Tanner 2003 Reading Critiquing Research Paper


A common refrain heard from many college and university biology instructors is that undergraduate science students do not seem to possess the same scientific habits of mind as their instructors, nor do they seem to have command of fundamental principles and concepts that structure the expertise of their instructors (Hestenes et al., 1992; Khodor et al., 2004; Wilson et al., 2006; Michael, 2007; D'Avanzo, 2008). In short, even our advanced undergraduate students do not seem to be scientifically literate—they cannot “ask and answer their own biologically relevant questions” (Wright, 2005). If we as university biology instructors are to make progress on the challenge of transforming our novice undergraduates into expert biological thinkers who are scientifically literate, then we all need tools that can aid us in revealing student thinking and in analyzing what we do in the classroom that supports or hinders the development of this scientific literacy in students. This is where classroom assessment—gathering evidence on students' thinking—is a key part of teaching at any level (Angelo and Cross, 1993; Atkin et al., 2001; Black and Wiliam, 1998; Huba and Freed, 2000; Sundberg, 2002; Tanner and Allen, 2004). However, there are a myriad of approaches to collecting assessment evidence from students: minute papers to gain quick insight into student thinking, reflective journal writing to promote metacognition and reveal confusions, and concept mapping to examine the structure of students' knowledge, to name just a few. Each of these many assessment approaches to monitor student thinking has its advantages and drawbacks, and some tools seem to work best for some topics or in the hands of some instructors. Here, we give an introduction to a relatively recent addition to the assessment tools in biology—the concept inventory—address its promising attributes and potential drawbacks, and raise the question of what concept inventories may actually measure. Finally, we consider potential alternative approaches to gaining insight into how students think about biology that come from the chemistry education and physics education research literatures.


Over the past several years, concept inventories as a form of assessment have received particular attention in the biological sciences. Like many biology instructors, we have been curious about the nature of concept inventories, what they measure, and their potential use in both classroom settings and biology education research efforts. On initial consideration, concept inventories seem to be a powerful and accessible tool to support iterative improvement in faculty teaching and to enhance the scientific literacy of students. The stated goals of concept inventories have varied: to assess and build scientific literacy (Klymkowsky et al., 2003; Bowling et al., 2008a,b), to catalyze curriculum reform (Hake, 1998; Smith et al., 2008), and to identify student weak spots (Garvin-Doxas et al., 2007). In the simplest terms, a concept inventory is an outline of core knowledge and concepts for a given field and a collection of multiple-choice questions that are designed to probe student understanding of these fundamental concepts (Redish, 2000). Such inventories can potentially be used not only as a tool to provide information for instructors on how to improve teaching but also as an instrument to yield data for basic biology education research. Individual questions on a concept inventory are often born out of previous qualitative research using student interviews or open-ended essay questions that have revealed student misconceptions, incorrect thinking, or incomplete understanding regarding fundamental principles or concepts. These common misconceptions are then embedded into the choices of the multiple-choice questions as “distractors.” The selection of a particular distractor by a student is intended to help instructors identify where a student is “stuck” in the mastery of a particular concept (Garvin-Doxas et al., 2007). Concept inventories seem to have been first developed as an instructional tool in the field of undergraduate physics, where they had a pivotal impact in advancing the field of physics education research. The force concept inventory (FCI), the first and most popular concept inventory to be developed (Hestenes et al., 1992), is a 29-question test focused on probing students' understanding of Newtonian and non-Newtonian concepts about force. The FCI, as it is commonly referred to, was designed to measure six conceptual dimensions of the force concept considered essential for complete understanding (e.g., kinematics; kinds of forces; the superposition principle; and Newton's first, second, and third laws). With respect to classroom teaching, the FCI has been credited with catalyzing important reforms in undergraduate physics education, such as the development of Eric Mazur's model of peer instruction (Mazur, 1997). In addition, the FCI was key in nucleating research in physics education, such as Hake's study of normalized gain (Hake, 1998), which showed that student-learning gains were greater on the FCI with interactive pedagogy compared with traditional lecture alone. Following the success of the FCI in promoting pedagogical discussions and change, other concept inventories such as the force and motion conceptual evaluation (Thornton and Sokoloff, 1998) have been created in physics education, but none seems to have enjoyed the same widespread influence as the FCI.

Because of the significant impact of concept inventories in driving activity in physics education, biology educators have been motivated to develop concept inventories of their own, modeled on the FCI (Michael et al., 2008). In addition, the National Science Foundation has committed its support, providing grants for biology concept inventory development totaling >US$6 million since 1995 (www.nsf.gov/awardsearch). Unlike physics education, one of the persistent challenges in biology seems to be generating consensus among biologists about which concepts or “big ideas” are most important to assess (Garvin-Doxas et al., 2007; Michael et al., 2008). Today, there are a growing number of concept inventories and concept inventory–like assessments available for use by undergraduate biology faculty, including, but not limited to, the concept inventory in natural selection (Anderson et al., 2002), the biology concept inventory (Klymkowsky et al., 2003), the genetics concept inventory (Elrod, 2007), the genetics literacy assessment instrument (Bowling et al., 2008a,b), the genetics concept assessment (Smith et al., 2008), and numerous other inventories are under development (for overviews, see Garvin-Doxas et al., 2007; D'Avanzo, 2008; Michael et al., 2008). These inventories seem to offer numerous benefits. They encourage faculty to develop systematic classroom assessment techniques and to integrate assessment into their everyday teaching. They support faculty reflection on teaching using evidence collected systematically from students. And they help faculty gain some insight into what students may know and understand in terms of biology content knowledge. However, gaining insight into students' content knowledge or what they know is distinct from gaining insight into student thinking, their scientific literacy as defined above, and the extent to which they are accruing the scientific habits of mind that enable them to think like biologists.


Even with their assured promise as an additional assessment tool in biology instructors' assessment toolkit, a critical analysis of concept inventories reveals several issues for consideration. Researchers in physics education have for many years deliberated upon whether concept inventories actually measure the conceptual understanding that they are designed to assess. The so-called “4-H” debate in physics education research—named for four authors of several key papers in the debate—highlights this issue (Heller and Huffman, 1995; Hestenes and Halloun, 1995; Huffman and Heller, 1995). Specifically, the debate has focused attention on whether the FCI is perhaps measuring student intuitions about questions in physics rather than a deeper conceptual understanding or way of knowing related to the six conceptual dimensions of the force concept. Hestenes and colleagues predicted that certain subsets of the questions on the FCI would map directly onto one of the six articulated dimensions of the force concept. Huffman and Heller contended that if this were true, then the questions on the test that theoretically measure a common dimension of the force concept should map mathematically onto a single factor when analyzed using factor analysis. However, just such a factor analysis of student responses on the FCI did not yield a robust mapping of test items onto their predicted conceptual dimension (Huffman and Heller, 1995). As a result, Huffman and Heller have proposed that rather than measuring conceptual understanding, the FCI may be more a measure of student familiarity with particular contexts. For example, students may be more familiar with questions about the physics of hockey pucks, and thus those questions group together in a factor analysis of students' responses because of familiarity with context rather than application or understanding of the deeper conceptual kinship. Similarly, questions regarding the same underlying conceptual dimension of the force concept presented in a less familiar context, such as rocket-related questions, do not necessarily cluster as predicted by test designers. Indeed, current research in physics education continues to explore, develop, and debate what the FCI actually measures and how to interpret it more than 17 years after its initial publication (Bao and Redish, 2001, 2006).

Another oft-stated goal of concept inventories is to measure student understanding that can inform instruction, thus making concept inventories a pedagogically useful assessment tool (Michael et al., 2008). However, two aspects of the construction of many (but not all) concept inventories may limit their usefulness as a classroom assessment tool: 1) the vocabulary used and 2) the format of these tests. First, a pervasive problem in concept inventories seems to be the use of jargon that obscures, rather than reveals, conceptual understanding. For example, a concept inventory question that probes students' understanding of the scientific method would seem to measure something about students' scientific habits of mind, their ways of thinking, and thus their scientific literacy. However, concept inventory questions such as this often require students to know the difference between a “positive control” and “negative control.” Without a rather low level understanding of these vocabulary terms, a student would be unable to demonstrate his or her conceptual understanding of the logic inherent in the scientific method and the fair design of an experiment. As such, a student may possess a conceptual understanding of experimental design that would go unmeasured by such a vocabulary-limited concept inventory question. Second, the form of the concept inventory itself—a set of closed-ended, multiple-choice questions—would seem to be a significant limitation to gaining insight into students' thinking. A concept inventory gives a time-stamped measurement of student knowledge before and after instruction. At best, comparison of pre- and postscores allows instructors to discern that something somehow affected student learning at some time, but not to determine what that influence was nor why it was influential. Also, by their nature, concept inventories force students to make a choice without opportunity for explanation as to why they have made that choice. As such, in their most common form, concept inventories would seem to yield little specific information about student thinking or deep conceptual understanding.

Given the debates about what concept inventories measure in the physics education community and the limitations that may be inherent in the present structure of concept inventories themselves, one wonders whether concept inventories really are measuring what they aspire to measure, deeper understanding and biological thinking. With regard to what concept inventories really measure, the heart of the issue is whether measurement of content knowledge can in some way serve as a proxy for conceptual understanding (Black, 2003). Yet, many would argue that “… no knowledge exists in any field, including biology, that is so essential that every literate person must know it.” (Wright, 2005).


That said, some concept inventory designers are now attempting to address many of the concerns expressed about the limitations of concept inventories based on multiple-choice questions, especially those concerns about measuring student thinking as opposed to student knowledge. One approach is a return to an assessment tool format that has been developed previously by science education researchers, namely, the “two-tier” multiple-choice instrument (for examples, see Tamir, 1971; Treagust, 1988). In these tests, questions are asked in pairs, where the first question in the pair is similar to a standard concept inventory question and the second question in the pair (the second tier) attempts to probe the likely reasoning behind the students' choice in the first question. This approach, although still predicated on using only multiple-choice questions, is an attempt to assess both students' content knowledge and the thinking and reasoning behind their answer choice.

In addition, the pioneering efforts in biology concept inventory development coupled with uneasiness about what is really being measured also seems to have stimulated the development of a related, but distinct approach: diagnostic question clusters. Diagnostic question clusters, also referred to as diagnostic question sets, do not necessarily rely only on closed-ended, multiple-choice questions. Instead, students are encouraged to approach biology questions of a variety of forms like a biological expert. Unlike concept inventories, these assessment tools seem to be specifically designed to help students improve their thinking and reasoning skills (Wilson et al., 2006; and Thinking Like a Biologist, www.biodqc.org/overview). Students are encouraged to develop the ability to move vertically through biological ideas from the intracellular to the organismal to the ecosystem level, thinking across scales and boundaries as needed; this is one salient characteristic of expert biological thinking.

Some concept inventory authors acknowledge that “open-ended responses, essay questions, and even lab tests provide greater insight into student knowledge, [but] they take too many resources (in terms of time and energy) to grade rigorously and objectively” (Klymkowsky et al., 2003). This argument assumes, however, that classroom assessment is solely in the service of the instructors, their evaluation of students, and improvement of their teaching. This stance, unfortunately, ignores one of the most important roles of classroom assessment: it is a powerful teaching tool. Assessments that challenge students to articulate their ideas—in writing, in drawing, in design of an experiment—are assessment approaches that integrate assessment into the learning process. Having students express their ideas pre- and postinstruction, and then reflect on changes in their thinking, puts assessment tools firmly in the service of learning, as tools that engage students metacognitively in fostering their own conceptual progress and growth. Fundamentally, it is what teachers and students do together within classrooms that has the potential to drive learning and progress toward scientific literacy (Black and Wiliam, 1998). Historically, Bloom (1956) taught us that if you want to develop higher-order reasoning, you have to ask higher-order questions (Allen and Tanner, 2007). If we keep testing for content knowledge because it is quick and easy, then that will limit the learning outcomes that we are able to achieve (Black, 2003). Reliance on content knowledge assessed by closed-ended, multiple-choice questions as a proxy for a more direct measure of student thinking and scientific literacy may cause instructors to overlook the very student outcomes that they hope to assess. Moving the focus of classroom assessment in biology beyond concept inventories (or other tests) that primarily assess knowledge or vocabulary or superficial aspects of the contexts being presented would seem critical to moving our students toward expert biological thinking.


The initial impetus for developing concept inventories in biology seems to have arisen from the influence of the FCI in undergraduate physics and its success in nucleating pockets of instructional reform (Klymkowsky et al., 2003). Examining education reform efforts and measurement tools in other science disciplines is indeed a fruitful approach. But perhaps we should not stop with concept inventories, but rather continue to explore the approaches used in chemistry and physics education to examine the impact of innovative instruction and to study the maturation of student thinking in those disciplines. Below, we review two studies that take novel approaches to measuring the maturation of student thinking in the sciences. Neither approach could easily be implemented in its original form in an undergraduate biology classroom. However, both focus squarely on the problem of measuring student thinking. And if that's the key goal of undergraduate biology education—maturation of novice biological thinkers into emerging biological expert thinkers who are biologically literate—then that is what we need to figure out how to measure in biology, and adaptations of these approaches may offer a new way to do so.

In Their Own Words: Oral Interviews With Students

In a landmark study in chemistry education research, John Wright and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin set out to investigate whether interactive, inquiry-based teaching in introductory undergraduate chemistry develops greater scientific competence in students compared with a traditional lecture approach (Wright et al., 1998). In developing a research design for their study, Wright and his colleagues decided to ask a group of skeptical science faculty what kind of evidence they would find compelling. These faculty skeptics called for a jury of their peers—external science faculty assessors—who would participate in a blind study of students' ability to think scientifically using oral interviews. Each external assessor was asked to develop his or her own oral exam and definition of student competence. Wright and his colleagues sampled students from the traditional lecture course and the active-learning infused course, such that multiple students from each octile, according to grade-based rank in the course, participated. Each faculty assessor conducted 30-minute interviews with students from both courses who were matched based on rank in their respective courses. After unblinding the results as to the course affiliation for each interviewed student, Wright and his team discovered that the independent examiners consistently ranked students from the interactive classroom higher in scientific competence compared with those from the traditional lecture classroom. A large proportion of the examiners in Wright's study identified meta-awareness—the thinking patterns of the students—as their primary criterion for judging competence. Wright and his colleagues argued that these oral discussions with students are far more effective in measuring changes in scientific thinking skills compared with standardized examinations. Oral interviews revealed students' abilities to think in original and fundamental ways. In addition, this approach enabled students to present a complete picture of their disciplinary knowledge and stance compared with a more delimited paper-and-pencil method. Indeed, Wright et al. (1998) contended that oral exams reflect the scientific maturity of the student and that written exams measure a student's command of the subject matter. They argued convincingly that the “habits of the mind” (e.g., thinking process, reasoning, and communication skills) inherent in successful problem solving are a key feature of students' scientific competence and are best assessed through oral discussions.

Gaining Insight into the Structure of Students' Thinking: The Problem-sorting Task

Although cognitive scientists have provided a variety of approaches to assess literacy or expertise across a range of disciplines, one study in physics education offers a unique approach to gauging the development of expertise and scientific thinking. In the early 1980s, Michelene Chi and her colleagues developed a sorting task designed for use in studying the development of expert thinking among trainees in physics (Chi et al., 1981). This task engaged participants in the categorization of physics problems taken from the end-of-chapter sections of a commonly used introductory undergraduate physics text. In their study, the researchers asked eight advanced physics doctoral students—classified as “experts”—and eight undergraduates who had completed an introductory course in mechanics—classified as “novices”—to sort 24 physics problems on the basis of similarity of solution. Their results strikingly revealed a distinct difference in the way that experts and novices, as defined in their study, sorted the same set of physics problems. Specifically, experts seemed to group problems on the basis of their underlying conceptual features (e.g., Newton's laws). In contrast, novices seemed to group problems on the basis of superficial, contextual features (e.g., blocks on inclined planes). Chi (2006) has argued that performance on contrived, structured tasks is a key tool in judging the nature of expertise among individuals at different stages of training within a discipline. In addition, Chi has suggested that particular tasks have the unique potential to reveal important information regarding the structure of an individual's knowledge, and subsequently their disciplinary thinking. In a study of problem solving, Smith and Good (1984) interviewed undergraduate students, graduate students, and biology instructors as they solved problems in classical genetics. Similar to the original physics study, their results suggested that novice and expert biologists exhibit differences in their representation of problems—novices focused attention on the commonality of “flower problems,” whereas experts reflected on “monohybrid problems.” These results suggest differences in the underlying structure of disciplinary knowledge and ways of thinking between novices and experts that are similar to the findings in physics. Studies of the transitions in thinking and knowledge structure that occur as novices mature into experts is ongoing, and the early studies of Chi and colleagues continue to influence the field.


In summary, attempts at constructing concept inventories in biology have sparked many new discussions about what our goals for undergraduate biology education really are and how we can measure these things. Although concept inventories are most certainly a welcome addition to the biology instructors' varied assessment toolkit, it is unclear whether they really measure what we aspire to cultivate in our students, namely, scientific habits of mind, biological literacy, and the ability to think independently like a biologist. Concept inventories have limitations: what they measure is not always clear, conceptual understanding can be obscured by jargon, and a reliance on closed-ended, multiple-choice questions necessitates that they primarily assess content knowledge rather than conceptual understanding, biological thinking, and scientific literacy. Achieving robust assessment of genuine conceptual understanding and biological thinking will require us to not only clarify what we want to endure within students' minds long after their undergraduate biology education but also determine the extent to which our assessment tools actually measure these things.


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Articles from CBE Life Sciences Education are provided here courtesy of American Society for Cell Biology

Nurses use research to answer questions about their practice, solve problems, improve the quality of patient care, generate new research questions, and shape health policy. Nurses who confront questions about practice and policy need strong, high-quality, evidence-based research. Research articles in peer-reviewed journals typically undergo a rigorous review process to ensure scholarly standards are met. Nonetheless, standards vary among reviewers and journals. This article presents a framework nurses can use to read and critique a research article.

When deciding to read an article, determine if it’s about a question you have an interest in or if it can be of use in your practice. You may want to have a research article available to read and critique as you consider the following questions.

Does the title accurately describe the article?

A good title will pique your interest but typically you will not know until you are done reading the article if the title is an accurate description. An informative title conveys the article’s key concepts, methods, and variables.

Is the abstract representative of the article?

The abstract provides a brief overview of the purpose of the study, research questions, methods, results, and conclusions. This helps you decide if it’s an article you want to read. Some people use the abstract to discuss a study and never read further. This is unwise because the abstract is just a preview of the article and may be misleading.

Does the introduction make the purpose of the article clear?

A good introduction provides the basis for the article. It includes a statement of the problem, a rationale for the study, and the research questions. When a hypothesis is being tested, it should be clearly stated and include the expected results.

Is a theoretical framework described?

When a theoretical framework is used, it should inform the study and provide a rationale. The concepts of the theoretical framework should relate to the topic and serve as a basis for interpreting the results. Some research doesn’t use a theoretical framework, such as health services research, which examines issues such as access to care, healthcare costs, and healthcare delivery. Clinical research such as comparing the effectiveness of two drugs won’t include a theoretical framework.

Is the literature review relevant to the study and comprehensive? Does it include recent research?

The literature review provides a context for the study. It establishes what is, and is not known about the research problem. Publication dates are important but there are caveats. Most literature reviews include articles published within the last 3 to 5 years. It can take more than a year for an article to be reviewed, revised, accepted, and published, causing some references to seem outdated.

Literature reviews may include older studies to demonstrate important changes in knowledge over time. In an area of study where little or no research has been conducted, there may be only a few relevant articles that are a decade or more old. In an emerging area of study there may be no published research, in which case related research should be referenced. If you are familiar with the area of research, review the references to determine if well-known and highly regarded studies are included.

Does the methods section explain how a research question was addressed?

The methods section provides enough information to allow the study to be replicated. Components of this section indicate if the design is appropriate to answer the research question(s).

  • Did the researcher select the correct sample to answer the research questions and was the size sufficient to obtain valid results?
  • If a data collection instrument was used, how was it created and validated?
  • If any materials were used, such as written guides or equipment, were they described?
  • How were data collected?
  • Was reliability and validity accounted for?
  • Were the procedures listed in a step-by-step manner?

Independent and dependent variables should be described and terms defined. For example, if patient falls in the hospital are considered the dependent variable, or outcome, what are the independent variables, or factors, being investigated that may influence the rate at which patient falls occur? In this example, independent variables might include nurse staffing, registered nurse composition (such as education and certification), and hospital Magnet&#174 status.

Is the analytical approach consistent with the study questions and research design?

The analytical approach relates to the study questions and research design. A quantitative study may use descriptive statistics to summarize the data and other tests, such as chi squares, t-tests, or regression analysis, to compare or evaluate the data. A qualitative study may use such approaches as coding, content analysis, or grounded theory analysis. A reader who is unfamiliar with the analytical approach may choose to rely on the expertise of the journal’s peer reviewers who assessed whether the analytical approach was correct.

Are the results presented clearly in the text and in tables and figures?

Results should be clearly summarized in the text, tables, and figures. Tables and figures are only a partial representation of the results and critical information may be only in the text. In a quantitative study, the significance of the statistical tests is important. The presentation of qualitative results should avoid interpretation, which is reserved for the discussion.

Are the limitations presented and their implications discussed?

It is essential that the limitations of the study be presented. These are the factors that explain why the results may need to be carefully interpreted, may only be generalized to certain situations, or may provide less robust results than anticipated. Examples of limitations include a low response rate to a survey, not being able to establish causality when a cross-sectional study design was used, and having key stakeholders refuse to be interviewed.

Does the discussion explain the results in relation to the theoretical framework, research questions, and significance of the study?

The discussion serves as an opportunity to explain the results in respect to the research questions and the theoretical framework. Authors use the discussion to interpret the results and explain the meaning and significance of the study. It’s also important to distinguish the study from others that preceded it and provide recommendations for future research.

Depending on the research, it may be equally important for the investigators to present the clinical and/or practical significance of the results. Relevant policy recommendations are also important. Evaluate if the recommendations are supported by the data or seem to be more of an opinion. A succinct conclusion typically completes the article.

Once you’re done reading the article, how do you decide if the research is something you want to use?

Determine the scientific merit of the study by evaluating the level and quality of the evidence. There are many scales to use, several of which can be found in the Research Toolkit on the American Nurses Association’s website http://www.nursingworld.org/research-toolkit.aspx. Consider what you learned and decide if the study is relevant to your practice or answered your question as well as whether you can implement the findings.

A new skill

A systematic approach to reading and critiquing a research article serves as a foundation for translating evidence into practice and policy. Every nurse can acquire this skill.

Louise Kaplan is director of the nursing program at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. At the end of this article is a checklist for evaluating an article.

Selected references

Hudson-Barr D. How to read a research article. J Spec Pediatr Nurs. 2004;9(2):70-2.

King’s College D. Leonard Corgan Library. Reading a research article. http://www.lib.jmu.edu/ilworkshop08/materials/studyguide3.pdf. Accessed September 5, 2012.

Oliver D, Mahon SM. Reading a research article part I: Types of variables. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2005;9(1):110-12.

Oliver D, Mahon SM. Reading a research article part II: Parametric and nonparametric statistics. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2005;9(2):238-240.

Oliver D, Mahon SM. Reading a research article part III: The data collection instrument. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2006;10(3):423-26.

Rumrill P, Fitzgerald S, Ware, M. Guidelines for evaluating research articles. Work. 2000;14(3):257-63.

Checklist for reading and critiquing a research article

1. Critiquing the research article

a. Title describes the article

b. Abstract summarizes the article

c. Introduction makes the purpose clear

d. Problem is properly introduced

e. Purpose of the study is explained

f. Research question(s) are clearly presented

g. Theoretical framework informs the research

h. Literature review is relevant, comprehensive, and includes recent research

i. Methods section details how the research questions were addressed or hypotheses were tested

j. Analysis is consistent with the study questions and research design

k. Results are clearly presented and statistics clearly explained

l. Discussion explains the results in relation to the theoretical framework, research questions, and significance to nursing

m. Limitations are presented and their implications discussed

n. Conclusion includes recommendations for nursing practice, future research, and policymakers

2. Determine the level and quality of the evidence using a scale (several can be found in ANA’s Research Toolkit http://www.nursingworld.org/Research-Toolkit/Appraising-the-Evidence ).

3. Decide if the study is applicable to your practice.

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