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Learning from physics journals

  1. Jul 15, 2015 #1
    I will be working as an assistant for the first time in my life soon. I wanted to ask your opinions on teaching people to learn from physics journals.

    When I started doing real research, I think the first problem I came across was that reading journals is hard, and learning from them is even harder. Since there are no exercises or problems in peer-reviewed articles, studying them tends to make people passive. An extra effort comes from following the many citations in the journals.

    Does anyone have experience teaching people through reading physics articles?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2015 #2


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    If there is a textbook with exercises, chances are good it is not a recent research topic any more (because someone was confident enough that things won't change significantly while they are writing the book). Reading publications is unavoidable, and it is a necessary step before and while doing research that leads to a new publication.
    If something is unclear to students, they can ask other students or their supervisor. If something is unclear to the supervisor (in the relevant research area), it is probably a bad publication.
  4. Jul 15, 2015 #3
    Just my own experience and that of my students that it is an iterative process. You learn more each time you revisit a paper after digesting and maturing in a field. You learn the most when you write a new paper and take great care in your citations because the author of that paper might be a referee.
  5. Jul 15, 2015 #4
    Thank you for the answers; learning by writing your own articles and by probing the lecturer are definitely viable methods of learning. I agree that reading articles is unavoidable; I would like to discuss methods to teach students to learn from publications independently. It's something every student must learn if they wish to enter research, and reading textbooks does not necessarily prepare for it.

    @mfp Would this be inquiry-based learning? Would you have any advice on how to teach students to ask the relevant questions?

    @Dr. Courtney: I also held the opinion that re-reading is effective, but after reading a few articles such as this one http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs...y-techniques-that-work-and-surprisingly-dont/ , I started questioning it. I suppose most of the research coming to the conclusion that re-reading is ineffective don't take into account learning different material in-between the reading sessions. Would you know of any research that contradict these results? On the other hand, I understand writing your own publication would be counted as active learning and would be more efficient.
  6. Jul 15, 2015 #5


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    You need to explain on this a bit further. If you are talking about undergraduate physics classes, then no, I find journal papers, in general, not suitable for teaching. There is a caveat here, because several papers in AJP and EJP have been used in parts of lessons that I have been involved with, but these are exceptions rather than the rule.

    However, at the graduate level, this is a completely different matter, because it isn't unusual for papers to be used as a supplement. I can certainly see instructors referring to external sources such as papers and other books.

  7. Jul 15, 2015 #6
    It's hard? Is this college?

    Teach what needs to be taught. If a journal article is relevant to a course then have them use it. If they can't read it because it is too 'difficult' then they should go back to high school.

    Of course it may need some explanation, context, etc. That is what a teacher is for. However, students at the college level should be using all sources of information in a field. If an article is is difficult then they need to wade through it. It's part of the learning process.
  8. Jul 15, 2015 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    For my advanced/graduate classes, I often have students read/analyze/critique journal articles for an exam or two. I would not do this for an introductory class.

    Choosing the article can be tricky, often they are older (say pre-1970s) since modern articles are generally too advanced, and a side-effect is that the notation is ... call it 'archaic'. Also, it's important to choose articles that are not very long (Review of Modern Physics articles are not appropriate). For what it's worth, the students claim they like being exposed to the primary literature.

    At the other extreme, 'journal clubs' have participants choose articles and present them to the group. Journal clubs are definitely post-graduate only, but a very effective tool.
  9. Jul 15, 2015 #8


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    This is silly.

    An important paper is not automatically a good source for TEACHING! That is why we have many different textbooks on the same subject matter. The PEDAGOGY is important here. It isn't just the material. It is also how the material is presented!

    I would never recommend, for example, Feynman Lecture text for someone just about to study physics. It's a great text for reference, but pedagogically, it is a difficult text. Furthermore, for many of the topics covered in a standard undergraduate physics curriculum, there are plenty of very good texts covering the material. So it is not as if there is a need to resort to journal papers. The few times that I actually used journal papers were in advanced physics labs, where we perform experiments similar to the classic experiments in physics and these classic papers were used as references.

    But to teach in an intro physics class using a PRL paper? That is absurd!

  10. Jul 15, 2015 #9
    I would think the key to learning from a paper is to read it slowly, taking notes. It's not a newspaper article or blog entry and can't be read like one. Jot down terms that don't make sense, to look up later. If variables or terms are defined in the paper themselves, make a note of those for easy reference as you read.

    I might tell my students that the introduction was probably written last, with lots of references crammed in to make the reviewers happy, so don't feel about skipping that initial background material at first, if it seems too dense.

    And lastly, if you can't understand a paper, then it might be because it is poorly written. Not all physicists are good writers. (Same goes for colloquia; it took me a couple years of graduate school to realize that, and I would feel really stupid going to talks before I did.) On the flip side, if you find a paper that's really well-written and understandable, try reading other papers by the same author.
  11. Jul 15, 2015 #10
    When I was a student, we had an advanced course in turbulence where each of the students had to study a famous paper in the field of turbulence and then give a 15 minute lecture about it to the group. It was often quite difficult to understand why the paper was important, what was new and revolutionary about it, because we didn't know most of the history behind the development of these advanced topics.

    I'm currently studying some physics/mathematics that can be programmed (numerical methods, algorithms), and my way of learning from a paper is by programming it. You can still program something that you don't fully understand, but it beats brainless reading.
  12. Jul 15, 2015 #11
    I think ohannuks wants to teach students HOW to read research papers, not using the paper to teach content.
  13. Jul 15, 2015 #12
    In the early stages of having any student (inlcuding high-school and undergrad) join us on a project, I usually attach a few key references from the journals to an email and encourage careful reading and review.

    If the end goal is training students to perform research and _write_ journal quality papers, students should be encouraged to _read_ quality journal articles.
  14. Jul 15, 2015 #13
    Agree completely.
  15. Jul 20, 2015 #14
    Thank you for all the replies. It gave me a lot to think.
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