7 Jun 2016

Taking the plunge - and liking it!

Submitted by Barbara Reisner, James Madison University

Adam may have just written about his experience using Lit Discussions. I want to follow up with my experience moving almost exclusively to Lit Discussions. This semester, I decided to lose the lecture and teach entirely from the literature in an elective class that I co-taught, the Science of the Small (SOTS).In this BITEs post, I want to share the strategies that I’ve learned to develop Lit Discussions on the fly, since that’s what I did for part of my spring semester, and tell you about the student response to this change.

The motivation. SOTS is an elective class that I’ve co-taught with two colleagues twice before. It’s offered every 2-3 years and requires a year of general chemistry and a year of calculus based physics. (Unofficially, all of the students also take our Introduction to Materials Science class.) A mix of chemists, physicists and the occasional engineer takes the course. In the past, I taught like I was taught. I lectured on lots of ideas that I thought were cool. I brought in lots of examples from the literature, and hoped that students would look up the references. We assessed student performance mostly with tests, but students also wrote a paper and gave a presentation based on the literature. I was vaguely dissatisfied with the course. It wasn’t clear to me what students would take away from the experience, I couldn’t articulate the long term (content) learning gains, and it was a lot of work to keep the class current (since I was teaching out of field). This was my motivation to take-the-plunge into using Lit Discussions as the focal point of my part of the class.

The mechanics. The class met for 29 75-minute periods over the semester. I used 6 of my 9 classes for lit discussions. (I used my other class periods for labs and to give the students some time back because we took a 36-hour road trip to see the Analytical Instrumentation Facility at NC State - amazing! Maybe we should have a new type of LO on the website - awesome field trips to inspire and educate students.) A total of 6 class periods were devoted to student presentations on the literature. In pairs, students were responsible for providing 15-minute introduction to a paper selected by the faculty. Individually, each student gave a 20-25 minute presentation reviewing an area of their choosing (related to nanoscience).

The course goals. For my inorganic courses, I tend to have many more content learning objectives. Because SOTS is an elective, I felt entirely liberated from these content goals. I redefined my course goals. I wanted students to: become familiar with the interesting questions (at least to me) that people are studying in nanoscience; be more critical about the experiments published in the literature; think of how basic research is connected to applications; learn about the tools in nanoscience; and broaden their understanding of chemistry.

The scary bit. “Taking-the-plunge” describes how I felt when I began my part of the course. For every class, I had the students read 1-2 papers that interested me. Most of these were from the recent (2015 & 2016) literature. I didn’t use VIPEr Lit Discussion LOs for any of the papers that I discussed because of the mismatch between the learning objectives of the existing LOs, my course goals, and the background knowledge of my students.2 I developed on-the-fly Lit Discussions for every paper we discussed.

My big take away. By forcing myself to practice Lit Discussions, I became much more confident in my ability to lead a class discussion. By the time I was partway through my part of the class, I figured out a system that helps me turn any interesting paper into an easy 60-minute literature discussion. Here is the framework I used to guide our discussions.

  • What do we need to define before we start our discussion?
  • What big picture ideas are confusing?
  • What do the figures / tables mean? (I randomly called on them to answer these questions during class. Since everyone knew that they would be on the spot, they were almost always prepared!)
  • Next, I used a few guiding questions that I prepared about the science in the paper.
  • What is the major contribution of the paper and how does it relate to existing work?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the data and results presented?
  • You are a researcher in the field of X. What would you tell a funding agency to get money to conduct your research? What's the 30-second and two-minute version of your elevator pitch? (I also asked students to develop a pitch for our presidential candidates to explain why we should invest resources in this technology. At that point in the semester, there were a lot of presidential candidates!)

Usually, the students would answer each other’s questions for many of these questions. I jumped into the discussion to provide additional insights or to draw attention to things that I thought were important and weren’t being fully discussed.

The caveats. This worked great in SOTS, but I’m not sure that it would work well in any class. I had a small class of motivated juniors and seniors who almost always read the papers and were interested in the material. They had lots of questions and brought their own expertise to answer each other's questions. It helped that all of them had completed coursework where they learned how to dissect and closely read papers.

I also haven't figured out how to do this in my inorganic chemistry courses, yet. I still am tied to content coverage even though I know that the evidence shows that using research-based approaches yields higher gains in learning and better retention.3

What did students think? I asked our students for their thoughts on the heavy literature emphasis in SOTS. Here’s my summary of their comments (in no particular order).

  • The students enjoyed learning science at the frontiers. They liked the fact that they were learning stuff that wouldn’t be in the textbooks for the next 10 years (or maybe ever). They also felt like they were exploring content from a scientist’s (rather than a student’s) perspective.
  • Students said that this was the first time they really became comfortable reading papers from the literature because they had to read so many.
  • They were shocked that their professors weren’t experts in everything. This is the first time when they heard a lot of “I don’t know” because the professors were teaching outside of their fields of expertise.
  • They said they learned more from the papers, their presentations, and the discussions because they had to take more responsibility for their own learning. To read and present the papers, they had to really teach themselves the background behind the paper. If they didn’t understand, they weren’t going to be able to explain it to their peers.  (The biggest change I would make is to have the students introduce more papers to begin our literature discussions since my students said that they felt the most accountability when they were giving presentations.)
  • Students found it valuable to hear how other people in the class interpreted things differently. Everyone had different insights on the science, and taken together, students developed a much better understanding from listening to a whole class discussion.
  • They said they had a broader appreciation for the science – they learned how to make the materials, how they work, how structure changes function, and how the ideas were used in the scientific community. They felt like they didn’t get all of these things in an integrated way in lecture.
  • They said that they were more likely to remember the material we covered than the material presented in a lecture-based classes because the papers were more memorable and were learned in more depth than the research presented on slides.

I’d already come around to the value of teaching with the literature, but my immersion experience, newfound comfort level with teaching from the literature, and the student’s comments on their learning will push me to incorporate as much literature as I can in my classes.


  1. I know that some of you already teach exclusively from the literature, but for me, this was a huge transition.
  2. There are some great nano lit discussions on VIPEr, but I didn't use them because not all of the students in SOTS had an inorganic chemistry background.
  3. Kober, N. Reaching students: What research says about effective instruction in undergraduate science and engineering; National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2015, pp. 160-161. DOI: 10.17226/18687


This is great, Barb! Your lit discussion framework provides a great starting point for all of us as we develop new lit discussions.

With regards to "awesome field trips to inspire and educate students" (AFTTIAES) - Adam may remember the field trip to LANL we took as part of Shenda Baker's Surface Science class when I was an undergrad.  It was probably one of my coolest educational experiences.  I should start to think about how to fit an AFTTIAES in to our curriculum!

Thanks, Barb! I find this really helpful and inspiring as I try to incorporate more literature into my classes, including advanced inorganic.  I second Joanne's comment that your framework will help me structure future literature discussions.

I also really appreciate how the lit discussion format lets students see how science functions as a community.  There is a stereotype of the lone, anti-social "mad scientist" locked in the lab with his lab coat and crazy hair.  However, this lit discussion format lets students see not only that scientists work together to write papers but also that they dialogue and respond within those papers to the work of other scientists. In the current practice of science, one most often has to play well with others!

And finally, AFTTIAES needs some work so that it can be written with element symbols. :-)