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When Do Students “Learn-to-Comprehend” Scientific Sources?: Evaluation of a Critical Skill in Undergraduates Progressing through a Science Major

    Authors: Tamara L. Marsh1, Merrilee F. Guenther1, Stacey L. Raimondi1,*
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    Affiliations: 1: Department of Biology, Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, IL 60126
    AUTHOR AND ARTICLE INFORMATION AUTHOR AND ARTICLE INFORMATION
    • Published 01 May 2015
    • Supplemental materials available at http://jmbe.asm.org
    • *Corresponding author. Mailing address: Elmhurst College, 190 Prospect Ave., Box 133, Elmhurst, IL 60126. Phone: 630-617-3323. Fax: 630-617-6474. E-mail: raimondis@elmhurst.edu.
    • ©2015 Author(s). Published by the American Society for Microbiology.
    Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. May 2015 vol. 16 no. 1 13-20. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.828
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    Abstract:

    In response to the publication of Vision and Change, the biology department at Elmhurst College revised our curriculum to better prepare students for a career in science with the addition of various writing assignments in every course. One commonality among all of the assignments is the ability to comprehend and critically evaluate scientific literature to determine relevancy and possible future research. Several previous reports have analyzed specific methodologies to improve student comprehension of scientific writing and critical thinking skills, yet none of these examined student growth over an undergraduate career. In this study, we hypothesized upper-level students would be better able to comprehend and critically analyze scientific literature than introductory biology majors. Biology students enrolled in an introductory (200-level), mid- (300-level), or late-career (400-level) course were tasked with reading and responding to questions regarding a common scientific article and rating their comfort and confidence in reading published literature. As predicted, upper-level (mid- and late-career) students showed increases in comprehension and critical analysis relative to their first-year peers. Interestingly, we observed that upper-level students read articles differently than introductory students, leading to significant gains in understanding and confidence. However, the observed gains were modest overall, indicating that further pedagogical change is necessary to improve student skills and confidence in reading scientific articles while fulfilling the Vision and Change recommendations.

Key Concept Ranking

Microbial Ecology
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References & Citations

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2015-05-01
2017-03-23

Abstract:

In response to the publication of Vision and Change, the biology department at Elmhurst College revised our curriculum to better prepare students for a career in science with the addition of various writing assignments in every course. One commonality among all of the assignments is the ability to comprehend and critically evaluate scientific literature to determine relevancy and possible future research. Several previous reports have analyzed specific methodologies to improve student comprehension of scientific writing and critical thinking skills, yet none of these examined student growth over an undergraduate career. In this study, we hypothesized upper-level students would be better able to comprehend and critically analyze scientific literature than introductory biology majors. Biology students enrolled in an introductory (200-level), mid- (300-level), or late-career (400-level) course were tasked with reading and responding to questions regarding a common scientific article and rating their comfort and confidence in reading published literature. As predicted, upper-level (mid- and late-career) students showed increases in comprehension and critical analysis relative to their first-year peers. Interestingly, we observed that upper-level students read articles differently than introductory students, leading to significant gains in understanding and confidence. However, the observed gains were modest overall, indicating that further pedagogical change is necessary to improve student skills and confidence in reading scientific articles while fulfilling the Vision and Change recommendations.

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Figures

Image of FIGURE 1.

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FIGURE 1.

Assessment of student understanding of a scientific paper. First-year and upper-level student responses to three questions pertaining to Woese et al. ( 22 ). Questions asked included: 1) identify the hypothesis, 2) identify the key findings, and 3) identify the contribution(s) of the paper to the field. All scores were averaged, with error bars indicating standard error of the mean, and statistical analysis was performed using a Student’s t-test (* indicates p < 0.001 compared with first-year majors).

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. May 2015 vol. 16 no. 1 13-20. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.828
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Image of FIGURE 2.

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FIGURE 2.

Self-assessment of student struggles when reading journal articles. After reading and answering questions about the Woese et al. article ( 22 ), students were asked to indicate whether they struggled in any way while reading the article with understanding the language (words), understanding the visuals (graphs and tables), comprehension of the topic in general, or other. Bar graph indicates the percentage of students who indicated they struggled in any area.

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. May 2015 vol. 16 no. 1 13-20. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.828
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Image of FIGURE 3.

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FIGURE 3.

Self-rating of student comfort/confidence when reading journal articles. Students ranked their confidence/comfort with reading scientific papers, understanding graphs/tables/figures, determining a hypothesis, understanding the methods used, and identifying potential problems/pitfalls in the work. All scores were averaged and statistical analysis was performed using a Student’s -test (* indicates 0.01 compared with first-year majors).

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. May 2015 vol. 16 no. 1 13-20. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.828
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FIGURE 4.

Evaluation of student markups on journal article copy. (A) Percentage of introductory and upper-level biology majors who made any marks on the article copy. (B) Breakdown of number of sentences marked up on the article copy by introductory (BIO200) students or upper-level biology majors enrolled in Evolution of Vertebrates (BIO355) and Microbial Ecology (BIO451).

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. May 2015 vol. 16 no. 1 13-20. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.828
Download as Powerpoint

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