We are running a journal club online due to the current COVID-19 situation. The students have to pick a paper and present it online to teachers and their peers. However, I would like to make the experience a bit more formative for the students. The main thing that is missing is an interaction among the presenters and the other students.

Do you have any advice on how to get the students to ask questions to their peers?

EDIT: This Journal club is part of a master's degree course and there is an evaluation of the journal club. However, we only evaluate the students for their presentations.

I found this question that is somehow related but not exactly what I am looking for.


  • Is this a part of a course, is there any evaluation?
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 18:58
  • Yeah, it is part of a master's degree course and there is an evaluation. I edited my question.
    – desmond13
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 10:51
  • Do all of the students read all of the papers? Or, is there such a requirement at least?
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 12:18
  • They are encouraged to read at least the abstract/conclusions of all the papers. Not sure if they really do (probably not)
    – desmond13
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 12:55

4 Answers 4


I have taken part in two journal club formats that work well for maximizing student involvement, although whether they would lend themsevles well to assesement, I don't know.

In both cases the idea is to force everyone to read the paper, and engage with it, and minimise the workload for person "presenting". In neither case is there any powerpoints, or pre-rehearsed talking. The presentor is more of a facilitator.

Structure one: Figures presented at random

In this structure the person who picked the paper gives a brief introduction to the paper and why they picked it (no more than say 5 minutes). They then present the first figure.

Subsequent figures/tables are then presented by people selected at random (we roll a die). When I say "presented" I often mean "leads a discussion" - as there might be things in the figure the person chosen doesn't understand, has questions about, particularly since they didn't pcik the paper.

I find that this forces everyone to read and engage with the paper, but it doesn't force the discussion to go beyond what is in the figures.

Structure two: Everyone must ask a question

Again the paper selector introduces the paper briefly. We then go round the room and everyone has to say one thing they liked about the paper, one thing they didn't like, and one question/discussion point. The paper selector writes down the discussion points/questions, prioritises them and the leads a discussion with this as the agenda.


This might not be what you're thinking of, but make the papers presented comprehensible. If people can understand what the authors did, why the results matter, and how to place those results in the context of the rest of the field, it would be hugely conducive to asking questions. On the other hand if people don't understand a word, one won't even be able to form a question in the first place.

Example: this Nature paper. This is the abstract:

All stellar-mass black holes have hitherto been identified by X-rays emitted from gas that is accreting onto the black hole from a companion star. These systems are all binaries with a black-hole mass that is less than 30 times that of the Sun. Theory predicts, however, that X-ray-emitting systems form a minority of the total population of star–black-hole binaries. When the black hole is not accreting gas, it can be found through radial-velocity measurements of the motion of the companion star. Here we report radial-velocity measurements taken over two years of the Galactic B-type star, LB-1. We find that the motion of the B star and an accompanying Hα emission line require the presence of a dark companion with a mass of 68 +11/−13 solar masses, which can only be a black hole. The long orbital period of 78.9 days shows that this is a wide binary system. Gravitational-wave experiments have detected black holes of similar mass, but the formation of such massive ones in a high-metallicity environment would be extremely challenging within current stellar evolution theories.

As far as scientific papers go, this one is pretty understandable to the non-expert. Nonetheless, if you're not an astrophysicist, much of this will be Greek. It says the black hole was found "through radial-velocity measurements of the motion of the companion star". Do you know how this measurement works? If not, the rest of the abstract quickly becomes confusing. Does it matter that the companion star is a B-star? What is a B-star anyway, or "Hα emission line"?

If the presenter neglects to clarify these question and instead spends time on sentences like (from the methods section of the paper) "We performed a rotational and instrumental convolution of the original theoretical libraries to v sin i = 10 km/s and FWHM = 0.1 A" then audience comprehension is basically done for and they might as well look at their mobile phones for the rest of the presentation.

Instead try something like, "The authors find the black hole by using radial-velocity measurements. In case people don't know what this is, this is how it works ...". Once everyone understands how the measurement works, then one can go into more details. The exact "rotational and instrumental convolution of the original theoretical libraries" is still only going to be interesting to the expert, but one can emphasize the conclusions more interesting to a general audience: that black holes of this mass are not expected to form in a high-metallicity environment (the word "metallicity" might also need explanation), and their presence breaks current stellar evolution theories. One can then talk about how it breaks stellar evolution, explore some alternative explanations, and so on. In fact, based only on what I've written, you might already be able to think of a couple: 1) lots of small black holes merging, or 2) black hole formed in a "low-metallicity environment" (whatever that is) and moved to where we found it. Why these explanations don't work then become legitimate questions you can ask during Q&A.


My graduate courses had a "participation" mark. The trick was that it was vague; it required that students participate in discussions, but there was no concrete criteria. Thus the students set the relative bar. I.e. if one student asks three questions, but most asked none then a few will try to be middle ground and ask at least one question. Really the grade was a free 10% for everyone unless you were defiantly against speaking in class so it was not a stressful situation.


One way to get students to do things that you want them to do and are valuable when they do them is to actually require it. Simple concept.

Since the papers are supposed to be read in advance, but few people do, perhaps, you want to use a bit of stick to goad them on.

One simple solution to both problems is as follows. Suppose that there are five papers to be reviewed in a session. One individual is responsible for presenting each of the five, of course. But require that all the students, prior to the session submit at least one question to you directly on at least three of the five papers.

It might be too much to require questions on all the papers, so I suggest only some, rather than all.

You can use the submitted questions in various ways. You could ask them yourself during the session, naming the originator or not. You could ask the originator to ask their question. You could also present those questions to the speaker a bit before the session.

Getting the questions directly and in advance gives you an opportunity to comment back on the quality of the questions. This could be either privately or in a session in which you generally discuss the sorts of questions that are most valuable to ask about papers in your field.

One possible flaw is that some of the papers don't get covered with the above scheme. In that case you could assign, say, one of the three papers to each student. They then need to provide at least one question for that paper and at least one for the remaining two.

I've assumed that someone is in charge of the session, such as a professor. If that is not the case, one participant can be chosen to "lead" each session and manage the questions. Leadership can rotate. And for a volunteer group, make this part of the charter that people agree to when they join.

I don't know how this would scale. I've assumed a pretty small group. But I think such clubs are going to be small scale in any case.

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