Improving Biology Papers through Peer Review

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Christopher Clark, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

“Natural History” is the observation of organisms as they naturally behave in the environment. One of the oldest courses on campus is Vertebrate Natural History (IB 104). This intense class emphasizes learning the identification and biology of the birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles of the Bay Area. A major component of the final grade in the class is a field project that the students perform. The premise of the field project is careful observation of how an organism lives a portion of its life. Students are instructed to form a question about a local vertebrate they have seen (e.g. “How does the Anna’s Hummingbird make its nest?”), and then spend 30 hours observing the animal to answer their question. We specifically tell them not to read previous research on the topic they choose, because we would rather have the students make their observations free of preconceived ideas and form their own conclusions.

Historically, we gave the students written instructions on how to write up their project, which they handed in as a 15-page paper on the last day of class. But in my first year as a GSI for the course, I noticed that the papers were highly variable in quality. It seemed that, in some cases, the students did a good project but then failed to write a paper that reflected the true quality of their observations. Their project grades suffered as a result. Given that they were not supposed to read other papers (the style of which could be emulated), it appeared that the students needed more direction and specific help with how to write up the results of their project in a scientific style appropriate to this type of project.

One solution would be to have the students hand in a rough draft of their paper. But many of the students are rushed to finish collecting their data at the end of the semester, so the rough draft would need to be due near the end of the semester. Rapid turn-around would be necessary. But if 40 to 50 students handed in a rough draft of their 15-page paper it would take a long time for the instructors to give thorough comments. So I devised an alternative solution that we implemented in Spring 2007. We had the students perform a double-blind peer review of each others’ papers during the final lab session. This is similar to the way scientific papers submitted to a journal are reviewed by peer scientists. Students brought two copies of their draft project, without their name on it. Then, for three hours, each student anonymously read two other papers and wrote constructive comments for the anonymous author. Students are sensitive to being judged by their peers, so we emphasized the importance of being respectful of the author’s feelings and making the suggestions constructive.

To my delight, the exercise worked even better than I had hoped. Spontaneous conversations about style, content, and other aspects of presentation arose between me and the students, such as how much detail should be included in the methods section (answer: enough so that a peer could duplicate your study). By seeing (or overhearing) mistakes their peers were making, students became aware of ways they could improve their own papers. They also received nearly instantaneous, in-depth constructive criticism of their reports. The quality of the papers handed in a few days later rose substantially as compared to the previous years. When I asked several students whether they thought the peer-review exercise helped them, they indicated several benefits: it “forced” them to prepare a rough draft several days in advance of the final due date, the comments were usually helpful, and they found the discussions helpful as well.

The independent project has been a cornerstone of the Vertebrate Natural History class for decades. I was extremely pleased to have modernized and improved the curriculum in a way that also emulates modern scientific publishing practices; I feel the peer-review exercise both improves the quality of the students’ written projects and introduces them to the important process of peer-review that many will encounter later in their careers.