Students have difficulty reading primary scientific literature correctly. Research universities and universities of applied sciences therefore need to teach students how to read scientific texts and train them to be critical of what they are reading. Using the Scientific Argumentation Model in tutor groups can help them. This is the conclusion reached by Edwin van Lacum, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 28 June 2013 for his research into this teaching strategy.
Reading scientific articles is one of the most important skills in higher education, but students often have difficulty grasping this literature correctly. One of the reasons is that scientific texts differ fundamentally from the texts that they were reading at secondary school.
Edwin van Lacum explains: ‘Secondary school pupils are presented with textbooks that present all knowledge as fixed. That’s diametrically opposed to the way primary scientific literature works, by persuasion: science is discussion, the scientist is trying to convince readers that he or she is right. Students find that difficult. Also, an article can contain errors, as we have recently seen all too clearly from the scandals involving fraudulent work by academics.’
Van Lacum therefore developed the Scientific Argumentation Model, in collaboration with Marcel Koeneman, to help students grasp scientific literature. The model is based on ‘rhetorical moves’, passages of text that have a specific communication function (the research topic, for instance). In order to develop the model he carried out a literature survey to find out what rhetorical moves are used in articles in the exact sciences. He combined the seven moves that emerged as most important – motive, objective, main conclusion, implication, support, counterarguments and refutations – with theories about argumentation scenarios that describe the content of scientific articles.
First-year Life Sciences students tested Van Lacum’s model in the Biomedical Research course unit, where they used it in tutor groups to analyse articles. Van Lacum: ‘They read an article a week for eight weeks using the model, the assignment being to identify the rhetorical moves. The model serves as a tool to find out how a scientific text is constructed.’ Van Lacum examined their scientific reading skills before and after the course unit.
Van Lacum’s strategy proved successful. By the end of the course unit the students’ rhetorical understanding – their ability to identify rhetorical moves – was improved. Their reading strategy had also changed. Van Lacum notes: ‘By the end of the course unit the students were reading faster and in a less linear fashion. This latter can be seen as an important gauge of reading level, as experts often don’t read an article linearly: first they look at the charts and draw their own conclusions, then they look at whether the conclusion and discussion tally with their own analysis.’
Van Lacum found that the students did not make any progress in recognizing counter-arguments, however. ‘Students don’t expect to find counter-arguments in an article, because they have the idea that the author would be undermining his own argument. But scientists do present counter-arguments precisely so that they can debunk them. That puts them one step ahead of their opponents.’
Language is the poor relation of higher education, thinks Van Lacum. ‘Scientists often regard language merely as a means of communication. But language is what authors use to convince readers that they are right. Being able to read scientific literature correctly and critically is a basic academic skill. For students to complete their studies successfully, then, far more attention needs to be paid to reading – and writing – skills as part of the curriculum. Or perhaps they should start learning academic reading skills at secondary school, certainly at HAVO (senior general secondary) and VWO (pre-university) school, as these prepare pupils for higher education.”
Edwin B. van Lacum (Groningen, 1981) studied Medical Biology and Science Communication at the University of Groningen. After graduating he began his PhD research at the Department of Education of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. Since August he has been lecturing in basic academic skills at the University of Amsterdam. He is taking his PhD in Mathematics and Natural Sciences under Prof. Martin J. Goedhart and co-supervisor Dr Miriam A. Ossevoort. The title of his thesis is Reading Primary Literature – Introducing Undergraduate Life Science Students to the Rhetorical Structure of Research Articles.
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