The Power of Unpublished Research: You Be the Reviewer

We want our students to learn to read critically and to interrogate and evaluate what they read. Does the author have the right data? Do the conclusions actually follow from the data? Are other explanations missing from the argument? That’s what we want them to ask themselves. A quick look at students’ notes from reading – if they even took any – reveal a totally different set of information, usually focused on the literature review and sometimes the theory. After all, this is the main textually-based body of an empirical paper, so it’s easiest for them to read.

Beyond steps we can take to teach students to read articles effectively (see my previous post on R&U and the Article Sort activity), I like to engage my intermediate and upper-level courses in an activity we call “You Be the Reviewer.” Students in all of my classes have already done the R&U activity and read (briefly) about the process papers go through to get published. So at some point in the term, I assign an unpublished article manuscript – often from a colleague or a conference paper pulled from the conference archives with author permission – and ask students to write a journal-style review, including a decision of whether the item should be published.

As support for this assignment, I distribute a handout like the one available here. It suggests some questions for students to consider, reminds them to check R&U for more guidance, and gives them a framework for writing a review. Typically, they are asked to post their reviews to the course learning management site and to bring a hard copy to class for reference. The resulting conversations have been far more in-depth and wide-ranging than anything else I’ve tried. At the end of the discussion, we collectively decide on the disposition of the article. Several classes – including a freshman-level intro course – have voted to reject manuscripts, though, as in the real world, R&Rs are the most common response.

While this activity obviously works better with upper-division classes, even lower-level students have enjoyed it and given very piercing feedback. For lower-level classes, qualitative research or very simple quantitative analysis works best. I normally compile the students’ feedback (copying particularly relevant bits from the CMS and pasting into a document) and send it to the author as thanks for sharing the manuscript. In an undergraduate methods class, I once was able to have the author come and give a (previously prepared) conference style presentation to the class on the manuscript they had reviewed. The author also took questions, so that the class had a model presentation to use in preparing their own as well as a chance to ask the author about research design decisions and practice giving useful feedback on research-in-progress before their own peer review process.

I’ve found that using a manuscript – an honest to goodness pre-publication, looks-like-it-was-written-in-Word-then-PDF’d manuscript – gets a far better reaction than published research. Students are reluctant to question or challenge work by ‘experts’ that’s already been vetted and published, but papers are a different matter.

Have you used unpublished research (other than your own) with your students? What was their reaction?

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