Proceedings of The Physiological Society
University of Cambridge (2008) Proc Physiol Soc 11, PC49
Critical reviews of biomedical documentaries in the media
1. School of Biological Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester, United Kingdom.
The development of the ability to critically evaluate scientific information is one of the core intellectual skills identified in the benchmark statements for the Biosciences (QAA, 2007) and for Medicine (QAA, 2002) and as such, it features as one of the explicit objectives of almost all undergraduate programmes in the life sciences. One common approach to developing and evaluating this skill is through exercises involving training in reading and presenting critical reviews of research papers. This type of exercise is of considerable value in developing the students’ critical skills and their ways of thinking about science and its underpinning through the evidence base (Rangachari & Mierson, 1995). However, these approaches do have limitations in that the research paper is a very stylised format, aimed at addressing a relatively small and very well-defined audience. As a consequence, the skills acquired may not be perceived as being immediately transferable to other contexts. A complementary approach, that has proved effective, has been to give students the task of evaluating scientific news stories presented in the media (Rangachira, 2006). In a development of this exercise, students are charged with producing a critical review of a biomedical television documentary. Students are allocated to groups of four and each group is given a DVD of a documentary, recorded under the Off-Air Recording (OAR) licence. A library of such recordings has been built up through weekly scanning of programme listings via the Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT, www.trilt.ac.uk). The students’ brief is to produce a presentation evaluating the documentary, focussing on its scientific content and the quality of presentation. Content is divided into the following elements: a synopsis of the subject matter, evaluation of the accuracy and currency of the material, the objectivity of the programme and its basis on underpinning evidence. The quality of the programme is evaluated in terms of clarity and delivery, quality of the visual elements and effectiveness in targeting the audience. This exercise requires careful critical evaluation of the material but also addresses other key skills including presentation and team working. An important additional feature is that, in order to be able to evaluate the scientific content effectively, the students have to research the topic in considerable depth. Feedback from the students has been very positive, in particular in terms of how interesting they found the exercise and the process of researching a new topic in a different context, and, for many, the novel experience of thinking critically about a scientific documentary programme.
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