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Q 2012 by The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Vol. 40, No. 5, pp. 330–332, 2012

Student Centered Education
Improving Journal Club: Increasing Student Discussion and
Understanding of Primary Literature in Molecular Biology Through
the Use of Dialectical Notes
Received for publication, May 2, 2012, and in revised form, June 28, 2012
Virginia McDonough‡
From the Department of Biology, Hope College, PO Box 9000 Schaap Science Center,
Holland, Michigan 49422-9000

Reading the primary literature in a journal club format is an excellent practice where undergraduate students can develop their abilities in experimental data analysis and critical thinking, learn about new
ideas and methods, and gain a foothold in scientific discourse. However, students are not familiar with
the format, writing style, and depth of knowledge assumed when first reading journal articles. This can
inhibit class discussion. To alleviate this problem, the author has instituted the use of dialectical notes in
journal club, so that students fully engage the article. This novel use of a strategy borrowed from
humanities has improved class participation.
Keywords: Journal club, dialectical notes, molecular biology education, class participation.
Journal club is a time-honored learning activity that originated with medical school students [1], but has spread
throughout scientific graduate programs. Everyone in the
club reads the same scientific article, but one person will
present the paper and lead a group discussion of the
material. Clubs read current papers, so that the students
can learn about the new findings and the novel techniques. Most clubs focus on a relatively narrow range of
topics that is relevant to the group’s research areas. For
undergraduates, journal club is an excellent way to introduce students to the primary literature, to develop their
abilities in critical thinking, and to practice interpreting
experimental data.
Students in the junior/senior level Molecular Biology
class participate in a course-based journal club. The author
will choose the articles, and a team of two students will
present each paper and lead the discussion. Over the
years, the presenters have generally done a fine job, but
class participation in the discussion has been weak. There
is evidence that students who are not presenters have read
the paper; they posses a dog-eared copy which is all
marked up (sometimes highlighted in several different colors), they have submitted questions before class time, and
they will answer the author’s questions about the paper
when called upon. But the class does not generally add
much to the discussion. After informal conversations with
students on this problem, the author has found that there
are several barriers to participation that seem to fall into
two broad categories. First, there is a lack of background
student’s knowledge; they do not understand all the

‡ To whom correspondence should be addressed. Tel.: 616395-7715. E-mail:
DOI 10.1002/bmb.20640

experiments, the figures may be difficult to interpret if they
are in a format they are not familiar with, and they struggle
with identifying the salient points for drawing conclusions.
Second, there is a certain hesitancy to speak out in class;
perhaps to display to the class the fact they did not understand something, or to appear enthused that something
really intrigued them, or they even may be unsure how to
frame their question. Both these points ultimately derive
from the fact that the primary literature is a completely different way of delivering information than a textbook or lecture. It is evidence based, and one must understand each
experiment as a piece of evidence to discuss the conclusion. Many undergraduate students are not yet comfortable with extracting and evaluating evidence after having
spent their entire learning careers being handed the conclusion. Further complicating the matter, the articles in the
primary literature are a specialized set of knowledge, and
are delivered in a writing style that is as succinct as possible. Undergraduate students lack confidence in their ability
to read such specialized writing to be able to contribute to
journal club. But, these are important skills that novice
scientists need to learn. They need to be able to interpret
and evaluate evidence, and how to discuss research with
colleagues. Reading the primary literature is the best way,
apart from actually doing research, to learn how research
is performed and presented. Moreover, reading the primary
literature will enhance students’ critical thinking skills, skills
that will carry over into the rest of the course work.
Students clearly need a new, more interactive, way to
engage this form of communication; a way that helps
them to not only pick out the important conclusions, but
also lets them admit they do not grasp every statement
or experiment, a way that equally values ‘‘understanding’’
and ‘‘do not understand yet.’’ To address these issues,


This paper is available on line at

but there are several other strategies available. and it provides some moral support for students who are nervous about class presentations. Faculty could choose a large number of papers.’’ the reader writes down under ‘‘text’’ the information that confuses them.90 3.. and. In class. 3. which they do not understand. students have more fully engaged the paper. disagree.0 6 0. Student’s evaluation of the dialectical notes is summarized in Table I. it reduces the number of presentations to half (an important time consideration).90 4.8 6 0. but also discuss the new ideas they have learned. or students could choose their own paper to present from a given topic area.9 6 0.’’ and ‘‘How is this type of experiment done?. and why they find them interesting or enlightening. and let students choose among those.75 4. As mentioned earlier.6 6 0. As far as the mechanics of journal club. Figure 1 shows a typical example of a student’s dialectical notebook page.9 6 0. The author has experimented with a few different themes of paper topics.90 3.8 6 0. they can write questions about the paper ‘‘What is the control?. for the first paper. or information they find illuminating or surprising. will relate the findings in the papers to what they have found in lab. and what they still need to learn. 2. strongly agree. Sessions were designed to help professors develop strategies to increase and improve writing in the undergraduate curriculum. after the session where the author has served as discussion leader.’’ ‘‘Why did they do it this way?.’’ They also will write about new facts they just learned. Now.g.94 Students were given eight questions to answer on a 5-point scale: 5. 1. the author has instituted a novel method of having students interact directly with the manuscript in a spontaneous. This strategy worked well. a faculty workshop was held at the author’s home institution entitled From Informal Writing to Formal Writing Assignments. the author has assigned several papers on one topic. Dialectical notes are a strategy used in the humanities to engage students in a text. neutral. In this dialectical note taking. covering experiments from early days to current findings (e. In the ‘‘response’’ column.73 3. and techniques. Students are encouraged to write what they think as they read the article. Students are encouraged to look up technical questions before class (‘‘What is a northwestern blot?’’). . the author will lead the discussion. they ask questions about the interpretations. strongly disagree (n ¼ 18). and feel confident in what they have learned. however. The team approach serves two purposes. but one in particular caught the author’s attention: dialectical notebooks [2]. the other half is labeled ‘‘comments’’ or ‘‘reaction. Then. agree. on their own. The author has modified their use for students to read scientific articles. they write why this section was of particular interest. Several compelling ideas were discussed and practiced. cholesterol metabolism).331 FIG.9 6 0. Overall students felt that using the dialec- TABLE I Student evaluation of dialectical notesa a Question Average 6 SD 1) Writing dialectical notes was useful because it helped me focus on what I did not know 2) Writing dialectical notes was useful because it helped me focus on interesting parts of the article 3) Writing dialectical notes was useful because it helped me better understand the experiments and conclusions 4) I enjoyed writing dialectical notes because it was unstructured writing (‘‘Spontaneously’’ written without editing or judgment) 5) I was glad that dialectical notes were ungraded 6) I think that writing dialectical notes improved my participation in discussion of the article 7) I think that writing dialectical notes helped me understand the journal articles more than if I had not written the notes 8) I might use the dialectical note strategy in the future when reading articles 3. students had an opportunity to include written comments.0 6 0.74 3. An example of a typical page from a student’s dialectical notes. 4. The students enjoy reading about topics they are actually investigating. nonjudgmental way—dialectical notes. the assigned student leaders take over. As part of an effort to increase writing ability in students. now papers are assigned that relate to the students’ projects in lab.50 3. Students present in teams of two although working singly would also be an option. 1. Dialectical notebooking is a strategy where the reader divides a piece of paper in half into two columns. One half is labeled ‘‘text’’. It is handwritten and hence the process is unedited and spontaneous. In addition. the author assigns each team a paper.’’ In the author’s version of this approach of ‘‘student meets text.

‘‘I liked how it engaged me in the text. but will only peruse them. REFERENCES [1] M. Vol. J. Chang. many students prepare notes that are a dozen BAMBED. Eds. who organized and ran the From Informal Writing to Formal Writing Assignments workshop.9 6 0. 5. pp. and add their own observations. As instituting the dialectical note taking. many students will contribute to the conversation. Students who responded in the open comments section wrote comments such as 1. without being graded on their unedited thoughts. 63. with students agreeing that it was useful in understanding the article (Questions 1–3). Postgrad. 2009) ( Dialectical Notebooks. [2] R. the author grades the notes only as done/not done. Med. M. pp. State University of New York Press.’’ 2. Acknowledgments— The author thanks her Hope College English Department colleagues Dave Klooster and Jackie Bartley. Writing-Based Teaching. Most students enjoyed writing spontaneously. ‘‘They forced me to read actively. The author admit that she will still ask leading questions ‘‘what did you find surprising/ interesting in this paper?’’ or. 2012 pages long.332 tical notes was a positive experience. No. the author has observed much more confidence in class discussion. The author also acknowledges her 2010 and 2011 molecular biology classes for their willing participation as she developed the strategy. but a few did not care so much for the lack of structure (average 3. and helped their participation in class discussion (Question 6). M. The author collects the notes after journal club. Linzer 1987) ( The journal club and medical education: Over one hundred years of unrecorded history.’’ 4. I thought about the article more deeply than I usually would.’’ Originally. rather than just reading to get a grade. 330–332. . Vilardi. some were less enthusiastic (Question 8).9 for both Questions 4 and 5). in T. but after a few journal articles. 40. ‘‘They practiced ability to read articles and pick out important information. ‘‘what does this experimental finding mean?. Bledsoe. Although most of the students agreed that they might use this strategy in the future.’’ But now. 95–118. the author tells the class that the dialectical notes should be a page or two. 475–478. This response may correlate with not caring for the lack of structure.’’ 3. ‘‘It made me actually concentrate on what I was reading. Albany.