Learning to Read the Scholarly Literature

hela cells

Specimens from a line of cultured human cells used for medical research. (Image by Tom Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, courtesy of NIH Image Gallery on Flickr. License CC BY.)

Students in MIT Biology’s Advanced Undergraduate Seminars hone their professional skills by studying specialized topics in depth.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

If you browse the OpenCourseWare offerings in Biology, quickly skimming the list of course numbers, you’re likely to be struck by how many courses have numbers between 7.340 and 7.349: there are eight versions of 7.340, ten versions of 7.341, eighteen versions of 7.342, and so on. In fact, these ten course numbers account for well over half of the OCW courses in Biology. 

Why do we include so many versions of the same few subjects? Actually, all of the courses with numbers 7.340 through 7.349 are on different topics, though they’re all the same in one crucial respect: they’re all Advanced Undergraduate Seminars. The Advanced Undergraduate Seminars are courses designed to allow students to study and discuss primary literature while learning about current biological research.

How They Work

Prerequisites vary slightly from one course to another, but the seminars typically require students to have taken introductory courses in topics such as cell biology, molecular biology, and genetics. The class size is limited to eight students to ensure as much interaction as possible between student and instructor. And the instructors for the seminars are typically postdoctoral research scientists with a strong interest in teaching; they’re thus uniquely qualified to help their students learn to read research articles and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the experiments presented.

Class sessions are designed to be as interactive as possible. Typically, before each week’s session, students are asked to read one or two primary research papers. They’re expected to come to class having read the papers thoroughly, and to be prepared to discuss and critique each paper. In order to ensure that students are fully prepared, some instructors require each student to submit one or two questions based on the reading by email before each class; these questions then form the basis for the class discussion. In other cases, instructors assign each student a role in leading the class by explaining or interpreting one figure from one of the readings each week. The goal is for the students to be the ones actively propelling the discussion, with the instructor serving primarily as a facilitator and factual resource.  

Two Instructors Share Their Perspective

At the Instructor Insights page for 7.341 The Microbiome and Drug Delivery: Cross-species Communication in Health and Disease, you can find a video interview with the course’s instructors, Dr. Ali Beyzavi and Dr. Miguel Jimenez. In the various chapters of this video, Drs. Beyzavi and Jimenez share their strategies for teaching students to read the primary literature, the role of instructors’ questions in guiding class discussions, the surprising structure of their course’s mid-term assignment, the way the final presentations summed up what the students had been learning throughout the course, the reason why the class field trip was to a biotech firm rather than to an MIT lab, and what post-docs like themselves stand to gain from teaching an Advanced Undergraduate Seminar.

The Range of Offerings

For examples of the kinds of topics covered in Advanced Undergraduate Seminars, check out this small sampling of the seminars represented on OCW:

7.340 Nano-Life: An Introduction to Virus Structure and Assembly
7.341 DNA’s Sister Does All the Work: The Central Roles of RNA in Gene Expression
7.342 A Double-Edged Sword: Cellular Immunity in Health and Disease
7.343 An RNA Safari: Exploring the Surprising Diversity of Mammalian Transcriptomes
7.345 The Science of Sperm
7.345 Survival in Extreme Conditions: The Bacterial Stress Response
7.347 Living Dangerously: How the Immune System Maintains Peace with Trillions of Commensal Bacteria while Preventing Pathogenic Invasions
7.349 Biological Computing: At the Crossroads of Engineering and Science

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About Peter Chipman

I'm a lexicographer, an editor, and a lover of language and literature. Also a proud father of two, an occasional bell-ringer, a thirteenth-generation New England Yankee, a former owner of a one-room schoolhouse, and the current owner of a 220-year-old farmhouse.

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