Asking the right questions

Sometimes, when I am asked to teach a library session for upper level classes, I will ask the faculty members what their student know about a particular aspect of library research.  They, in turn will ask their students some variation on “Do you know how to use Scopus?”  Unfortunately, the answers to this question are often less than useful – almost all students will say yes because they can all type a few keywords into the search box.

This is apparent in the formative assessment I do for an upper level class on evolution.  We want to know what the students know about the primary literature, so we ask them to fill out a survey prior to the library session.  Students are asked two open ended questions:

  1. What is a primary research article?
  2. How can you distinguish a primary research article from other types of scientific articles (websites, conference proceedings, review articles, news articles, etc.)?

At this level, the students can easily answer these questions with reasonably well thought out answers.  But these questions don’t evaluate if students can apply that knowledge.  So we add one more task to the formative survey.

Students are asked to look at 6 different examples of the scientific literature and indicate which ones would be considered “primary research.”  These are the items I used this semester (sorry, many of these are behind a paywall):

  1. Reproductive skew and selection on female ornamentation in social species – A letter from Nature, the methods are summarized at the end, and complete methods are in the supplemental material
  2. The fickle Y chromosome – A news story from Nature news reporting on a primary research article in the same issue
  3. The Evolution of Early Foraminifera – A primary research article from PNAS
  4. Genetic recombination – A wikipedia article
  5. Defeating Pathogen Resistance: Guidance from Evolutionary Theory – A commentary
  6. Evolutionary dynamics of a natural population: the large cactus finch of the Galapagos – A book

When I get to class, we start a discussion of the different types of scientific literature using these selections as a guide.

Most students understand that #1 is a primary research article, and a slightly smaller percentage pick #3 as well (the general title seems to throw them off).

None of the students pick #2 (news) or #4 (Wikipedia), but we talk about how resources like this can still be useful to them – using their references or for help in understanding complicated topics.

The Commentary (#5) is a format that is normally new to them, and we talk a bit about where you can find them and what their purpose is (highly varied).

The book (#6) is the most confusing for the students, and 50% of the students will often call this primary literature.  The book presents the final results of a “10 year study”, most of which has previously been published in peer-reviewed articles, but probably not all.  This precise example is in a bit of fuzzy territory, and it provides us with an opportunity to discuss the role of books in the scientific literature.

I like teaching this class, and I think it’s useful for the students.  It shows the importance of asking the right questions – asking someone “Can you do this?” might get a very different response than “Show me how you do this.”