Journal Club for Graduate Students: Does Format Matter?
Journal clubs are a great way to foster scientific discussions outside of a formal classroom or lab setting. They give graduate students space to develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills through activities such as:
- Evaluating literature
- Discerning what to cite and why
- Prioritizing literature
- Presenting and organizing information in different ways
So what is the best way to organize a successful journal club? Should the subject matter be broad or focused? What is the right amount of faculty involvement? What presentation format is best? How often should the club meet? What’s the best way to present feedback and evaluation?
Let’s consider two different models from my institution that approach these questions differently. While the pharmacology and neuroscience journal clubs both focus on wide-ranging subject matter, have all students participate, and meet once a month for one hour during lunch, their format differs.
The Pharmacology Model
- Students begin participating during their second year.
- Students select a paper in their area of research and prepare a PowerPoint presentation that includes background material, study hypotheses, materials and methods design, results, and discussion points.
- One or two faculty members act as facilitators, helping the students prepare for and participate in the discussion.
- Presentations are thorough, informative, and well-prepared.
- Presenting students work in their area of expertise.
- Faculty members provide useful guidance during the preparation and model the kinds of questions to ask in evaluating a paper during the discussion.
- Students can be passive recipients of information because there is little room for spontaneous discussion.
- While having faculty presence is valuable, faculty members can dominate the discussion.
- Club meetings can focus more on the presentation and defense of the paper rather than a critical and thoughtful evaluation.
The Neuroscience Model
- Students begin attending journal clubs in their first year.
- Students can select a paper within or outside their area of study. They must justify why they chose the topic.
- Discussions take place around a conference table with only the paper in front of students. No PowerPoints are allowed.
- A faculty member is identified to help prepare if needed, but they tend not to participate in the discussion. Instead, the course director attends all sessions to keep the presenter on task without contributing to the discussion itself.
- The informal and conversational atmosphere stimulates plentiful student involvement.
- The environment allows for evaluation and discussion of the paper rather than simply a presentation and defense.
- Any faculty member present provides guidance, but does not dominate the conversation.
- The relaxed format makes it challenging to maintain a structured, quality discussion.
- Students may focus on the faults of the paper rather than offer a balanced evaluation.
- Conversation often center on results and not the design or methods.
- Students can feel ill-prepared and lack sufficient guidance on how to evaluate a paper.
So, does format matter?
Yes, to an extent. Keep these takeaways in mind:
- Facilitating informal discussion can stimulate more active participation and a new set of presentation skills.
- Faculty should maintain a balance between providing adequate guidance and dominating the conversation.
- What seems obvious to a professor may not be to students. Spelling it out for students and then leaving them to use their new tools and exercise new skills can be beneficial. For instance, faculty might consider creating and distributing a guide with questions to keep in mind while reading and evaluating a paper.
Use the guide, Evaluating and Presenting a Paper for Journal Club, by the University of Texas Health Science Center at your next journal club.
What techniques have worked best to create meaningful journal clubs for your students?