Helping Undergraduates Approach Research Articles

Regardless of our current role in academe, education—for us and for our students—is central to our identity as scientists. With that in mind, the ASCB Education Committee (EdComm) is pleased to offer Office Hours with EdComm, a column addressing broad issues in education, ranging from career choice to curriculum development to incorporating technology into your lectures. EdComm Members and Associates look forward to answering your questions; please direct them to


Dear EdComm,
I have been reading about using primary research articles for teaching biology at the undergraduate level. As much as I am keen to introduce research articles in my class—given the benefits of exposing students to the world of scientific inquiry in an authentic way—I worry that undergraduate students might find reading research papers intimidating and would reject such activities. Any tips on how to help students overcome their initial fears?
Thank you.


Dear Desperately,
Yes, you are quite right that students benefit from exposure to research articles; several studies have shown this. You are also very correct that students feel anxious when faced with the prospect of having to read scientific articles for the first time. This is often a hurdle to learning more about the scientific method and could easily defeat the instructor’s intention of trying to excite students about research. Fortunately, this issue is not insurmountable!

The idea of scaffolding student learning is a very useful one and would work well when helping students work through a scientific article. In scaffolding, the instructor offers incremental guidance to students at each level of their approach to mastering a skill or activity, gradually increasing their understanding and their independence in the learning process. In this case, for example, the first scaffold could be simply to introduce students to the typical layout of a scientific article, i.e., the main sections including the Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. This initial guidance about how a scientific article is organized will give students a concrete picture of a research paper.

Then it might help to work through each section with students, explaining the purpose of the section to help demystify why research articles are written in such a format. For instance, students can be shown that the Introduction helps lay the ground for the experiments described in the article by providing a review of what is known in the field as well as the gaps that the research described in the article tries to fill. Students should learn to look in this section for information about the hypothesis that the authors hope to test through the experiments in the paper. Equipped with a basic outline of the purpose of each section, students can approach the article in a stepwise manner and hence feel less apprehensive when reading their first article. Learning activities can help reinforce students’ understanding the function of each section.

One way to lower the barrier for students when introducing scientific articles is to choose an article that closely mirrors the learning outcomes of your module. Then activities can be incorporated to enhance student learning both of the content knowledge related to the module and of critical thinking skills. In relation to concepts, the short literature review in the Introduction of the article can be used to reiterate concepts learned in class. If the concepts are familiar to students, this might even help them gain confidence that what they learned in class is something that real scientists write about in their research papers. There’s nothing like familiarity to help students overcome their imaginary fears that research papers are inaccessible to all but the top scientists! Likewise, getting students to read research articles in which techniques and experimental approaches are similar to what they have used in labs can again really help boost students’ confidence.

Once students get going with reading the article, it is not difficult to incorporate additional activities to tap students’ critical thinking skills. This can be done, for example, by designing activities to guide students to evaluate the paper and not simply to read and accept what is in it. You can challenge students, perhaps in a step-by-step manner, to assess the experimental design, the strength of the data in relation to validity and reliability, and whether the data support the conclusions proposed by the authors. You can support your students using guided questions or activities so students think systematically through the issues.

One recent report shows that analyzing figures in research articles helps students overcome their frustrations as they learn to interpret data.1 Another effective strategy is the CREATE (Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment) model,2 in which scaffolding is achieved by challenging students with specific tasks to focus their attention on key aspects of research articles. Moreover, if students are guided in their readings with prompting questions and class discussions, reading research articles can actually be done with large undergraduate classes.3 So in your initial attempt to introduce activities linked to reading research articles in your class, you might consider adopting or adapting these methods to suit your students.

Getting students to critically examine the key aspects of an article such as the hypothesis, data, and experimental design is a good way to empower them to use their knowledge and thinking skills and is a positive step to encourage them to think as scientists. This might go a long way toward encouraging them to explore scientific research.

To reduce students’ stress levels when working on the higher-level activities, it might be worthwhile to get students to work in groups, since peers can also provide support for one another. By scaffolding student learning with tasks that are challenging in an incremental manner, it is actually possible to help them read research articles and accept that activity as part and parcel of undergraduate learning!


1Round JE, Campbell AM (2013). Figure facts: Encouraging undergraduates to take a data-centered approach to reading primary literature. CBE Life Sci Educ 12, 39–46.
2Stevens LM,  Hoskins SG (2014). The CREATE strategy for intensive analysis of primary literature can be used effectively by newly trained faculty to produce multiple gains in diverse students. CBE Life Sci Educ 13, 224–242.
3Sato BK, Kadandale P, He W, Murata PMN, Latif Y, Warschauer M (2014). Practice makes pretty good: Assessment of primary literature reading abilities across multiple large-enrollment biology laboratory courses. CBE Life Sci Educ 13, 677–686.

About the Author:

(EdComm associate), National University of Singapore