What I Wish I Knew Then...

What I Wish I Knew Then….

Amy Jo Stavnezer


As I begin work on this column, two things become very clear to me:  1. I don’t take enough time to write creatively (not counting incredibly witty emails to friends) and 2. Taking time to write this will come back to bite me (as two stacks of exams block the view out of my window); perhaps 2. explains 1…  Though there are many things I could look back on and wistfully wish I had known, for this month I’ll take on, “I wish I had known that undergraduate students do not think like we do.”  We, those who pursued the PhD, who covet a tenure-track teaching position, are few in numbers, select in perseverance and, dare I say, a tad bit different. We left graduate school with high expectations of an academic mind, oh, and yes, assume that our students want to achieve that same end.  I wish I had known that I would have to teach the undergrads how to meet my expectations and travel with me to achieve high standards of an academic mind. 


Perhaps the most telling example is in how they read empirical research: Introduction, Discussion.  Really, that’s it.  They skip the entire results section; those figures that take us days to get formatted just so, ignored.  They do not really understand that textbooks we assign are but a large review paper, and the names in parentheses mean something.  Please do not confuse my comments to indicate that they do not know about citations, though that might be true.  What I mean to imply is that they fail to see how data, theories and ideas inform others’ work.  They fail to see points of intersection, because they have not yet been taught to do so, yet. So take time to point this out to them beginning in Introductory courses, show them the citations and how they match up to the references, and be direct in describing how the author of the text has consolidated the work of others.  When you introduce empirical sources, be prepared to spend more class time than you might anticipate on HOW to read, before you assign what to read.  It’s best to walk the students through several papers (I do this slowly as a class) before expecting that they generate their own Introduction from published works.  If you have a curricular structure that scaffolds this through the years, good for you.  I have created several different documents that step from 17 to 6 questions to help the students work their way through manuscripts.  For example, from the Introduction I might first ask:

  1. What background information has been provided that led to the current study (i.e. why is this study being done)?
  2. What questions did the previous studies leave unanswered?
  3. How are the current researchers extending the previous findings?
  4. What is the hypothesis?

Then I might pare that back to:

  1. What is the overall importance (in 2-3 sentences) of the research the authors reviewed to formulate their experimental question?
  2. What experimental question did they propose? 

All the while I am trying to help the students reach that academic mindset that will provide them with the best chance of producing a concise, empirical research article at the conclusion of our semester together. 


An activity that has really opened students’ eyes is to have them read two published papers, one that is well written, and one that is not.  They know that one is harder to plod through, and when they get to class they are sure to tell me how long it took to read.  After exposing that I’ve played a trick on them, we dissect why one was harder by comparing the clarity of thought, sentence structure, empirical design and figure presentation between the articles.  I make sure that they see how mimicking that writing will not be a happy outcome for either of us!  The students are surprised to know that some published papers are not good, despite a peer review process, and that all papers should not be treated equally (also a nice place to point out number of citations). We count the number of sentences in published research that begin with an author’s name and look for patterns that manuscripts fall into to help them understand the conventions of scientific publications and to provide hints for their own writing.


Clearly I have chosen to focus on reading science as a means to thinking science, and that was a purposeful choice. Remember, we’re a little different. Aside from your scientific colleagues, how many people do you know who have an entire filing cabinet (physical or electronic) full of empirical research that they have actually read?  There is a chance that we cited more articles in our thesis than our students will cite in their entire college career. But we can get them to meet us on the path.  I’ve learned that with planning, patience and practice, my students can and do reach that high expectation of an academic mind.