Using the Primary Literature in your Classroom

36233488When I think about the skills I want my students to leave college with the ability to think critically is prominently displayed at the top of the list. Thinking about my own development as a scholar I can see that reading, writing and learning to understand the primary scientific literature are some of the activities that helped me to develop those skills.

Handing an article from the primary literature to a brand new college student without giving them the skills to tackle it is bound to result in some students leaving the activity feeling frustrated and “stupid”. If you approach using the primary literature with a little creativity though I think you’ll find that your students gain in leaps and bounds.

For those of you who teach Physiology a resource by Teresa Alvarez1, located on the LifeSciTRC, is a fun way to get your students working in groups, communicating what they learn to others and reading and understanding the primary literature. Students work in groups and are expected to read an article from the primary literature pertaining to a certain topic in Physiology. The group that reads the article is expected to summarize the article addressing bullet points that are highlighted in the resource and then they present that article to the class.

The C.R.E.A.T.E. method2 has been used and thoroughly tested. Students get down and dirty with the primary literature. They read a series of papers from the same lab, following that lab groups progress through a particular initial question that may morph into other questions. After reading each paper students design a follow up study and then read the next article in that laboratories sequence. They end the activity by sending the authors of the papers a series of questions they generated through this process and discuss author responses at the end of the module. They learn more deeply about the scientific method and scientists in general. The C.R.E.A.T.E. website has a wealth of information that might help you implement this technique in your classes.

I have taken a variety of different approaches to incorporating the primary literature into my classes. I always enjoy the more traditional journal club, where students read an article and present it to the rest of the class. I have found good results with this method when my students are slightly more advanced in their understanding but I have colleagues that have used this technique in lower level classes to great effect.

More recently I’ve been using figures taken from the primary literature in my classes. Students see the figures and answer questions about the figures. I generally start with questions that help them to orient themselves to the graph. I might ask students to identify the dependent or independent variable in the graph. Then I move students toward questions that ask them to describe the results the figures, determine conclusions the authors might draw from the results and finally end with implications of the results.

It is exciting to see students discussing the primary literature in their groups. They often argue about what a figure means and become deeply invested in convincing those on their team that they are right. It is reassuring how often they come to the same conclusion as the authors in the paper.

These are just a few ways to expose your students to the primary literature. How do you do it in your classes? Have you used any of the methods highlighted above? What has been most effective for your classes?


  1. Alvarez, Teresa. 2008. Primary Literature Scavenger Hunt.
  2. CREATE (transform understanding of science). 2014.





Lynn Diener, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Sciences Department Chair and Biology Program Director at Mount Mary College. Lynn regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Anatomy, and Ecology. She is also a LifeSciTRC Scholar, Fellow, and Advisory Board Member.


2 thoughts on “Using the Primary Literature in your Classroom”

I like this idea of implementing primary literature. It is interesting that you really have to teach students how to read these texts.

Good thoughts! I’ve used the journaling method in my classroom and find that having to regurgitate the article to the class helps students read the source more deeply and develop a better understanding of what they are reading.

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