Preparing for discussions


Over the semester you will read several articles that will be the basis of class discussions, both in lecture and in recitations.  To prepare for these discussions, follow these steps:


1) Download the article and discussion questions (DQs) from the course webpage (user: biol211, pwd is on your syllabus).  Be sure to choose the correct article by name and title.  Print or save a copy to read and to bring to the discussion.


2) Read the article(s) carefully and critically.

While reading any scientific article, be aware of its structure:

  • background information gives the context for an unsolved problem

    • a question is raised, and a hypothesis is proposed

      • a critical prediction to test the hypothesis is presented

        • methods for the test are described

          • results are summarized

            • conclusions are drawn

              • new conclusions are related to what is known from past studies.

  •      Given this predictable structure, you should always ask of any scientific article:

    • What is the problem that motivated the research?  Has the author made a convincing case that it is important?

    • What is the specific question that the research attempts to answer?

    • Does the author make a clear prediction?

    • Does the test clearly decide for (or against) the prediction?  What would the results have looked like if the prediction had not (or had) been supported?

    • Are any conclusions drawn justified by the results?  Are there alternative explanations for the results?

    • Finally, how does the article relate to the scientific topics covered in this course? 

         Jot down questions and thoughts as you read.  Use these jottings for the next step.


    3) Develop and type out answers to the DQs.  The discussion questions provided with the article will help to focus your reading.  In the spaces provided, type out ideas that will allow you to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.  Your responses will be evaluated for their depth of thought and effort, not for whether you use complete sentences and paragraphs.  In order to receive credit, print your completed assignment, bring it to recitation, and hand it in at the end of class.  If you cannot print the completed assignment, you may instead turn in a photocopy of handwritten responses at the start of class.  Given the nature of discussions, you will not receive credit for hand-written responses submitted after the start of class. 


    4) Write your own Discussion Comment (DC).   As you jot down notes, you should formulate a question, observation, or speculation from insights that you gained from reading the article.  

     General tips for writing impressive DCs:

    1.  Start with enough information to show why the question is worth raising (providing a context for the discussion)

    2.  Avoid questions that depend on unknown factual information for the answer

    3.  Pose questions that are most relevant to the topic of the paper

    4.  Focus your question on the science (examine the evidence for and against ideas, and raise possible alternative explanations)


     Examples.  Imagine you read an article about habitat alteration and the cultural practice of statue-building after human colonization of Easter Island in the South Pacific.

    Poor DC: “I wonder why Easter Island inhabitants built statues”

    Fair DC: “Building the statues seems impractical.  What practical benefit might they have served on Easter Island?  What kinds of data could be used to determine this benefit?”

    Excellent DC: “Constructing the statues required a large investment of time, wealth, and energy, which could have been put into more practical projects.  Could the statues have had any practical value?  If not, what was the benefit of building them?  It seems they might have demonstrated something about wealth or power among groups on the island.  If so, it seems possible that groups were demonstrating that they had the resources to wage war or further control resources on the island.  That is, given the costs it seems like an honest advertisement of their power."

     Write out your DC as the final part of your discussion assignment.


    5) During discussion, participate actively.  Your grade will be based on attendance, the thoughtfulness of your responses and DC, and thoughtful and constructive participation.



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