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The Metronome is officially live! Welcome to Issue 1!
For the inaugural issue, I decided to focus on the basics of reading a research paper--something most of us are unfamiliar with until that first psychology class in college. It's a daunting task and can often be frustrating. What do the different sections mean? What are you supposed to focus on? And why does a journal article on psychology have so many numbers in it?
How to Approach Reading A Research Paper In Psychology
Reading research papers is a skill
“Students should know that the approach to reading a research paper (i.e. journal article) in psychology is vastly different compared to reading a novel for leisurely reading,” Dr Paige Northern, Assistant Professor at Southeast Missouri State University, near St. Louis, Missouri, says via email. “Reading journal articles, especially for students who are just beginning to read about research, can feel very time-consuming, dense, and confusing. This is a normal experience for those who are inexperienced with reading journal articles!"
“Like many other abilities, reading about research and understanding research is a skill,” says Dr Northern. “It takes time, practice, and a bit of background knowledge about the topic to become proficient at reading journal articles.”
Determine your purpose for reading
There can be several reasons for reading a research paper, so the first task is to determine your why. This will help you decide the questions you need to ask and the things you need to make notes on.
“If [students] are reading it for their own expansion of knowledge, then that's a little different than if they're reading it for a research paper that they're preparing, or for inspiration for a study they might want to propose themselves,” says Dr Maya Khanna, Professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Will there be a test on the information in the article?” Dr Northern asks students to consider when approaching a research paper. “Are they reading the journal article to summarize it and submit it for a grade? Do they need to read it to understand a particular methodology? Students should set these goals prior to reading the article and read the article with the intention of meeting the goal.”
If you’re reading a paper for a written assignment, “you would want some understanding of the methods and results, how it relates to their interpretation, and how it fits with the broader points of your own writing,” says Dr Christopher Madan, Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham.
If you’re reading the paper for your own research, Dr Madan suggests paying attention to “the methods—the procedure and data analysis, above all else.”
Whatever the reason, “[y]ou should be reading the paper with a purpose—and perhaps later re-read it again if your goals are different later on,” says Dr Madan.
Dr Roberta Ekuni, Adjunct Professor at Universidade Estadual de Londrina in Paraná, Brazil, also points out the importance of the knowledge students already have, such as the basic terms used to discuss a given topic. She suggests that students should “first have a previous knowledge of the main definitions the paper will approach.”
Understand the structure of a research paper
“Research papers come with jargon and often require a certain level of prior knowledge,” says Dr Carolina E. Kuepper-Tetzel, Associate Professor at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland. “They are structured in a very specific way – with certain sections and headings – that, once one gets used to, can help students find the information they need.”
Abstract: “Start with the Abstract to get an initial idea of what the paper is about.”
Introduction: “Then move on to the Introduction to find out more about the research background and the motivation for the work presented in the paper.”
Method: “If a study or series of studies is presented in the paper, the Method section will highlight who participated in the study and what participants had to do. It also describes the materials and setup of the study in detail.”
Results: “In the Results section the researchers present their findings and the analyses they conducted to get to the findings. This is the most technical section of a paper that can be quite overwhelming.”
Discussion: “The Discussion section is where the findings are summarised and – well – discussed on the backdrop of other research papers in the field. Are the findings in line with what others have found? Are they at odds and if so, why? This section concludes with how the insights from the study reported can inform future research or be applied to other scenarios.”
Dr Jeri Little, Assistant Professor at California State University, East Bay, near Oakland, California, recommends that students begin “by reading the abstract, perhaps multiple times, until they feel they understand it.”
Students can then follow the reading sequence outlined by Dr Kuepper-Tetzel: “Start with the Abstract, then move to the Introduction, jump to the Discussion, and fill the gap of how the objectives outlined in the Introduction and the outcomes in the Discussion are connected by then reading the Methods and Results last.”
“When researchers describe their findings, they will usually add short summary sentences,” Dr Kuepper-Tetzel explains. “Highlight these sentences and connect them with what researchers described in the Introduction and then in the Discussion section.”
According to all the experts I interviewed, students most commonly struggle with the results section. “So, in the first step students should try to map the objective of the paper (as outlined in the Introduction) to the analyses,” Dr Kuepper-Tetzel says. “Which part of the results section tests the points raised previously in the Introduction? This is a way to get a feel for how the results are presented without needing to fully dive into the intricacies of the statistical procedures.” She adds, “I’m not saying they aren’t important, but when approaching research papers for the first time it can be helpful to grasp a general understanding of what is going on in the results section.”
Dr Little states that “If [students] want to really understand the study and think about the results themselves (and especially if the article is serving as a base for an experiment they'd be proposing or conducting), they need to understand the hypothesis (and the reasoning for it), and then read the method and results carefully, thinking about how they would apply (or not apply) the decisions the authors made to their own experiments. They should think about alternative decisions that could have been made and how those might influence the results (e.g., different materials, longer study time, etc.) If there are multiple studies, they should make sure they understand why subsequent studies were done.”
Questions to ask as you read
Dr Khanna lists the following things that students should keep an eye out for when reading a paper:
- "what are the important questions, the theoretical framework through which the authors are examining the question"
- "the specific hypotheses about the question that the researchers are addressing"
- "the particular methods that the particular researchers are using, making special notes for what are the independent variables [...], how are they measured, and what is the participant population or sample that is being examined and [...] the results."
To help make this process easier, Dr Khanna provides templates to her students based on their level of experience. For example, the template for freshmen and sophomores (younger students), aims to help them “understand the overall theory and hypotheses that are being addressed [and] to understand the design,” says Dr Khanna. Students should “be able to read a study and know if it's something like a between-groups, within-groups or mixed design.” She also makes sure they make notes on the variables being studied. Finally, students must note “the take home message [...] at least one sentence,” she says.
In addition to the above, Dr Khanna asks her upper division students “to give more detail about the theory [and] to explain if this article that they're reading is a replication or an extension. Is it a theoretical replication, a theoretical extension or more empirical and based on a specific narrow question rather than theory?”
They must also look closely at the sample used. Students must ask themselves if it’s “a truly representative sample” and “really think about those methods and if they're appropriate,” she says.
Where articles with multiple experiments are concerned, Dr Khanna encourages students to “make connections between how those different experiments relate to one another, and what aspects of the overall theoretical question the researchers are trying to address.” The goal is to make them see the bigger picture and understand “that it's [...] typically not just a bunch of experiments strung together.” Finally, she asks students “to be able to relate it to overall theory.”
The SQ3R Technique
Dr Ekuni recommends using this technique when reading a paper:
SURVEY (Research - read the topics of the chapter, investigate what it will talk about);
QUESTION (Question - try to actively anticipate the content you will see)
READ (Read - an excerpt - not too long - and think about which questions the author wants to answer. Read the question you asked for the excerpt, and try to answer it. Seek to connect with things you already know. If not, reread the passage)
RECITE (Close the book and try to REMEMBER what you read – that’s retrieval practice!)
REVIEW (Analyze - get feedback from the previous session, check if you retrieved the correct information. Important: After reading the entire paper, try to remember the passages and connect them to each other in a coherent structure)
This method doesn’t have to be followed strictly, “Ideally, you can adapt it according to your needs, skip stage(s) if you feel you have to,” Dr Ekuni says. “Do whatever works best for you.”
How To Take Notes While Reading Research Papers
When you start reading a research paper, everything seems important and worth highlighting. How do you pick the key elements and organize them for later use?
What to take notes on
As with deciding on a general approach to reading a paper, how and what you take notes on depends on why you’re reading the paper.
“For empirical journal articles, this would involve including the hypotheses, theoretical explanations, methodology, and main findings in their notes,” says Dr Northern.
She also suggests that “students should be intentional with their notetaking and think about what they will use their notes for. For example, if a student is reading a journal article in preparation for an in-class discussion, then the student should take notes on the key points that will facilitate discussion. If a student is reading a journal article to determine what measures have been used to explore a particular research topic, then the student should take detailed notes focusing on the measures in the article.”
Dr Little provides her students a list of things to note when reading papers for her classes. “This usually includes a question about the hypothesis (and critical background that informs the hypothesis), the basic method including the IV(s), DV(s), materials, and basic procedure, the main results (e.g., main effects, interaction, pair-wise comparisons), whether the results supported the hypothesis/the authors interpretation of the results, and any issues that the paper had (usually ones mentioned by the authors). I also ask questions about why subsequent studies were conducted (what did they add to the information from the first study?).”
How to take notes
For single papers
Dr Kuepper-Tetzel emphasises that “creating short summaries about the key elements of a research paper can be helpful.”
Dr Madan suggests that you “[t]ry to determine 3-5 bullet points that are most relevant” or “concisely explain the paper to a peer in just a few minutes.”
For multiple papers
For taking notes on multiple papers covering the same topic, Dr Kuepper-Tetzel describes how she used Excel sheets “with different columns dedicated to content from the different sections (i.e., Research question, Participants, Materials, Procedure, Results, Conclusion). This gave me an overview of different studies and how they compare to each other.”
To get a big-picture view, Dr Kuepper-Tetzel suggests that “students can try to visualise how different papers connect to each other by creating a concept map that features different hypotheses, ideas, or theories and illustrate how different papers inform these.”
In their book Study Like a Champ: The Psychology-Based Guide to “Grade A” Study Habits, Dr Regan A. R. Gurung and Dr John Dunlosky recommend the 3R method for taking notes in class, which Dr Ekuni also applies to reading research papers:
- RECORD: [T]ry to write the main idea of the paper
- REVISE - [C]heck on the paper if your note are incomplete – and fill the gaps
- REVIEW - [W]hat is the main idea? Can you write a summary without checking your notes?
Make a habit of notetaking
Dr Khanna actively encourages the use of her templates, which can be filled in online or printed out, by asking students to turn in their summaries “just to get them in that habit of making sure that they're understanding the details, and then towards the middle [of the semester] I don't insist on that anymore, and I hope that they have [...] internalized those key points.”
Simply reading a paper and making on its contents isn't enough. You also need to check your understanding and anaylse what it all means. Read how to do that here.
Reader’s Block: What To Do When You Don't Understand What You're Reading
Although reading papers becomes easier the more you do it, confusion is inevitable. “This will definitely happen – I’ve been reading journal articles for years, and I still get confused when reading [them] at times,” says Dr Northern.
So what should you do when you hit a wall and can't make sense of anything?
Understand what you don’t understand
“The first step is often figuring out what one doesn't understand,” explains Dr Little. “If they can narrow that down, it is often easy to look up. The hard part is when they can't figure out what they don't understand.”
“The important thing for students is to keep trying, to note down any questions that came up, and to either ask their peers or their teacher,” says Dr Kuepper-Tetzel.
“The first piece of advice I have is to slow down,” Dr Northern says. “It may be that you are reading too quickly and glossing over important information in the article. You will likely need to read an article a couple of times to understand the content and evaluate the information in [it]. The second piece of advice I have is to use other sources to understand the content.”
Where to look for clarification
Good ol’ Google was one of the common suggestions to deal with confusion. Be it a part of the brain that you’re not familiar with, a research design that you don’t understand, or details of a particular statistical analysis, the experts I interviewed recommended looking it up on the internet. If you’re concerned about the quality and reliability of the information you find online, you can also look for clarifications in other research papers and textbooks.
Dr Madan suggests that if students are having trouble understanding a theory or a procedure, they should “see what is cited alongside these ideas—perhaps there is a review or methods paper that goes in more depth.”
Dr Khanna advises the same. “I encourage them to do that because that's what we do [...] as researchers,” she says. You don’t have to read the cited papers from beginning to end—sometimes, just the abstract would be enough.
“In terms of the statistical analysis, I will again ask them to focus on the narrative description,” says Dr Khanna. But to her upper division students, she suggests they “read the referenced articles that might reference the more complicated design or analysis plan.” As with other confusing points, you can Google it, but Dr Khanna emphasises the importance of looking up the articles that are cited in the paper you’re reading.
Confusion as a learning opportunity
“Questions specific to a research paper (e.g., Why did the researchers use this kind of questionnaire to investigate X?) can snowball to other papers that may help gaining a new understanding of the topic,” says Dr Kuepper-Tetzel. “So, very often when students do not understand specific points in a paper, it can lead to a very useful learning experience.”
Sometimes, difficulties persist even after looking for clarification in textbooks and on the internet. In such cases, students must note that “not grasping something written in a research paper does not necessarily mean that it is on them,” according to Dr Kuepper-Tetzel, who looks at confusion as a learning opportunity. “[I]t may be that the paper does not do a good job explaining specific things or that the paper actually opens up more questions than it answers – which is quite exciting.”
Students could also “refer to a background textbook and see if it includes these same ideas and explains them in a more approachable manner,” Dr Madan recommends.
“The last piece of advice I have is to ask questions if you can," says Dr Northern. "Talk to your professor if the reading is for a class – they are usually pretty helpful 😊”
Reading Research Papers: Struggles and Errors
Almost everyone struggles with reading research papers because, as the experts I interviewed mention, it's a skill that requires time and effort.
“Research articles may include area-specific jargon, description of complex methodology, descriptions of statistical analyses, and sometimes complicated explanations for findings (or lack thereof),” explains Dr Northern. “[I]t is completely normal to have this experience when just beginning to read journal articles – do not despair! Many students think they need to walk away from a journal article knowing every single detail, when in many cases, students need to know a handful of points.”
Dr Kuepper-Tetzel, Associate Professor at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland, says that, “approaching this task with the right expectation can go a long way. [...] The task of reading and understanding research papers gets better and easier the more students engage with this task.”
“When first approaching this task,” Dr Kuepper-Tetzel explains, “students will have very little prior knowledge (they are still building prior knowledge) and so navigating research papers that are targeted to an expert audience is a challenge and requires time and effort. This is just how it is."
Dr Kuepper-Tetzel, an expert in Cognitive Psychology, describes how she finds it easy to read papers from her domain. "This is because I have prior knowledge that I can apply when reading a paper which helps immensely," she says. "However, if you give me a paper on let’s say Marketing Psychology, it will take me more time to work through it and I won’t understand all the small details right away.”
Dr Madan shares a figure from a paper by Katharine E. Hubbard and Sonja D. Dunbar (2017) that shows the different sections that individuals find easy and important to read at various stages of their careers:
“[H]ere the perceived importance of different sections of a paper changes as academics gain experience,” Dr Madan says. “Figure 1 also might be encouraging in showing that later stages are associated with greater enjoyment and understanding in reading research papers.”
Set the right goals
“My main message is to read with intention,” says Dr Madan. “Think about why you're reading the paper and what kinds of questions you want to be able to answer, and then focus on those aspects. Papers have lots of details and are meant to cater to a variety of audiences, so you can't try and understand it all at once, especially when starting in psychology. Keep your goals in mind and find the answers.”
Dr Kuepper-Tetzel points out how common it is for students to neglect the research papers they’re required to read. “If this happens on a regular basis,” she says, “then students will not experience the improvement in their skills and knowledge and so that struggle to read and understand papers persists. While teachers can provide lots of help and scaffolding, it is up to the students to engage in that task and to work on improving that skill one paper at a time.”
Ask questions to focus on critical details
Dr Northern lists some questions that can help students extract the most important details from the paper: “What was the goal or goals of the research? What were the predictions? What did participants do in the research? What were the overall findings? What does this mean? As long as you can answer those questions, then you are likely good to go.”
Navigating the Methods and Results sections
When reading research papers, students “often focus too much on the introduction, skipping over the methods and results, so they don't really know what the study was about or what the researchers found,” says Dr Little. “The introduction and discussion are often easier to read, but it gives students a false sense of understanding if they skip over the method and results.”
“The Results section can seem like a scary place filled with complicated statistics and numbers that will not make sense to a student who has not taken a Statistics course or Research Methods course,” Dr Northern explains. “In many cases, professors will not expect you to perfectly understand the statistical analyses used in an experiment (unless you are in a statistics course and purposefully attempting to identify statistical analyses).”
Students also often struggle with understanding theories and experimental designs, according to Dr Khanna. “[I]t's hard for them to understand if it's a between, within or mixed subjects or participants design.”
“Another thing that I find is hard for students, even upper division students, is being able to discern the difference between hypotheses and [...] specific results-based predictions that would then support one or the other aspects of your hypotheses,” says Dr Khanna.
So what's the solution? Dr Northern suggests “focusing on the main conclusions from the analyses rather than attempting to understand every analysis."
You’ve Read A Research Paper. Now What?
The process of reading a research paper doesn't end when you've finished reading it. You also need to make sure you’ve actually understood what you read, connect it with what you already know, and organize your notes effectively to make it easy to refer to them later, as our experts explain:
Check your understanding
Your next steps are determined by your “status of understanding,” according to Dr Northern. “If a student reads an article and doesn’t understand it, then they definitely should re-read it or review it at least [one] more time to close the gaps in their understanding.”
One way of checking that you’ve actually understood what you’ve read, according to Dr Khanna, is to ask yourself, ““If I had to summarize this or tell somebody about this article, what would I say?” and make sure that they understand that overall take home message.”
She also advises her students to make sure they’ve not missed anything in the template she provides them. This revision can also help refresh their memory of the paper’s contents.
Your understanding could also be affected by other factors, which Dr Ekuni emphasises paying attention to. “How is the sleep quality of this student? Is s/he eating well? Doing exercises? Dealing with stress? What about his/her socioeconomic status? Does s/he have enough food? Can s/he pay his/her bills (or his/her working memory is occupied processing this information)?”
Connect new information to prior knowledge
“Connecting new knowledge to already existing knowledge is one way to learn about a topic,” explains Dr Kuepper-Tetzel. “So, after reading a paper, students should try to link what they learned from the paper to things they already know or to concepts discussed in class. This can be done through self-explanation or explaining to someone else and through writing notes and adding to concept maps.”
Organize your notes
Simply taking notes isn’t enough. “[Students] should store their notes in an organized manner (e.g., with other notes on similar papers) so that they can find them later if they need to think about the paper again,” recommends Dr Little.
Dr Northern also suggests “keeping an electronic copy of the article and a summary of it." She adds, “It can also be helpful to write down any lingering questions after reading the article.”
Quick Tips and Resources
Here are some additional tips and resources from the experts I interviewed for Issue 1:
Dr Paige Northern
- Don’t give up! Reading and understanding journal articles is a skill, which means it takes practice and a willingness to learn.
- Set goals for yourself prior to reading and work to achieve them. Are you needing to have a discussion about the findings in a class? Do you need to summarize the article? Will you need to know the predictions and findings for a quiz? Set these goals prior to reading the article and read it until you meet your goals.
- You will likely need to read an article more than once to understand it. This is normal and not a reflection of your intelligence or abilities to succeed.
- When in doubt, ask questions! Talk to your professor. Talk to a friend in your class. Google the information you don’t know and search for quality information that can help you understand it.
Dr Jeri Little
I'd recommend starting with articles aimed at a more general audience (e.g., from Psychological Science). Those will often be shorter and easier to understand than articles from more specified journals. [...] I would warn them to not expect it to be easy, especially at first, and to be easy on themselves if they are struggling to understand.
Dr Christopher Madan
Dr Carolina E. Kuepper-Tetzel
Good luck reading research papers and do not give up when it feels challenging! You can do it!
Experts in This Issue
Dr. Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel (she/her)
Dr Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, an expert in applying Cognitive Psychology to education, and an enthusiastic science communicator. She leads the TILE Network and is a member of the Learning Scientists. Her expertise is in human learning and memory, experimental research methods, and applied research. She obtained her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Mannheim and pursued postdoc positions at York University in Toronto and the Center for Integrative Research in Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University in St. Louis. Before joining the University of Glasgow, she was a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Dundee. She is convinced that psychological research should serve the public and engages heavily in scholarly outreach and science communication. Carolina is passionate about teaching and aims at providing her students with the best learning experience possible. You can follow her work on LinkedIn and Twitter @pimpmymemory.
Dr Christopher Madan (he/him)
Christopher R. Madan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, UK. He completed his PhD in Psychology at the University of Alberta in 2014, including a visiting scientist position at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and followed by a postdoctoral research fellowship at Boston College. His research combines cognitive psychology approaches with neuroimaging techniques (fMRI, EEG) and computational modelling. He is particularly interested in investigating factors that make some experiences more memorable than others-including emotion, motivation, and pre-existing semantic knowledge-and how these influences can manifest in future decisions. He also specializes in characterizing inter-individual differences in brain morphology, particularly with respect to aging, dementia, and cognitive abilities.
Dr. Madan received a 2021 Early Career Award from the Psychonomic Society and a 2017 Rising Star award from the Association for Psychological Science. He is a Fellow of the Psychonomic Society and AdvanceHE and has been elected to the membership of the Memory Disorders Research Society. He is currently an associate editor for Behavior Research Methods and a consulting editor for Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, along with other editorial roles, particularly with the Journal of Open Source Software and Collabra: Psychology. Dr. Madan has published over 100 journal articles and three books: An Introduction to Matlab for Behavioural Researchers (2014, Sage), Academia and the World Beyond (2021, Springer), and Memories that Matter (2022, Routledge).
Dr. Jeri Little (she/her)
Dr. Jeri Little (she/her) is an Assistant Professor at California State University, East Bay, near Oakland, California. She has been teaching psychology at the college level for over eight years. Dr. Little earned her Ph.D. from University of California, Los Angeles in 2011.
Dr. Little specializes in research on multiple-choice quizzes, science learning, and individual differences in the strategies that students use to learn and what they learn as a result. Using methods from cognitive psychology, she focuses on issues relevant to educational practice, including those involving memory, knowledge representation, and metacognition. She regularly teaches Cognitive Processes, Laboratory in Cognitive Psychology, and Experimental Psychology.
Her research has been published in leading peer-reviewed journals and promoted by the Huffington Post, Science Daily, and other media outlets.
Dr. Maya Khanna (she/her)
Dr. Maya Khanna (she/her) is a Professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2006.
Dr. Khanna has several areas of research including reading and spelling skill acquisition, memory, and attention. After college, she became a high school science teacher in San Jose, California with Teach For America. Dr. Khanna is especially interested in helping colleagues design studies of their own pedagogical practice. She has done this while serving as a Creighton University Center for Faculty Excellence Associate.
Dr. Paige Northern (she/her)
Dr. Paige Northern (she/her) is an Assistant Professor at Southeast Missouri State University, near St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in research on metacognition and study strategies. She earned her Ph.D. from Texas Christian University in 2021.
Dr. Northern maintains an active program of research focused on understanding both student learning and educator experiences. Her research is aimed at 1) identifying factors that impact student learning and learning environments, 2) developing strategies to improve students’ learning, and 3) identifying pedagogical tools instructors can implement in their courses to support students’ learning.
She teaches several courses, including Introduction to Psychology, Learning and Memory, Research Methods, and Adult Development and Aging.
Dr. Roberta Ekuni (she/her)
Dr. Roberta Ekuni (she/her) is an Adjunct Professor at Universidade Estadual de Londrina in Paraná, Brazil. She specializes in research on student study strategies, online learning, and neuromyths. She earned her Ph.D. from Universidade Federal de São Paulo in 2017.
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