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How to Read a Research Article: Helping Parents Access Early Childhood Information From the Best and Brightest
In this age of lightning-fast Internet access, and with a just few keystrokes, parents can tap into a mind-boggling amount of research on everything from child obesity to developmental delays.
With all of this access comes responsibility. Moms and dads who Google and Bing their parenting information need to carefully examine what these search engines discover. They may be able to locate work by the sharpest minds in early learning, but they may misinterpret what they find. Plus, scientific research may or may not be ready for the crib or playroom.
“Taking work directly from the lab to either the classroom or the living room is often somewhat premature,” says Eric Chudler, a research associate professor of bioengineering, anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington, who teaches a class on scientific communications. “There are many steps that have to go in between the library and practical uses.”
Parents who drag their laptops into the nursery to search for the latest on infant sleep should understand no matter how incredible research sounds, its applications are often limited.
Even with limits, though, research articles can be valuable tools for parents navigating the ever-expanding universe of parenting information, Chudler points out.
“I would say to use them (research articles) when they are confused about something, when they have reached a point in their parenting when they have questions,” says Catrin Pittack, a senior lecturer at the UW School of Medicine, who includes critical reading skills in her courses.
The challenge is that these peer-reviewed research articles are not always crystal clear. So, here are some general parent-friendly guidelines for reading a research article:
Start with the abstract. The abstract is a roadmap of what lies ahead in a research article. Conveniently, the abstract is usually the first item and it summarizes the findings. It also answers a key question. An “abstract will tell you if you want to read the rest of the paper or not,” Chudler says.
Then read the introduction. The introduction lays the groundwork for new and detailed findings that typically come later. It often covers related research, the history of the subject, and other relevant material. It can also highlight other articles worth reading. The writing may be technical, but reading this section usually provides at least one payoff.
“The last paragraph of the introduction will usually tell why the experiment was done,” Chudler says.
Check out the method/methodology section. Do not get hung up on the method section. Parents do not need to understand all of the terminology, but this section can give them an idea of a research study’s scope, such as its age, gender and racial breakdown. Information in the methodology section can help parents decide if the findings apply to their family, says Pittack.
Read the results section. Parents should check out the results section, but once again it can be technical and written for a specific segment of the scientific community. Still, a parent can get a better sense of a study’s detailed findings, even if some of those findings can be difficult to understand.
Parents can skip and skim. For example, they can read the abstract, skim the method or skip and head right to the discussion section.
Pay attention to the discussion section. The discussion can be the most important section for parents. It often explains why a research project is important. The discussion, though, usually does not speak directly to parents. Instead, it suggests future steps for researchers and practitioners. But, a good discussion offers a sense of a project’s limits - how it can and can’t be applied – and this is a key element for parents. It is hard to overemphasize this point. A research article may sound like it’s making incredible claims, but a closer reading of its methods and discussion shows its findings and conclusions are more limited.
For example, a study done in the early 1990s appeared to suggest listening to music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could boost memory, Chudler recounts on his UW website. The problem was this study only tested memory gains among college students, gains only lasted 10 to 15 minutes, and other researchers could not replicate the finding, Chudler explains.
Even with these limits, the idea that Mozart could boost an infant's development entered popular culture, and that idea spawned an onslaught of Mozart-for-baby products.
Don’t Forget the References: Once parents read an article, they can find further reading in the references section.
There are many helpful rules for reading research articles, but one of the most common and important is that correlation does not mean causation. Two elements may be associated, but that does not mean one causes the other. Keep in mind that each research article is different, and these guidelines are only designed to help parents and teachers begin to make sense of the information they find on the Internet.
Finally, it is important to place research within the proper context. For example, parents can bring troubling research to a doctor or other health care professionals to help prompt a discussion.
“I think it is within their right to forward that article to their doctor and pediatrician,” Chudler says.