Implementing Journal Club in the Versatile (Online) Classroom

Implementing Journal Club in the Versatile (Online) Classroom

Diba Mani, Ph.D. |  May 6, 2020

online learningThe spring 2020 semester was interrupted for most academics, both within the classroom teaching undergraduate and graduate students and in the research laboratory, collecting and analyzing data. The summer semester approaches us quickly, with the majority of classes being held online due to the continued prevalence of COVID-19 across the globe. As this blog comes to press, the state of the fall 2020 semester is still undetermined for most of us, as several universities and college administrations recently announcing that decisions will be made no sooner than the middle of the summer. This situation may trigger a question for some: How do we plan out lessons in a flexible way that prepares our students with the most current research, whether or not we’re teaching in-person or over the Internet? One pretty straightforward but quite rewarding suggestion is journal club.

Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (ESSR) often provides “journal club” questions for at least one paper published in each issue. The April 2020 issue brings us two of these, which can be incorporated into course content as early as this summer. The questions are designed with non-experts in mind, and often comprise knowledge, comprehension, application, analytical, evaluative and even synthesis question types (Bloom’s Taxonomy). Written by the authors of the article, the journal club prompts are specifically designed for inclusivity: meaning, students do not need to be studying the specifics of a research field (i.e., mechanism of action for cancer) to feel comfortable with the material presented in the review and prompts.

For instance, Oppewal et al.’s review on the impact of physical fitness on adults with intellectual disabilities suggests that even a minor adjustment to incorporate physical activity in unfit older adults can lead to significant health improvements. The paper includes norms and reference values, which make for a convenient paper to consider incorporating into health and fitness assessment courses, especially for evaluating special populations. One journal club question asks readers to describe the difference between physical fitness levels of older adults with intellectual disabilities and the general population. Another question asks the reader to describe the importance to improve physical fitness in very unfit populations.

The second paper in the April 2020 issue of ESSR to offer journal club prompts for use in the classroom is Brown and Gilmore’s review titled, “Physical Activity Reduces the Risk of Recurrence and Mortality in Cancer Patients.” In a similar line of thought to Oppewal and colleagues evaluating physical activity in special populations, Brown and Gilmore explore the association of insufficient physical activity with cancer recurrence and mortality. The authors describe the biological mechanisms underlying this association by breaking down the important mechanisms to briefly describe supporting data in a way that students at the undergraduate level can comprehend without an exhaustive background on the topic. Questions in this journal club range from evaluating students’ understanding of study design (i.e., limitations of observational cohort studies) to recognizing the steps in metastatic dissemination (from primary tumor to distant organs).

As an illustration for the effectiveness of incorporating the journal club questions in the classroom, I successfully incorporated an ESSR paper and associated journal club questions in my upper division Neuromuscular Aspects of Exercise course at the University of Florida. Students were given the option to answer three of the list of questions as a take-home assignment related to course content presented during lecture. Uploading answers to Canvas, our online learning management platform, was effortless and straightforward to grade. Although my class took place in-person for lectures at the time this assignment was given, I expect no problems assigning another journal club from ESSR to my students during virtual lectures in the future. If the semester were to again unexpectedly transition online, I’d have no issues including this relevant activity in my course.

The versatility in incorporating ESSR journal club questions (and those an instructor may independently write to more specifically relate to papers discussed in class) comes from the instructor’s ability to implement this type of activity for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as in the classroom (whether online, in-person or hybrid) and in the research laboratory. Students in the lab may prove more creative and multi-modal than they let on to their primary investigator or mentor – perhaps one student is a great visual storyteller, and another would really like to work on their video editing skills. The academic world we knew before COVID-19 has changed: we can incorporate journal club questions with our students, even remotely, and encourage our students to explore research in creative ways that we may not have considered previously. These are the types of learners ESSR strives to reach with the varying resources we strive to give our readers, which include visual and video abstracts. Perhaps the students in the lab want to make a video abstract for a paper they’re working on right now? Maybe they’ll be assigned to present a paper published by another lab in the form of a visual abstract? The resources to maintain a solid foundation for our students, even remotely, exists; we can keep ourselves and our students in tune with the latest research even during these unusual times.

For more information on ACSM resources for virtual teaching, check out the some of the related content on the ACSM website.


Diba ManiDiba Mani, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the Department of Applied Physiology & Kinesiology at the University of Florida. She serves as the Digital Editor for Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. She earned her degrees under the mentorship of Dr. Roger Enoka in the Neurophysiology of Movement Laboratory at the University of Colorado. Her doctoral dissertation focused on evaluating the effects of electrical nerve stimulation on motor unit discharge properties and mobility in young and older adults. Dr. Mani most enjoys the human component of any work she is engaging in, be it research in the field of geriatrics or teaching college students in the classroom. Dr. Mani is a nationally certified judo referee and coach and also a regular vinyasa yoga practitioner. She is passionate about diversity and cultural promotion through involvement in groups such as Iranian American Academics & Professionals and the Persian Students Organization.