Purdue University Graduate School
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Examining Literacy Practices Among Novice and Expert Biologists: Implications for Instruction Utilizing Primary Research Literature

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posted on 2019-10-16, 17:04 authored by Richard F LieRichard F Lie

Primary literature serves an integral role within disciplinary communities to facilitate communication and mediate knowledge construction. As such, scientists devote much of their time immersed in primary literature to negotiate and update disciplinary knowledge. Despite the importance and relevance of this task, many biology students express considerable difficulties in engaging with such literature. In a time where knowledge production exceeds students’ capacity to learn content, undergraduate biology instructors must focus efforts to promote skills that will enable students to successfully navigate disciplinary literature. While various studies have emerged offering novel instructional approaches on how to teach students how to read primary literature, many rely on either anecdotal evidence or a tacit understanding of how novice and expert biologists read primary articles. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the literacy practices of expert and novice biologists to better inform teaching practices related to primary literature.

For this study, we identified and characterized the literacy practices of seven biology faculty members and nineteen upper-level biology undergraduates at a large midwestern research institution. Data were collected using a semi-structured interview format. Participants described their actions while reading a primary research article of their choosing. Additionally, we examined the ways in which biology faculty implement primary literature in undergraduate coursework. Data were analyzed using primarily constant comparative approaches. Quantitative and mixed-methods approaches were also used, where appropriate.

The results show that expert and novice biologists read primary literature in distinctively different ways. While both populations tended to read the articles in a selective manner (i.e., reading particular sections while omitting others), experts often skipped the Introduction whereas students often skipped the Methods section. Students also tended to read articles in a linear manner, whereas faculty navigated the articles less linearly. Based on participants narration of reading, we generated unique reading-related actions. Experts were highly specific in their actions (e.g., predicting experimental approach, evaluate statistical methodologies), suggesting that they approached articles with an a priori framework. In contrast, students’ described actions tended to be more general (e.g., using text to reinforce understanding). Reading actions were further analyzed by organizing actions into cognitive domains (e.g., remember, understand, evaluate, etc.). Experts’ reading aligned with diversity of cognitive domains, with actions distributed around understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate. In contrast, students primarily focused on understand and remember-related actions. We also identified factors that both populations cite when determining the credibility of an article.

Furthermore, we examined faculty members’ self-reported teaching practices with primary literature. Faculty agreed that students ought to develop competencies aligned with understand and evaluate cognitive processes. Despite this expectation for students to be develop evaluative reading skills, few faculty members explicitly describe instruction that target evaluative thinking. We also examined how instructors described implementation of primary literature and found that a majority of instructors describe practices that align with instructive practices. Lastly, we describe the criteria in which faculty selected primary articles for classroom usage.

The findings of this study contribute to the understanding of literacy practices of novice and expert biologists, which can help to inform curricula development. While instructors agree that students ought to be able to critically evaluate primary articles, students rarely describe engaging in evaluative reading practices, with most of their efforts spent on understanding. Learning to read primary literature in a manner that allows students to engage disciplinary ways of knowing is a difficult task, yet necessary for students to address the challenges of 21st century biology. Thus, scaffolded instruction spanning undergraduate biology curricula must be considered to help students move beyond comprehension and engage in evaluative practices.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Biological Sciences

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

S. Selcen Guzey

Additional Committee Member 2

Stephanie Gardner

Additional Committee Member 3

Nancy Pelaez

Additional Committee Member 4

Tamara Moore

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