How to run a journal club in your school: top tips from research

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 For any school dipping their toe into evidence-based practice, journal clubs may seem like an obvious activity to try. It gives teachers chance to engage with research and discuss their ideas, and how they might implement the findings, with colleagues in a supportive, environment.

But what does the research say about how journal clubs work best? Although there appears to be little research into teacher journal clubs, Deenadayalan and other researchers looked at just this topic for healthcare in their 2008 paper, How to run an effective journal club: a systematic review.

Deenadayalan et al. identified 101 articles, of which 21 comprised the body of evidence, with 12 describing the effectiveness of journal clubs in healthcare. Although the articles in the review were different in terms of participants, processes and evaluation, the researchers found some consistent findings. Most interestingly, over 80% of the papers noted that journal clubs were effective in improving participants' knowledge and critical appraisal skills.

Tips on how to run a journal club in your school

 While none explained how this then changed practice, it did allow researchers to identify a number of recommendations about how to conduct journal clubs to boost your chances of success. Here are their findings:

  1. Establish a group of members of the same discipline, or similar interests within a clinical specialty.
  2. Have an established and agreed long-term goal for the journal club. This should be reviewed regularly, and agreed by participants.
  3. Establish the purpose of each journal club meeting, and link this to the paper being read, or the skill acquisition being addressed.
  4. Regular attendance should be expected and recorded. Attendance could even be mandatory, particularly if the journal club has a curriculum-based format.
  5. Conduct journal clubs at regular predictable intervals (suggest monthly).
  6. Conduct journal club at appropriate times of the day for all participants.
  7. Provide incentives to attend (food was shown to increase attendance as well as the conviviality of the occasion).
  8. Journal clubs appear to be more effective if they have a leader. The journal club leader should be responsible for identifying relevant articles for discussion, though the final choice needs to be decided by club members.
  9. Train the leader/facilitator of the journal club in relevant research design and/or statistical knowledge so they can direct group discussions and assist the group.
  10. The leader can change from meeting to meeting, however he/she needs to have the skills to present the paper under discussion and lead the group. It is a fine balance between choosing a leader of high academic standing whose expertise may stifle discussion or choosing a leader from peers who may not be able to understand the paper being discussed.
  11. Provide access to a statistician to assist the leader in preparing for journal club, and to answer questions that may arise from the journal club discussion.
  12. Choose relevant case-based or clinical articles for discussion. These papers should be of interest to all participants. Articles should be chosen in line with the overarching purpose of the journal club.
  13. Identify one journal club member (either the designated leader or a member) who has the responsibility for identifying the literature to be discussed for each meeting. This person should also lead the discussion on the article at the journal club.
  14. Provide all participants (including the leader) with pre-reading at a suitable time before journal club (it may be up to a week prior). Participants should agree to the time frame for pre-reading. In some curriculum-based situations, assessment of whether pre-reading has occurred may be appropriate.
  15. Use the internet as a means of distributing articles prior to the meeting, maintaining journal club resources and optimising use of time and resources.
  16. Use established critical appraisal approaches and structured worksheets during journal club session to support healthy and productive discussion.
  17. Formally conclude each journal club by putting the article in context of clinical practice.
  18. Depending on the journal club purpose, it may be appropriate to evaluate knowledge uptake formally or informally. Evaluation should specifically relate to the article(s) for discussion, critical appraisal, understanding of biostatistics reported in the paper and translating evidence into practice.

How relevant are these findings to schools?

These findings are broadly applicable to school-based research clubs, and could be easily adapted for schools. It makes a lot of sense to get an expert in statistics involved; anyone who has read Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui's recent book, The trials of evidence-based education, will be aware of some of the challenges in the correct use and interpretation elements such as, p values, statistical significance and confidence interval.

The journal club leader will also need to be seen as credible by colleagues. This is not just in finding, selecting and understanding research, but also having the interpersonal skills to navigate discussions, where colleagues disagree or have deeply held values and beliefs challenged by the literature.

Finally, given the workload pressures on teachers – and the relatively scant (if non-existent) evidence of journal clubs supporting day-to-day decision-making – very real consideration needs to be given about why the journal club is being established. As a mechanism to get 'research' into the classroom, it is unlikely to have any impact on teaching and learning. If, on the other hand, it is seen as part of a wider process of building social capital and developing a collaborative culture amongst teachers and colleagues – as suggested by Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves in their book, Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school – it will be of some value.

This is an edited version of an article that originally ran on Gary Jones's own blog here. 

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