I have interacted with many scientists that think that the first thing they should do when mentoring an undergraduate student is to assign them 10-20 papers. The attitude is sometimes “this is where you start” or “this is how I started” or the worst, which is “if they are committed, they will do this easily.” Please, don’t do this to undergraduate students, it’s not an equitable practice and it could lead to your students being overwhelmed. Maybe it will leave them thinking right off the bat that they don’t deserve to be a scientist. If you would like a really in depth "how to teach reading exercise" please see this amazing article (Croner, 2004). In reality, the students who want to work with you have a lot on their plate, so instead I encourage you to teach students how to read papers quickly, how to organize their papers, and how to organize their thoughts on them. I am going to tackle the first two pieces of that in today’s post!
Teaching how to read with understanding and how to do it quickly.
I like to begin the work of teaching undergraduates to read science in a multi-step process that involves i. some group work in a classroom setting (see previous post) or in a reading group meeting and ii. some “homework” that is brief. This part of my mentoring process takes a few days but only an hour commitment per day (and I typically spread it out).
The goal of this series of exercises is not for the students to come away with the impression that papers do not need to be read in depth. The goal is for students to come away with skills to sort through many scientific publications quickly and to organize the papers by theme. Once you have taught your students these skills, then you can assign the 20 papers you think are necessary for your field and have them tell you the main points. Once they have done that, you can ask them to read a few of them with more detail. I have also found that once students can do the above, they are much better equipped to say to themselves “I wonder how people do X, Y, and Z” and can go look it up on their own.
I also encourage you to teach students to use Mendeley, Endnote, or whatever you use. And when I say teach, I mean open these programs on your computer and show your students how you organize papers, what information you think is necessary, etc. Then give them time to play around with the programs and see what they might need to sort information for themselves. These programs are lifesavers for students and many undergraduates get to graduate school without knowing that they exist.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.