Non-disciplinary Competences – full article

Surveys of ETH Alumni[1] show that ETH students need more training in non-disciplinary competences if they are to be equipped for their professional careers. Survey answers indicate that sufficient training in methodological, social and personal competences[2] is still lacking in ETH degree programmes. For several years non-disciplinary competences have in fact played an increasing role at ETH in course and curricula design. One example is the semester programme of the Critical Thinking Initiative[3].

What do non-disciplinary competences signify for the teaching and learning methods of courses? In this session Lenny Winkel presents an example: the concept of “Reading scientific papers” which she developed for an elective course at D-USYS.

For students, reading research papers is the first step to becoming actively involved in scientific thinking. With an increasing number of scientific papers being published every year, it is essential that students have the ability to extract information efficiently.

The ability to extract information from a text largely depends on prior knowledge of the topic (Schneider & Mustafić 2015). Prior knowledge helps us make predictions or guesses about how what we are reading relates to our prior experience[4]. It gives us the basis not only to interpret individual findings correctly, but also to understand general structure, formulate hypotheses, identify key findings and not become distracted by less important findings (Schneider & Mustafić 2015). The more prior knowledge we have, the better prepared we are to take meaning from the text[5] and the more motivating and fun it is to read and dive into a topic.

It is also crucial to be critical towards scientific literature: just because it is published does not mean that it is true. Therefore, anyone working with research papers must learn to read them critically. ETH students at all levels are expected to read research papers in a critical manner, but often this is not explicitly taught. A good way to start teaching critical reading skills is to reflect on your own experiences of learning them and share successful strategies. How did you learn to read papers critically? What advice was the most helpful? What questions are helpful to ask before starting to read?

Asking questions and taking a clear approach are two key aspects to reading scientific papers efficiently and critically. Having predefined questions or a checklist at hand (du Prel et al. 2009) before reading can also save time, because it may not be necessary to read the whole article or book chapter. At each section of a scientific paper specific questions can be asked which help you to assess it critically (Yudkin 2006). Examples are (Schneider & Mustafić 2015):

  • “In what kind of journal is this paper published?” (to get an idea of the general context)
  • “What explicit / implicit assumptions did the authors make in the study?” (content-related)
  • “Are the methods used in the study adequate to answer the given research questions?” (method-related)

If they are trained to ask such questions and to find and evaluate the answers, students will develop a questioning attitude and learn how to judge papers by themselves.

This Refresh Teaching event will provide tips on teaching students to read research papers critically and efficiently. Participants will also have the opportunity to share ideas on how to stimulate and motivate students in this area.


Prel, Jean-Baptist du, Röhrig, Bernd & Blettner, Maria (2009). Critical Appraisal of Scientific Articles. Dtsch Arztebl Int. Feb; 106(7): 100–105.

Schaper, Niclas (2012). Fachgutachten zur Kompetenzorientierung in Studium und Lehre. (called up on 30.11.15)

Schneider, Michael & Mustafić, Maida (2015). Gute Hochschullehre: Eine evidenzbasierte Orientierungshilfe, Berlin: Springer.

Yudkin, Ben (2006). Critical Reading, making sense of research papers in life sciences and medicine. London: Routledge.

[1] (called up on 30.11.15)

[2] for categorization see for example Schaper 2012

[3] (called up on 30.11.15)

[4] (called up on 30.11.15)

[5] (called up on 30.11.15)