Google Search
Reading groups create scientific community for undergrads

Aarthi Ashok worked with former student Danusha Jebanesan to create supplementary reading groups to help senior students better analyze scientific literature. (Photo by Ken Jones)

By fourth year, reading should be easy, right? But tell that to science students who have to make the switch from textbooks to primary sources in scientific literature.  

“During my undergrad I did a lot of research with professors. I was forced into being able to navigate primary literature,” says U of T Scarborough alum Danusha Jebanesan (BSc, 2013). “I realized that a lot of my colleagues didn’t have that experience.”

In response, Jebanesan (now a third-year MD student in the University of Ottawa) approached Professor Aarthi Ashok about developing supplementary reading groups (RGs) to help students dissect primary literature. Jebanesan and Ashok published a manuscript about the RGs, which was featured on CourseSource, an open-access journal of peer-reviewed teaching resources for post-secondary level biology courses. The first round of RGs launched in 2013 as part of Ashok’s course, Pathobiology of Human Disease.

Students are not marked for their participation in the sessions. The RGs are held once a week for about an hour and feature two levels of discussion. First, the class is divided into small groups, each discussing one specific part or figure of a paper such as the methodology or results. Then, the groups reconvene and present their critiques to the rest of the class.

“It’s very intimidating as an undergraduate to look at a paper and question the methodology or conclusion that’s been established by senior scientists,” says Ashok. “In an environment where you’re constantly being assessed by an instructor or a TA, it’s difficult to go out on limb.”

The RGs serve as a casual and safe space for students to raise valid points about the scientific process, instead of simply accepting findings at face value. Ashok and her teaching assistants were not present in the RGs. For the first two years, they were monitored by Jebanesan, who served as the peer moderator, stimulating group discussion instead of acting as a content expert. The RGs are followed by an in-class discussion where the students are graded based on the quality of their questions and discussion about the covered paper. 

Ashok noticed a real change in class discussions.

“It’s very enjoyable to come to class and talk to students almost like how I talk to my peers,” she says. “They’re talking at a level where we can discuss the real substance of a particular paper rather than only skimming the surface or only just confirming what they author has already said.”

And the learning doesn’t stop in the classroom.

“Many of the students started doing their own research, looking up papers that I didn’t even assign,” says Ashok. “That is the foundation of strong, independent learning. That is how you create somebody who is a lifelong learner, by having them go out and seek materials.”

Student reported that they liked having an allotted time to think deeply about a particular topic. They also developed key skills in critiquing scientific papers. They were able to create their own community of learners. According to Ashok, drawing the students into that community was one of the inspirations for the RGs.

“The biggest advantage we have about being in a scientific community is that we have the ability to always question and to always critique,” she says. “That always makes the science better.”

Moving forward, Ashok hopes that other instructors from different disciplines and programs of study can incorporate the RGs into their teaching plans. 

A truly peer-based learning model, Jebanesan hopes that the success of the RGs shows other students that they can drive change in their own learning process.

“Students should never undervalue their role within the university,” says Jebanesan. “If you see that there’s a gap that needs to be filled, do not be afraid to approach your professors and think of a way to make things better.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough