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Journal clubs: Promoting a career-long culture of research engagement

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Since the end of the 19th century, journal clubs have been used in medicine as a social way to read and discuss new research. By the 1980s, many medical training programmes included mandatory journal clubs, with a focus on the development of critical reading skills as a way of promoting critical appraisal in evidence-based medicine (Linzer, 1987). Critical appraisal is a subset of critical thinking, ‘an essential life skill’, that involves using research evidence to inform clinical decisions (Sharples et al., 2017). While it is difficult to teach critical thinking in an abstract way, the explicit teaching of critical evaluation skills can be supported by journal clubs (Deenadayalan et al., 2008).

A typical journal club meeting involves a facilitator or group leader presenting a summary of one or more pre-read academic papers, and a group discussion and analysis of the paper, including the validity of the claims and potential for use in practice.

Despite a shift in focus towards training programmes and critical appraisal, the goals of journal clubs have stayed close to those of the initial meetings, including:

  • keep up to date with developments
  • develop critical appraisal skills
  • impact on clinical practice
  • knowledge of key research
  • provide a social space for discussion
  • combat isolation potentially felt by practitioners.

(Alguire, 1998; Denehy, 2004; Deenadayalan et al., 2008)

While there is evidence that journal clubs can increase knowledge, improve reading behaviours and develop certain skills in medical settings (Coomarasamy and Khan, 2004), there is a mixed view as to their effectiveness in increasing critical appraisal. Studies evaluating journal clubs often have small numbers of participants, rely on self-reporting measures and are not always backed up with quantitative data (Alguire, 1998; Coomarasamy and Khan, 2004). Despite these limitations, there appears to be a consensus that journal clubs have a role in developing knowledge by introducing research.

Journal clubs in education

There are growing examples of journal clubs being adapted for use in disciplines other than medicine, including education. Brill et al. (2003) describe the use of journal clubs to help keep biology teachers up to date as part of a collaborative process, with results including the production of up-to-date activities for students. Golde (2007) describes adapting ‘signature pedagogies’ from different disciplines to prepare educational researchers at a doctoral level. They explore journal clubs as used in neuroscience, highlighting the way in which journal clubs include ‘multigenerational’ practitioners as equals and a flexible process that can be topic-focused or used as an introduction to research of historical importance. Sims et al. (2017) report using journal clubs to promote behavioural change in a programme of professional development. While they were not able to report on whether teacher journal clubs affected student outcomes, there was evidence that teachers increased their use of evidence to inform their practice, and they conclude that teacher journal clubs are a feasible form of professional development.

Career-long research engagement for teachers

Journal clubs apply many of the principles of adult education, including relating the task to personal goals and working environment, presenting objectives as ‘real-life’ situations, problem-solving, active participation and provision of feedback (Swift, 2004). I have found that the social learning environment of a journal club offers a way to combat the feelings of isolation that teachers, including training teachers, may experience (Denehy, 2004).

I believe that as teachers progress throughout their career, there is potential for participation in journal clubs to remain a relevant and effective form of professional development. For early career teachers and those new to a particular area, journal clubs are suitable for the introduction of key pieces of classic research (Swift, 2004; Golde, 2007) and, when used to follow up an introduction presented via another method, can provide increased exposure to knowledge (Struck, 2005, in Deenadayalan et al., 2008).

More experienced teachers and those more familiar with topics may use journal clubs to facilitate collaboration with colleagues. Recommendations frequently include the need to integrate learning into practice rather than hold standalone journal club sessions (Alguire, 1998; Coomarasamy and Khan, 2004; Deenadayalan et al., 2008; Hatala et al., 2006). One suggestion involves combining journal clubs with other learning methods, including lectures or seminars (Coomarasamy and Khan, 2004; Hatala et al., 2006), and while there are limitations to journal clubs as a way to transfer evidence to practice, research indicates that journal clubs are appropriate for deeper study and consolidation of previously learnt material (Deenadayalan et al., 2008; Barak and Dori, 2009), providing an opportunity to relate to ‘real-life’ situations, which is more likely to lead to an increase in evidence-based practice (Swift, 2004).

Potential for integration in teacher training

Journal clubs are an established feature of medical training; however, I have found no evidence that journal clubs have been used during the training of teachers. Many of the purposes and features of journal clubs are appropriate for this group, with benefits including:

  • positive attitudes towards evidence-informed practice
  • increased use of evidence to inform practice
  • increased knowledge of research design
  • increased subject knowledge/ professional growth
  • increased motivation
  • increased morale
  • increased confidence
  • reduced feelings of isolation
  • formation of professional relationships with experienced practitioners on a more level playing field.

(Hutchinson, 1970; Mazuryk et al., 2002; Coomarasamy and Khan, 2004; Denehy, 2004; Barak and Dori, 2009)

Regarding the development of critical evaluation, many medical students have low scores on tests of critical thinking skills (Sharples et al., 2017), and it may be reasonable to presume that students in education-related fields, with a similar level of education, will also have low scores of critical thinking skills. By participating in journal clubs at the start of their career, there may be a greater chance that new teachers will become familiar with key research, more willing to accept evidence-informed practice as a way of working, and more likely to be able to critically question theories and practices that they encounter throughout their career. Journal clubs are a way of integrating research awareness in practice whilst reinforcing and consolidating knowledge – whether as a tool to support and embed learning through other methods or as an introduction to key ideas and viewpoints.

Swift (2004) suggests that one approach to article selection in journal clubs during training might be to review classic papers and allow students to make up their own minds about the research. This is supported by Golde (2007), who suggests that as education is not a ‘fast science’ discipline with rapidly changing research findings, it is appropriate to use journal clubs in education to focus on key classic research of ‘historical importance’. Attendance of journal clubs could offer training teachers the opportunity to explore themes in more detail and relate these to their practice. The literature shows that journal clubs provide an opportunity to gain insights that may have been overlooked during individual study (Kuppersmith et al., 1997) and that linking learning to ‘real’ situations is a feature of adult learning theory that will increase the likelihood that evidence will be used to inform practice (Green and Ellis, 1997; Swift, 2004).

Critical thinking skills are an important factor in engaging with research in both medicine and education. In medicine, there is a focus on the explicit teaching of critical appraisal during training in order to make evidence-informed decisions based on research. As a profession, teaching is increasingly encouraged to become research-informed. While organisations such as researchED, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Chartered College of Teaching are supporting schools and teachers to achieve this, many teachers have spent their careers without engaging in research, and programmes of initial teacher training (ITT) require varying amounts of research engagement.

As journal clubs are used during training and throughout a career in medicine, I think that they have the potential to be used in education, from ITT and through continuing professional development, as a sustainable way to introduce key pieces of research and teach critical thinking skills across teachers’ careers in a way that will encourage them to engage with research and use it throughout their practice.


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Swift G (2004) How to make journal clubs interesting. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 10: 67–72.

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