Identifying knowledge gaps through illustrations

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Identifying knowledge gaps through illustrations

Cancer Immunology & AIDS Team
Carl Novina

Dr. Carl Novina, Associate Professor of Medicine, and his co-instructor Shannon Turley, amended the traditional graduate seminar Critical Reading for Immunology to teach students comprehension and presentation skills essential to a career in biomedical science. To introduce a topic, students read research papers and present a focused background on the field the paper sought to advance. Then, rather than discussing the paper linearly, students select a key figure that best highlighted the main point. Throughout the semester,students revisit central points of papers and diagram them on the white board—“an effective means to help students better process information and have greater insights into central concepts from the presentations and papers.”

The benefits: Illustrating key conceptsdemonstrates the way students think, and gives instructors the opportunity to provide immediate, concrete, and relatively low-stakes feedback to students on gaps in their understanding. Each student illustration builds on the next and, all together, become anchors to recall ideas from previous class meetings.

The challenges: The ability to convey complex concepts to an audience without becoming lost in the more minor details of research is a difficult but critical skill for a successful career in biomedical science. It takes practice. The disagreement amongst students—on the best figure or even the key conceptual advance—hones their critical reading and comprehension skills and, in turn, their ability to explain the implications and impact of data in a field.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Use a “funneling” structure to dissect research. Novina provides guiding questions to scaffold a student’s development of an outline that begins with goals and problem statements before drilling down.
  • Encourage the use of lay terms to describe research. A non-expert should be able to follow every presentation. Novina says it is surprising how many gaps in understanding are revealed when presenters are required to speak for a lay audience. “When you watch somebody present, you not only learn about a topic, but you also get insights into how the presenter thinks about the problem.”
  • Make explicit the real-world skills gained. Novina stresses how practicing these skills translates into success post-graduation, whether in a job interview or needing to describe one’s own work in a meeting: “This is a core skill set for success, thus it is imperative to introduce it early and cultivate it.”

Bottom line: Having students give background presentations and create drawings over the course of the semester enhances retention in learning and improves presentation skills. “The exercises of presenting on a topic and then challenging each other on the broader themes creates a scaffold upon which you put information. Once you have the scaffold it becomes easier to prioritize and evaluate the rest of the information.”