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Help Students Decode Journal Articles with Academic Reading Tips

Journal articles can intimidate first-year college and university students used to reading textbooks in classes. These strategies help them crack the code.

Educator

Mythri Jegathesan, PhD

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Santa Clara University

PhD in Anthropology, BA in Classics and Anthropology

Dr. Mythri Jegathesan says that “inexperience” is not a reason to deprive first-year students of challenging materials.

Much of her scholarship, she says, is based on peer-reviewed literature. These materials contain cutting-edge research findings and approaches, not only in cultural anthropology but across all academic fields. So, when Jegathesan designed her first-year course sequence, Human Rights & Humanitarianism in 2015, she consciously integrated reading journal articles into this two-quarter introduction to the anthropological dimensions of human rights law and humanitarian practice.

“[Journal articles are] a very different genre of material than a textbook,” she allows. Textbook writings are usually comprised of other people’s interpretations of scholarly research. Jegathesan wanted to move students beyond reading summaries, so they could do their own deep digging and critical thinking and engage the texts that shape their respective fields.

However, this kind of reading is tough going, Jegathesan admits, and she found that most of her first-year students have never been asked to attempt it before coming to college. Breaking down students’ resistance, she found, would require her to take on an important role: reading coach.

Challenges: Lack of experience reading journal articles

“For students to one day be able to think like scholars, they must be able to critically engage the texts that teacher-scholars use and produce,” says Jegathesan. But she saw that her students faced understandable difficulties when encountering this challenge:

  • Most first-year students have little or no experience with reading peer-reviewed journal articles.
  • They are accustomed to reading textbooks and non-peer reviewed literature, both of which often translate complex ideas for them.
  • Students need to build skills in critical thinking, analysis, discussion, and debate, and using only textbooks was not effective for this in cultural anthropology, a field that primarily produces and values peer-reviewed literature.

Innovation: Breaking down barriers to academic reading and discussion

Jegathesan prescribes a sort of “aversion therapy” for her first-year students: To succeed in the course, they must overcome their resistance to peer-reviewed literature. To help students arrive at that point, Jegathesan provides a series of practical tips and templates, reading and writing exercises, and group discussions to help them learn how to make sense of journal articles based on scientific research.

“In the first quarter of the course,” she says, “I do a lot of lecturing and set the tone for the material. In the second semester, the students are on their own. They work in groups and digest the material in the form of journal articles, discussing them with each other.”

While the approach may sound relatively straightforward, its success is the culmination of weeks’ worth of scaffolding, building one skill in reading, deciphering, and analyzing the text before layering on another skill. By the last day of class, Jegathesan has prepared students in the social sciences to engage in conversation in the manner of true teacher-scholars.

Context

Course: ANTH 11A/ANTH 12A Human Rights and Humanitarianism

Frequency: Three 50-minute class meetings per week for two quarters, or two 100-minute class meetings per week for two quarters.

Class size: 25

Course description: This course builds upon the concepts and debates around human rights and uses this foundation to explore the historical and cultural bases of humanitarian thought and interventions from the perspective of cultural anthropology. Like human rights, humanitarianism is a concept that is historically and culturally rooted in the ideal of easing human suffering unconditionally and without discrimination. However, as anthropology has shown us and as we have seen in the evident unevenness of human rights manifest throughout the world, human life is conditional and fraught with discrimination, structural violence, and hierarchies of politics, power, and difference. How do cultural, economic, and political differences tell us more about the “radical inequality that underlies this transaction in human lives” (Fassin 2007)? What can cultural anthropology—by investing in critiques of culture, economic exchange, and politics—teach us about the multiple and apparently diverse realities of easing human suffering in the world?

See resources shared by Mythri Jegathesan

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Lesson: Coaching students on academic reading and discussion

Over 20 weeks, students taking Jegathesan’s two-quarter course undergo gradual but impactful transformations. “In the first week, they are confronted with the material and often look a little lost,” she says. “But by week 20, they’re sitting in a circle, and six of them are taking on those peer-reviewed articles and breaking them down while leading a class-wide discussion. They’re covering the central concepts and getting into deep conversation and debates. They present the material and really flesh it out.”

Here are the strategies she uses to help her students evolve from textbook-reliant students to more confident scholars:

Have them rethink how they read

In the first week of class, Jegathesan talks about the kinds of materials the class will be reading and what to expect from them. She also teaches students how to read a journal article, providing a tip sheet (“10 Tips for Reading Peer Reviewed Articles”) to get them started.

In the tip sheet, she gives them helpful hints to encourage active reading and helps students identify what works for them. “I have each of them develop a list of reading best practices for themselves,” she says. One tip in her handout is: “Take breaks when you read. Try the Pomodoro technique: Read for 25 minutes and then take a 2-minute break. When you get to [the third or fourth 25-minute interval], take a longer break of 15–30 minutes to reset and recharge.”

Why Jegathesan Created ANTH 11A and ANTH 12A

“I designed the course sequence in 2015,” says Jegathesan. “My background is in human rights, and I conduct anthropological research in Sri Lanka, looking at how people engage human rights and how they understand it from a human perspective.”

When Jegathesan arrived at Santa Clara University in 2014, she assessed the course offerings that covered human rights and humanitarianism for first-year students. The campus is located “in the middle of Silicon Valley, a seat of knowledge and privilege,” she notes. The university, she says, often exposes students to ideas of social entrepreneurship and international development. “But there wasn’t really a course that addressed the harder questions for incoming students—the ethical questions about donations and saving lives, giving and receiving aid, and the challenges of distributing that aid,” says Jegathesan. “I want students to understand how human rights operates in real life and how we understand it in terms of culture and ideas, beyond the United Nations' conventional definitions and their historical ideals.”

In particular, she wanted to expose first-year students to these difficult issues. “Many of them have volunteered for humanitarian organizations like Habitat for Humanity or American Red Cross—some because they are passionate about issues, but also because they were told volunteering was a requirement to get into college,” she explains. “The first year of college is a good time to think more deeply about these issues.”

Help them analyze as they read

Jegathesan also provides students with an “analysis template.” Students are not required to use it, but it offers a practical structure for analyzing the article. “The template prompts them to ask, ‘What are the research questions?’” Jegathesan explains. “What’s the scope of the research? How long did the research take? What are the research methods? Are those methods qualitative or quantitative? Where was the site of the research? Were there multiple sites? What was the design of the research? The intent? The limitations?”

In the final portions of the analysis template, students explore the scholarly contribution of the work. They investigate the “literature review” section of the article, which details the debates the research builds and expands upon within the field. Students examine what data the research uncovered and how the author is challenging previous findings or expanding upon or reinforcing them.

Encourage them to engage the author

The first crop of first-years whom Jegathesan required to read journal articles found the unfamiliar, often jargon-laced terminology and formal structure of articles overwhelming and unrelatable. But Jegathesan persisted, pushing her students not simply to read the material but to “engage the author”—to think about the researcher’s intentions and where that individual or group of individual researchers were career-wise, and to get into the deeper context of their bodies of work.

Jegathesan suggests that students read up on the author before attacking the article itself. They are asked to notice contextual details, such as the date the article was published and the department or field in which the author has expertise. “If the author was working in Nigeria, and you don’t know about Nigeria, or don’t recognize a local term or community’s name, look it up and come to class with questions,” Jegathesan advises.

Help them experiment with visualization

Students may glaze over when presented with dense material presented in long paragraphs. Jegathesan encourages them to revisualize the material in more visual forms that can be more accessible: flowcharts, bulleted lists, Venn diagrams, and the like.

She also asks them to envision a conversation with the paper’s author. She recommends this in the final part of the analysis template, entitled “So What?” “I let them imagine they’ve just been listening to a 45-minute talk by the author and then asked the scholar, ‘So what’s the point? What’s the larger takeaway?’” she explains. “I ask them to imagine what the author’s response would be.” This way, they can envision the broader impacts of a scholar’s work.

Assign mixed-genre readings

Jegathesan sometimes will ask students to read a scientific journal article alongside trade or popular sources from the same researcher. “We might spend two days with the peer-reviewed article, and then read an op-ed by that same author,” she explains. “That op-ed will speak to the broader impact of that author’s argument, [because] more [people] will read the op-ed article. Then I will show them an interview or a talk the author gave.” All of this gives students “a little more insight into the author’s passion” and how the research translates to a broader, non-academic audience.

Encourage students to read together

Students reading peer-reviewed material often feel they need to do it alone. But Jegathesan encourages them to read and discuss the material in groups. “I like them to imagine they are at a scholarly conference, where it would be natural and helpful to talk about the material with their peers,” she says.

Have them write their own scientific paper

The students’ final project in the first course is to produce an academic research project proposal on a topic that engages concepts of human rights as grounded in historical, political, and cultural concerns and debates. In the project, students must produce a specific and controversial thesis, an abstract, and annotated bibliography of eight scholarly sources on the topic. In the second course, the student then uses that material to build a formal academic research paper.

Of course, they are required to conduct their research using academic journals and scholarly texts, but they are also allowed to use primary, trade, and popular sources from human rights or development organizations, think tanks, journalism, and media.

Let them use their skills to edit you

Interestingly, helping students become better academic readers has improved Jegathesan’s own work as a scholarly writer, as well.

“I have had students read my own academic writing, and they have provided feedback that has helped me write more engagingly,” she admits. “Sometimes, they may catch me using impenetrable jargon, and they will push me to use accessible language. Sometimes we’ll have a good laugh over it, and the process is incredibly valuable.”

Considerations

Some students genuinely have a difficult time with peer-reviewed articles, and the fault lies in the nature of academic writing more generally. “Not all journal articles are well written or edited to be understood easily,” Jegathesan allows. “It can be challenging to find peer-reviewed articles in cultural anthropology that do not use any academic jargon, for instance.” While the point is to encourage students to read material that is inherently complex, Jegathesan notes that a teacher-scholar seeking to adopt this approach may want to read potential sources closely and select ones that are the most readable and accessible.

Outcomes

Jegathesan notes that students are not specifically evaluated on their ability to read journal articles. They are evaluated on their improvement in critical thinking skills, including their ability to draw insights from the material and use those insights to argue a point.

“Qualitatively, I think the [class] discussions have been more robust since I began having students read peer-reviewed material,” Jegathesan suggests. “It has made them less reticent about asking questions when they run into material they don’t understand. The visualizing of the concepts as they read the articles has really helped. Before they were asked to do that, classroom discussions were quieter. Working collaboratively in small groups has helped them blossom. They come to class more eager to talk and engage their peers.”

Student feedback

Jegathesan has also seen students decide to major in anthropology after taking her class. “They don’t see it as some far-off, unrelatable discipline,” she says. “They see it as something real and practical and [see] the value of this type of knowledge and thinking.”

In other cases, the course has empowered students to overcome personal challenges: Jegathesan recalls one case in which a student said that the course helped him overcome a general difficulty with reading.

“This student had received accommodations to help with reading difficulties throughout his life,” she recalls. “He came to college knowing it still could be an obstacle, and he was a great student in class—he loved to talk through his questions and the material. Students like him really helped me design the course to help empower everyone.”

Here are some additional verbatim quotes from student evaluations of Jegathesan’s course:

“Reading really challenging material has helped me think independently.”

“This course has helped me to develop good analysis and commentary.”

“Reading and learning ideas and terms related to human rights gave me the confidence to participate in academic conversations.”

“It has taught me to read articles critically, recognizing perspectives especially.”

“The material is extremely thought-provoking and caused me to reflect and think critically.”

“The articles are difficult to read but elevate our understanding of the topic and … human rights.”

“The course developed our discourse and questioning skills which has been important for independent thinking.”

“We look at examples of scholars challenging commonly held ideas. These have given me the tools and courage to do so as well.”

“My experience in your class revealed in me a passion for research and restoration of challenging and unjust situations in order to see the world more empowered and beautiful. You have also been a great influence in the connection of my passions for humanitarian efforts with my area of study, which is business. I believe your class and your support as a Professor [have] helped me pursue this intersection of my passions and skills in order to impact change.”

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