Get the latest articles and downloads sent to your inbox in a monthly newsletter.

Get the latest articles and downloads sent to your inbox in a monthly newsletter.

Tracking student success in literature search as they avoid detrimental detours

Oct 04, 2017

Chart about students engaging with the reference materials

As a professor at Lafayette College, Elaine Reynolds is well aware of the vast amount of misleading information in online sources. This impediment to accurate and efficient discovery is exacerbated by the search tools and sources she sees students using, such as Google Search and freely available yet unauthoritative pages.


At a Society for Neuroscience conference in 2014 she discussed the issue with Alistair Morrison, a librarian then working on Elsevier’s Books team. Alistair thought he might have a solution to some of her issues based on an enhancement to ScienceDirect that was under development. Intrigued, Elaine agreed to conduct pre- and post-use assessments in a 200-level Neurobiology course and a 300-level Aging and Age-Related Disease course. 


She was interested in determining:


  • Where students were doing their research
  • Their comfort level with reading reviews and primary literature
  • The frequency in which students came across unfamiliar terms
  • How they handled cases where they needed additional clarity 


Elaine wanted students who had completed her courses to be able to demonstrate that they could read and understand original research, including research presented in graphic form. In addition, she wanted students to be able to identify and employ a range of strategies for gathering valid information.



Assessing students’ mastery of the primary literature


Elaine began by asking her students several questions regarding their research experiences, and then compiled and charted their answers. Next she presented to them the enhancement Alistair had spoken about — ScienceDirect Topics — with several examples of how the enhanced reading feature worked and she encouraged students to use the pages in their own literature searches.


ScienceDirect Topics uses natural language processing and machine learning to link key terms within journal articles on ScienceDirect to topic pages that contain accurate definitions from published books, as well as related information. 


Sample article on ScienceDirect with term "encephalitis" linked to topic page  

Sample article on ScienceDirect with term “encephalitis ”  linked to topic page.


Elaine enlisted the assistance of Ben Jahre, a research and instruction librarian, to help get the students set up with access to the articles on ScienceDirect that contained the enhanced feature. The students were instructed to use ScienceDirect Topics and their traditional research processes on other search engines for new class projects. 



What she found


When polled about their experience, after taking the classes and using the topic pages, the students at Lafayette College reported a dramatically enhanced understanding and comfort level when conducting web-based research:


 How comfortable are you with reading primary literature articles?

When Elaine asked them to share some of their initial feelings about the ScienceDirect Topics tool, student responses included:


“I thought it was very helpful. I could contain my searches to the article without wasting time looking information up elsewhere.” 


“… easy to digest definitions or explanations of scientific terms.”


“They made the article more clear and provided an easy way to make sure one had a full understanding.”


Elaine reports that her students gained a greater ability to curate their own research and felt an increased level of confidence when using ScienceDirect Topics. She noted that the capability to quickly navigate between journal and book content and the access to interdisciplinary research and relevant topics made the new addition a valuable tool for her students. 



Learn more and explore!


Elaine described her student assessment and use of ScienceDirect Topics in the Library Connect webinar “Literature search on a connected path” on Sept. 29. The recorded webinar is available on demand and also features neuroscientist Rick Misra, who discusses the technology behind ScienceDirect Topics. 


Currently there are more than 80,000 ScienceDirect Topic pages within:


  • Biomedical Sciences
  • Neurosciences
  • Life Sciences


In late 2017 and early 2018, the functionality will be expanded to include Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Food Science, Materials Science and Materials Engineering. 


More information about ScienceDirect Topics is available on


Explore an example topic page here  or see them hyperlinked in action via this journal article: Neuropsychiatric signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease: New treatment paradigms.