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Activity: analysis of a scientific article and design of a follow-up experiment.

The activity described here is a module designed for a Biology Master's class that focuses on developing skills of analysis of scientific papers and experimental design, however it can be implemented in small to medium-enrollment undergraduate classes or in the discussion sections of large enrollment undergraduate classes. In the duration of the quarter (10 weeks), three such modules are implemented, each focusing on a different recent scientific paper from different fields in biology (Cell biology, Neurobiology, Cancer). Each module consisted of five class meetings. In the first meeting, students working in groups of 3-5, identify concepts and methods that are important for understanding of the paper and receive their assigned topics to research and present in the following (second) meeting. In the third meeting, individual students present and analyze key figures and tables from the paper. In preparation to this meeting, students submit a written one-page “paper critique” which contains a brief summary of the background to the study and describes three key experiments. During the fourth class meeting, conclusions from the paper are discussed and groups begin working on one experiment that follows up on the paper. The last meeting of each module is reserved for presentations of the experimental designs by the groups and evaluation of the experiments in a format that resembles grant panel discussions (Hoskins et al., 2007). Although this module borrows some of the elements of the CREATE approach (Hoskins et al., 2007), it has unique features that we believe are valuable: examining papers from different fields of biology allows the students to be exposed to a wider variety of concepts and experimental methods, group activities, such as preparing a mini-lecture of an experimental approach used in the paper or designing follow-up experiments foster team work skills, and provide a supportive environment to develop skills of oral presentations and experimental design.


Learning objectives of this activity:


1. Be able to identify the main topics and experimental methods of a research paper and find sources to understand these topics and methods, be able to explain these concepts and methods 

2. Be able to interpret data from research papers

3. Be able to identify key experiments of from a scientific paper and critically analyze them using clear and concise scientific writing

4. Be able to identify future directions of research presented in papers and design controlled experiments to explore these directions

5. Be able to clearly communicate scientific ideas, orally and in writing

6. Be able to work as part of a team



  1. To evaluate students’ individual ability to analyze scientific papers, paper critiques (paper background and analysis of three key experiments) are evaluated based on a rubric that includes such elements as identification of experimental question, the experimental system, methods used, controls and description of the results and their analysis. Three such critiques are submitted during the quarter.


2.     2. To test whether methods employed in this course result in an improved ability of student groups to design experiments, we examine the experimental proposals that follow up on the experiments described in the scientific papers discussed in this course, submitted by groups of 3-5 students. These experimental proposals are part of the regular homework assignments in this course.


  1. To more rigorously evaluate the changes in individual students’ critical thinking skills, we developed a critical thinking test that measures students’ ability to analyze biological data, evaluate a hypothesis based on these data, and design their own biological experiments. The test was designed using the Blooming Biology Tool (BBT; Crowe et al., 2008). Two very similar versions of the test have been developed and are administered in the pre-test (beginning of the quarter, one version) and post-test (end of the quarter, another version) format. To differentiate between the potential gain in critical thinking skills that resulted from taking BGGN 211 course and the gain that might occur as a result of other factors (for example, taking other graduate courses, performing research, interacting with the thesis advisor), two groups of Master’s students will be recruited: the experimental group (took the course) and the control group (did not take this course).


  1. To test the effect of the teaching methodology on students’ critical thinking skills outside of the area of biology, we will administer the Assessment of Critical Thinking Ability (ACTA) survey (White et al., 2011) to two groups of the Master’s students: those that have taken this course and those who have not taken it.




Hoskins, S.G., L.M. Stevens, and R.H. Nehm. 2007. Selective use of the primary literature transforms the classroom into a virtual laboratory. Genetics. 176:1381-9.

 White, B., Stains, M., Escriu-Sune, M., Medaglia, E., Rostamnjad, L., Chinn, C., and Sevian, H. (2011) A Novel Instrument for Assessing Students’ Critical Thinking Abilities. Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 5, p. 102-107.

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