Fostering productive participation in the critique and discussion of scientific literature at the postsecondary level

by Pallabi Mustafi

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Constructing and criticizing an idea are essential parts of ‘science as a practice’. This practice should be nurtured in university science classrooms through reading and discussing primary scientific literature. There have been several instructional approaches for teaching undergraduate students to read primary scientific literature for different goals, but very few approaches foster discussions through critique. Jablonski and Grinath’s (2023) recent work elegantly put forward various ways in which students can participate in the critique of scientific literature.

Because students tackle diverse science problems that could be addressed with multiple possible solutions, they are the key drivers in shaping classroom knowledge by constructing and critiquing ideas following classroom and discipline norms. Educators must be equipped with adequate material and devoted time to foster a healthy practice of scientific discussions among students. Jablonski and Grinath (2023) focused on undergraduate biology education at a four-year university in the Intermountain West United States. The authors analyzed multiple classroom discussions to describe what postsecondary students attend to when they critique and what forms of participation emerged from students reading and discussing primary scientific literature. The discussions took place in three different situations:

a.) The 200-level Ecology course
b.) 400/500-level Organismal Biology
c.) A journal club embedded in an undergraduate summer research program.

The authors found that defined guidelines for student participation in literature discussions were critically important, as was the role of educators in modifying these guidelines over time to foster constructive critique. For example, you might ask students to focus on the rationale behind the research or explain the research designs. You could also ask them to identify the scientific claims and explain how they are supported by evidence, alongside assessing the clarity and impact of results. These prompts are various aspects of what the authors call ‘epistemic critique’. Guidelines about ‘stylistic critique’ are aimed at the organization and writing style of an article.

How did critique differ across students in the three case studies? The elective nature of the Journal Club led students to choose literature topics related to their field of interest. This often ended up in more criticism highlighting the weaknesses of the study. Whereas in the lower division cases students had both epistemic and stylistic critiques to similar level. Besides critiques several other interesting forms of participation emerged in all three cases: by making personal connections to relevant issues and related studies and by imagining new experiments to answer questions emerging from the discussions. These non-critique ways of participation open ways for brainstorming ideas with a more celebrated outcome for the group.

This study pointed the role of educators in structuring primary literature discussions in ways that both elevate and connect students’ agency and personal relevance. Most importantly, this study urges educators to reflect on the nature of participation in their individual classroom context and cautiously evolve the discussion guidelines, while acknowledging other non-critique ways of participation in criticizing scientific literature. These would help biology educators to shape a healthy practice of science among students.


Jablonski GB and Grinath AS. 2023. Postsecondary biology students’ ways of participating in the critique and discussion of primary scientific literature. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 22: ar47.