Faculty in this context. I would use the data to enhance our undergraduate program as I am a member of the undergraduate curriculum committee. This project has potential to provide evidence that will inform efforts at creating a scaffolded writing curriculum.

Hepburn, K., Leaman E., & van Houten, N. (2016, July). What is evidence? How students support a main point in primary literature. Presentation at the 2018 National Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER), Minneapolis, MN.

Leaman, E., Hum, G., & van Houten, N. (2015, July). Methods are important? Understanding student attitudes towards reading primary life sciences literature. Presentation at the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) National Meeting, Minneapolis, MN.

Leaman, E., Hum, G., & van Houten, N. (2015, June). Barriers faced by undergraduate students when reading primary literature. Achieving harmony: Tuning into practice. Presentation at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) Annual Conference, Vancouver BC.