Critical Review of a Journal Article: An Assessment Activity

Dave Mogk
Dept. Earth Sciences, Montana State University
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Initial Publication Date: February 11, 2009 | Reviewed: July 2, 2012


In this exercise students do a formal review of a journal article using review criteria established for the Geological Society of America Bulletin or American Mineralogist. The quality of the students' reviews is used to assess the degree of understanding of fundamental geological principles, concepts, and applications.

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This activity is designed for use in upper division (junior-senior) undergraduate and graduate courses for geology majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students are expected to have mastered the fundamental concepts, and have a basic understanding of methodologies and approaches to conducting geologic research on the topics addressed in the selected article.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity can either be used as a stand-alone exercise; however, I commonly use this activity as a take-home component of my midterm or final exam.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal of this activity is to give students the opportunity to demonstrate that they understand the fundamental geological concepts presented in a class (via lecture, lab, field, text) as applied to authentic scientific research project as reported in the literature. Written reviews provide prima facie evidence that the students understand these principles, concepts, and approaches, can evaluate the quality of data and their interpretations, and can transfer this understanding from the classroom setting to an entirely new geologic context as represented in the literature.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This assignment requires students to undertake a critical review of a journal article. Students are asked to consider:
  • Why is this topic interesting and what contribution has been made in light of your understanding of the existing state of knowledge on this subject?
  • Can you readily identify the central hypothesis? Have appropriate tests been applied to confirm or reject this hypothesis?
  • Are observations and other data clearly separated from interpretation?
  • Are all the figures, important and useful? Please make a special effort to comment on the use and interpretation of data presented in the figures in this manuscript.
  • Is the treatment of this subject consistent with your own understanding of the principles of [Mineralogy, Igneous/Metamorphic/Sedimentary Petrology, Structural Geology...]?
  • Based on your reading of this manuscript, what parts are unclear, and what new questions arise based on this current presentation?
  • What additional advice can you offer to help improve the clarity of this manuscript? Is any part of the manuscript extraneous and can be deleted? Are there areas where more information or context is needed?
  • Is the manuscript appropriately referenced? Are any key references missing?

Other skills goals for this activity

This is primarily a writing exercise that requires, clear, coherent, and concise responses to the requested review criteria.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students receive a "Dear Colleague" letter requesting the review of a journal article in the same format as would be received from an Assistant Editor of a major scholarly journal. The letter outlines the requirements of the review and the due date. Students also receive the review forms typically provided by a given journal (I've provided forms from the Geological Society of America Bulletin and American Mineralogist for use in an upper division course in Mineralogy, Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology. The GSA Bulletin form is better suited for manuscripts that report on articles that have a significant field or tectonic component; the American Mineralogist form is better suited for articles that focus on more analytical, theoretical, or computational applications in mineralogy and petrology.

In an upper division petrology class, I typically select articles for review that integrate numerous aspects of topics we've recently covered in class; tectonic setting, field relations, petrography, whole-rock geochemistry, geo- and thermochronology, mineral chemistry (for PTt calculations), stable isotope geochemistry, etc. My goal is to help students see how these multiple lines of evidence must be integrated into a coherent geologic interpretation of geologic process or history.

Modify the letter with the request for review and review forms to emphasize the particular course goals, content, and expectations for your own course.

Determining whether students have met the goals

This is by design an evaluation instrument. I recommend that you construct a scoring rubric for the parts of the review that wish to emphasize. Clearly articulate the expectations of performance for excellent, acceptable, and below standard work, possibly with examples.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

For a course in Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology, a list of articles has been identified to encourage Teaching Petrology Using the Primary Scientific Literature

This is another compilation of Articles for Teaching Structural Geology