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Can you point me to resources (e.g. book, articles, etc.) or methods on teaching students how to think more logically/systematically about doing research?

I've seen a number of intelligent graduate students who do great in performing experiments, but struggle to make logical arguments about their research and conclusions. For instance I see students making statements without providing evidence/arguments for such statements (e.g. "increasing the temperature will cause the experiment to proceed better" but no evidence/reasoning is provided). I see writing from students that is an organized mess with no clear path or direction. I often see short confusing descriptions in written drafts when thorough explanations should be given. I see students put together graphs that are incomprehensible. On and on...

It seems that many students don't "get" how to think scientifically or research-oriented. I know this comes with time and experience, but perhaps there is a way to teach students the underlying principles and approach to doing research?

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Of course there's a way to teach them: have them enroll in a research oriented PhD program and practice for five years! An effective approach to research is a skill that takes a long time to develop and will have prerequisites that also take a long time to develop (e.g. how to read scientifically, how to formulate scientific questions, how to verbally express a scientific thought clearly).

That being said, engineering degrees are largely aimed at formalizing the skills that would take a decade or more to acquire through practice. If you can describe a procedure formally in enough detail, maybe, students can just follow the procedure exactly and get acceptable results. I don't know whether this would work or be a good idea for research (BS in Research Engineering anyone?) but it's moot because science programs tend to emphasize content rather than process.

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  • Yes, time, experience, and practice certainly can teach these skills, but I was hoping there might be a way to speed up the process. There are for instance a plethora of books on writing.
    – che_kid
    May 7, 2015 at 11:41
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From what you described it seems like your students are having trouble with writing clearly and persuasively. If it is possible, you could ask your students to take some classes in humanities or social sciences. Although these classes do not help with the technical skills of your students, they do often require writing skills and critical and close analysis of texts.

As an alternative, you could find some well-written paper in your field, and go over them with your students. Ask the students to pay close attention to the phrasing, structure, and logical flow of the paper. Ask them questions such as "Why did the author review literature on XXX instead of YYY in this paragraph?" or "What potential confound can you think of in this study, and how did the author deal with them and explain their methods?" or "In what order did the author describe their findings?" With enough close reading, your students should get a feel of how good scientific writing is done.

Finally, you can always recommend books on critical thinking and scientific methods to your students. Do a search on Amazon with keywords such as "introductory logic", "critical thinking", "scientific methods", etc. should give you plenty of choices.

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