Building Content Knowledge in a Student Research Team

Deanna van Dijk, Calvin College
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At the beginning of a course-based research project, each student in a research team is asked to read primary literature related to the team investigation. A mix of provided readings and readings found by the students builds the team content knowledge concurrent with team work on research design and data collection. Students reflect and report on the readings in an annotated bibliography, which is a graded assignment in the course.

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This is an introductory geoscience course, open only to first-semester college students, in which students learn the practice of science by participation in research on Lake Michigan coastal dunes. Students include beginning geoscience majors (for whom the course will count as an elective in the major) and non-majors who are taking the course to fill a general-education physical science requirement. Upper-level students serve as research mentors to facilitate the logistics, learning and research activities of the first-year students. A typical ratio is 1 mentor to 4 first-year students. The course and mentor program, called "First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES): Dunes", is further described in van Dijk and Bruxvoort (2013) and the FYRES website (see links below).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students are not expected to have any related background skills or content knowledge before taking the course. The first six weeks of the course introduce students to content knowledge (understanding the dunes) and the process of scientific research. During that time, a short research paper assignment (each student chooses a dune topic) introduced skills related to finding and reading primary literature, such as using library resources to recognize and find good primary literature, reading journal articles, using and citing information from readings, and scientific writing.

How the activity is situated in the course

The described activities are introduced in week 6 or 7 of the semester-long course, immediately after students have been placed on research teams focused on specific topics. The initial readings provide background for team research design. Subsequent readings and completion of the annotated bibliography take place concurrent with the first weeks of data collection and analysis.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

By the end of the activity, each student should have acquired knowledge specific to the research topic and be able to make connections between previous scientific studies and their own work.

For example, if a research project focuses on blowout characteristics, then the student will demonstrate an understanding of what blowouts are, such as typical features and activity. The student will also be able to describe how the current research project is similar or different from several previous studies.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

By the end of the activity, students will demonstrate that they can:

  • Discern which readings to choose based on relevance to the topic and scholarly quality.
  • Understand information in scientific writing.
  • Analyze the quality of scientific content and communication.
  • Relate (synthesize) information from readings with the student's own research activities.

Other skills goals for this activity

By the end of the activity, students will have practiced:

  • Locating relevant source material using research databases.
  • Working in a team in pursuit of a common goal, including dividing up the work, discussing progress, and contributing individual knowledge to team discussions and planning.
  • Scientific writing (short reviews).
  • Constructing a bibliography.

Description and Teaching Materials

Some preparatory work takes place prior to the activities described below. Promising team research topics are chosen by the course instructor before the beginning of the semester. Topics are matched with research mentors during their initial training session. To build their own content knowledge related to the research topic, the mentors are asked to find and read appropriate literature and construct their own annotated bibliography. An additional benefit is that the mentors have experience with all aspects of constructing an annotated bibliography before the first-year students work on this assignment. Each mentor is asked to choose 3 readings from the bibliography that the entire research team should read. In week 6 of the semester, each mentor gives a short presentation to the class introducing his/her research topic. After students indicate topic preferences, the research teams are constructed, usually consisting of a mentor and 4 students.

In the same class period that the students learn what the research teams are, the annotated bibliography assignment is introduced as the first step in the team research process. Each student is given the assignment description handout (see below), the assignment grading rubric (see below), and copies of the three "common" readings that the mentor has chosen for the team. The instructor explains the assignment, including the first deadline (read the three provided readings) and a recommended option (complete one annotation and hand it in for feedback). The instructor emphasizes how this assignment fits in with the team research process: knowledge about the research topic is essential to planning the research design.

The annotated bibliography assignment is integrated into the next lab period (six days after assignment is introduced) in which research teams go through a guided design process to decide on a specific research question, research objectives, and methods. Each research mentor leads his/her team through a discussion of the three common readings early in the process. Students typically refer to the readings numerous times as they brainstorm about possible methods and research directions.

During this lab period, students are also encouraged to talk about strategies for finding the additional 5 sources. Students may use the same readings as their team-mates, but the mentor and instructor point out the team advantages of having members reading different journal articles on the topic. If four team members read 5 different articles each (plus the 3 common articles), the team has a bibliography of 23 articles to draw knowledge from, compared to a bibliography of 8 articles if everyone does the same readings. On the other hand, a found article might fit the project so well that it will be helpful for all team members to read it. Teamwork is encouraged for the process of team members deciding on their additional five readings.

Students work individually on completing readings and writing the annotated bibliography over the next few weeks. Although students hand in the assignment individually for grading, the value of the work to the research process is emphasized repeatedly both during and after work on the assignment. When questions about methods or results arise during the data collection and analysis stages of the research process, either the instructor or mentor is likely to ask whether anything in their readings provides some insight. When the research process moves on to the scientific communication stage, students are reminded to have their annotated bibliographies available to draw from—both poster and oral presentations are required to include connections between their research and the literature.

Teaching Notes and Tips


  • Students have the option (highly encouraged) of handing in one annotated bibliography entry early on to receive formative feedback. The instructor uses the grading rubric plus additional comments to provide the feedback.
  • After students hand in their completed annotated bibliography assignment, the content, communication and professionalism of the work are assessed with the grading rubric.
  • The instructor, with input from the mentors, can use other measures to assess whether students are integrating the reading and comprehension of scientific literature with the research project work. For example, mentors can report on whether readings are part of student-initiated discussions of the research or not. The instructor can assess whether the research poster and oral presentation demonstrate strong knowledge of and connections with previous studies or not.

References and Resources