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How can we teach how to read a research paper to undergraduate students?

Anuttama Kulkarni

A lot of emphasis is given to introducing research in undergraduate curricula. On the other hand, there is little to no discussion about how to introduce the students to reading primary literature critically, or how to assess their understanding of it. Can there be a structured way of getting a regular undergraduate, who may or may not be interested in a research career, enthused about reading a research paper? How to test whether they have understood what they have read? These were the questions dealt with by the educators of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), Mumbai while developing a three-day module for reading research papers. In this article, one of the facilitators of the module walks us through their process.

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay 

Conventionally, teaching biology in undergraduate courses involves delivering content from textbooks. This approach is inefficient for teaching how to read a research paper. Reading a research article becomes frustrating for undergraduate students when they cannot comprehend it. Hence, teaching’, here, is about taking the frustration out and enabling learning. To that end, we used a structured and timed approach and observed encouraging feedback from the students. Additionally, their test scores indicated a good understanding of the paper by them. We would like to share our experience here. 

About the initiative 

Our first batch of students comprised 29 first-year undergraduate students from different regions of the country who were selected under the National Initiative for Undergraduate Science (NIUS) program of HBCSE in December 2018. The next three modules were conducted online with a total of 62 regular undergraduates in July and August 2020. Participants were second- and third-year B.Sc. students from three colleges who had chosen life sciences or related sub-disciplines as major subjects. 


Research paper reading is one of the most effective and inexpensive ways of introducing scientific inquiry in undergraduate courses. Yet, there are roadblocks (Table 1) that hinder the inclusion of a systematic approach to reading research papers in many of the regular undergraduate courses. While some of these problems are universal, others are more prominent in our Indian colleges and universities. 

Table 1.

Table 1

How can we work around these limitations? 

  • Choosing the right’ paper

Our process to work along with these limitations began with choosing the right’ paper. We considered the following factors in making our choice. We looked for papers that were landmarks in their field, as they are excellent examples of how to practice science. We also wanted the paper to be relevant to some topic in students’ curriculum to make comprehension easier. We avoided recent publications with complex techniques and statistics in the introductory session – we didn’t want to burden the students with technicalities at this stage. We also avoided articles describing huge, classical discoveries, like DNA polymerase, and DNA structure/​function. This was simply because the students already know about the crux of these famous discoveries and can easily guess their impact on the field, even without reading the article. Lastly, we wanted the facilitator to be comfortable with the paper. Considering all the above, the paper we chose was related to the effects of extracellular matrix on cell differentiation. The title of the article was Control of mammary epithelial differentiation: basement membrane induces tissue-specific gene expression in the absence of cell-cell interaction and morphological polarity’, published in The Journal of Cell Biology by Streuli et al., in the year 1991. We used this paper in all of our modules.

  • Taking the before’ lecture

We started each of our modules with an introductory lecture to make students feel more confident about their ability to comprehend the paper. This before’ lecture covered the background of the field, for example, cell-matrix interactions, adherence junctions, and so on. It also covered the techniques used in the paper. We also discussed what a scientific method is, what a research paper is, and why students should read it (Table 2).

Table 2.

Table 2
  • Dividing the paper into two parts 

After the lecture, students read the first half of the paper on their own. The next day, we asked them to answer multiple-choice as well as subjective questions about the research question addressed by the article, the hypothesis, their understanding of the figures and the results in the first half of the results section, and the conclusions drawn from them. After the students answered the questions, the facilitator took them through the details of what they read and understood. The students were then asked to read the second half of the paper.

On the third day, we conducted another test based on the second half of the paper and following that, we asked the students to lead the discussion. We think that having read half of the paper just a day before with the entire class and the facilitator encourages the students to persist in reading and discussing the rest of the article on their own. A detailed schedule for all three days is outlined in table 3.

  • Table 3.
Table 3
  • Assessing students- the open book/​internet test 

We assessed the students for their ability to understand the research article. Hence, the questions were analytical in nature. We allowed them to keep the article and reference books, and access the internet as they answered the test. The only restriction during the test was that they do not discuss with their peers. This was a requirement for individual assessment. 

Students’ answers were graded using the following four criteria: if the answer was copy-pasted or irrelevant (graded — 0), if the answer revealed some / incomplete understanding (graded ‑1), if the answer indicated satisfactory understanding (graded‑2), and finally, if the understanding was good to excellent (graded‑3). Figure 1 shows an example of the questions asked and the learning outcomes of three online classrooms (n = 62) where these sessions were conducted. 

    Figure 1: A. A screenshot of the answer sheet (google form) filled by students to questions based on the figure panels of the research article in Test I. B. Section-wise assessment of the students reflected by the average score of Test I and Test II during the online workshops (n= 62). Photo: Author 
    • Taking feedback and improvising 

    After the three days were over, we requested feedback from the students. Most of the students of our first batch rated the experience to be very good or excellent. But, while interacting with them, we realized that we had to tell them why they are reading a paper. Also, we had to cover all’ the figures in our tests and presentations. We noticed that students would not understand the methods or the future directions/​impact of the findings in detail in a three-day schedule. So these topics were reserved for discussions and omitted from tests from the later three workshops. 

    In the online modules, more than 80% of the students rated the experience to be very good or excellent on all aspects. As science educators, we found the students’ comments encouraging and interesting. We list some selected comments below; words in bold indicate that the students were intellectually enthused. 

    Excellent experience, the analyzing portion induced curiosity

    This workshop has been great throughout. Gives a completely different aspect of research. Would love to learn more!!”

    It was a fun workshop; we were so influenced and motivated by the speakers. They provided [us] with great knowledge. [We] would like to attend more workshops and would like to do the experiment in person, as it would be [better] to also have practical knowledge. Thank you so much to all the people who made this possible. And we would like to have this one more time in future..” 

    It was a very beneficial session. A number of previously known concepts have become clearer. The discussions conducted made it much better to understand a paper that I wouldn’t have [understood] otherwise”

    The session was very informative. It was a great exercise for my brain

    Figure 2: A screenshot of one of the sessions of the module. Photo: Author.
    Figure 2: A screenshot of one of the sessions of a module. Photo: Author.
    • Parting thoughts

    Reading a virology paper can be very different from reading an ecology paper. An undergraduate student studies a variety of sub-disciplines of biology. 44 out of 57 students who filled out the feedback form wanted to discuss another research paper on a topic of their interest. The choice of the research paper depends a lot on the comfort zone of the teacher/​local facilitators. And to be honest, most of us are not equipped with in-depth background knowledge of all the fields. 

    Can we have scientists/​postdoctoral researchers/​PhD scholars select the right papers from their field, and record a before’ lecture for undergraduates or the facilitators? Can there be an online resource for teaching how to read research papers? Would that minimize the need for a specialized facilitator for reading discipline-wise research papers? We would like to part with this thought for all of us.