Running a class like a series of mini journal clubs

I am going to run a series of lectures in the form of mini journal clubs for the class that I am going to teach tomorrow. I am going to organise the reading and discussion on a topic like we organise a course on software carpentry or data carpentry. Let’s call this knowledge carpentry. The same principles: we start with hands-on reading, writing, reflections with the instructor leading the way in live discussions and live writing/jotting idea harvesting sessions; so, instead of writing, we construct concept maps interactively using post-it notes and other tools.

This is a course on environmental health class. Here are the steps of running the class incorporating all the best practices:

  1. Give ahead or in advance sets of readings
  2. Ask the students to read the papers either in advance or in the class. It is unrealistic to expect that the students would have read all the writings or essays or papers that I have distributed.
  3. Then we as a class reflect on the contents of the paper to match the learning objectives of the programme and the course as such.
  4. We wrap up with some final thoughts, and teaching points and creating a concept map for the topic.

Let’s expand each point.

Distribute readings in advance

First, this involves selecting readings relevant for the course. The course outline and learning objectives will guide the readings. The readings could be selected from:

  • Book chapters (short book chapters), it cannot be a very long chapter for the students to process.
  • Journal articles, but depends on the learning objectives again as the journal article must be written clearly, and should be short. So short that in an assigned 20 minutes, the students will be able to read and reflect on the journal article
  • Reviews such as systematic reviews or narrative reviews on a topic. For health science courses, reviews or mini-reviews from NEJM or Cochrane shortened version of longer reviews should be great. See later for a list of sources of mini-reviews.

Second, we need some guidance in the readings. These guidances are in the form of questions. These would be the questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this study or review?
  2. How was the research conducted or the review items selected?
  3. What are the key findings or main messages?
  4. How what you understand inform your own understanding?
  5. What is your level of agreement with the findings?
  6. What do the main messages in the study inform or advance the next steps?

Third, we should distribute the readings well in advance, at least a week ahead of schdule for workshop like classes, with clear indications as to when we expect the lessons to be discussed. We ourselves should also read the papers and be prepared to lead the discussion in reading the paper, identifying the key points, and engaging in a knowledge abstraction exercise

Ask the students to read the paper

The key principles of a software or data carpentry session are twofold:

  1. The instructors create a favourable learning environment
  2. The instructors engage in “live coding” with the students in the classroom. In a live coding session, the instructor types codes on a window and the students follow
  3. The instructors offer formative and summative evaluation of the learning of the students through challenges and multiple choice questions to test their understanding
  4. The instructors provide faded examples, which are worked out examples to test the student learning
  5. The instructors facilitate group discussions or let the students work on their own on a few questions
  6. Instructors form a concept map of the topic they want to teach and follow the concept map. This helps both in lesson planning as well as in testing
  7. Instructors use faded examples. Initially worked out examples and then adding complexities within the examples and asking students to solve the problem

In our case:

  1. We first ask the students to read the journal article, review, book chapter, etc either in advance or if in class, then allow 20 minutes to read the text.
  2. We start with a question about the topic of the day by asking if they have felt a problem or a challenge, or give students a conceptual challenge. When I am teaching air pollution or waterSH, or health effects of climate change, I need to link it to their lived experiences. What do they think of air pollution? What are their stories of experiencing air pollution or their experiences of living in a city with poor air quality? What effects have they experienced? How can this be studied? This is priming them to the scope of the problem and setting the scene. Then, we introduce them to read a review that outlines the challenges of the health effects of air pollution. Then we offer them guided reading, that is, we read and we lead discussions from the study and ask questions, direct to specific parts of the essay to comment on the content. Every 10–15 minutes we ask them what have they learned
  3. We also build in faded examples. So we start with some worked out examples as to how can we examine say health effects of air pollution? Then we introduce one more challenge and do not offer the training wheels any more.
  4. Finally, using post it notes we construct knowledge together (the instructor and students together work in co-creating knowledge and we connect the post-it notes to connect concepts and build models

Wrapping up

  • We wrap up the sessions with final thoughts and checks
  • What have we learned?
  • How important what we have learned?
  • How can we add more complexity?


We bring the lessons of a software/data carpentry lesson plan and instruction to teaching concepts. We start with identifying literature sources and problem sets. Some problem sets we work out ourselves and show what we have done. We then add more complexity to similar problem sets and allow the students to work on them. Some of them, they should be able to work faded examples, and then every 10–15 minutes we pose minor challenges and multiple choice questions on screen or elsewhere to test their understanding.

Concept of Journal club like learning scenario

  1. Distribute the readings ahead of time or in the class
  2. Let them read the articles
  3. Ask questions and lead discussions

Sources of literature

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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