Bristol Teaching Awards, Case Studies, Teaching Stories

Joyful Journal-ing: a Peer-led Journal Club in the Pandemic

Alison Blaxter shares her experience of helping set up a journal club with her students during lockdown, which led to her being nominated for a Bristol Teaching Award.

Bristol Vet School’s Bio-Veterinary Science Veterinary Nursing programme is a wonderful mix of workplace-based teaching in private veterinary practice placements, skills training within the Vet School itself, and a more ‘conventional’ didactic science-based degree course. At the end of the four years our students have had a broad education in biology and animal sciences and are prepared for a professional career as a Veterinary Nurse. As they graduate from the University they also automatically register with The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to legally work as a Veterinary Nurse. It’s an exciting course which has a great mixture of practical and academic learning.

Like everyone else, the pandemic hit us hard!  In a way, the easy bit was switching to delivering the lecture and tutorial-based degree course online.  The practical skills training on campus and the vital placements with our private small animal practice partners were more challenging. Small animal vets were initially classed as ‘non-essential’ and ‘emergency only’ work in small staff ‘bubbles’ was all that was allowed. Student placements vanished overnight!   

So faced with the lockdown last spring and early summer, instead of the summer-long required work placements, students were started early on the dissertation module of their final year. The hope was that by the time this would normally be delivered, veterinary practices would be able to again accept students in buildings working patient and client side.

It became apparent from supervising two of these students, both of whom were very capable and enthusiastic, with topics using qualitative research to look at client attitudes to consultations during the pandemic by phone, and client experience of support for new puppies by veterinary practices, that they lacked confidence and experience in the basic components of research – yet to be delivered didactically!  

After discussion they identified the idea of running a peer-led journal club. Journal clubs are very common in academic clinical practice and research, groups meeting on a regular basis to look at current publications to review their methodology, examine findings, discuss the implications for future work, and their clinical application, all within the framework of evidence-based medicine.  They are also good ways for novice postgraduate researchers and clinicians to approach understanding the intricacies of scientific methodology and academic language in a safe yet challenging setting.

The ‘Summer Journal Club’ ran monthly for five months during the pandemic as a student led venture. The students organised the sessions and chose the papers, circulated them in advance and chose the areas that they would like to focus on.  We met on Zoom or Collaborate and in the initial session together adopted an approach to reading papers captured in our bright yellow post-it note summary.  This simple three layer-method suited this group of students who were daunted by the detail of original scientific papers and aligning literature searches and reading to their chosen research questions. They read papers quickly in the ‘first pass’ to assess their relevance to their own personal enquiry, on the ‘second pass’ delved into the detail and then finally decided on the ‘third pass’ whether they were going to use the publication to inform their  personal  literature review,  thinking exactly about the implications of this research for their own research questions. We then applied this yellow post-it system to subsequent papers chosen by the group.

Journal clubs are usually better when actively led to focus discussion. The model the students were keen to avoid was of using an ‘expert’ facilitator – I did not have to find experts on the papers they wanted to discuss.  They chose topics out of my area of expertise and led the sessions themselves, with myself or other staff providing background support.  I’ve no doubt that this, as suggested by McGlacken-Bryne and colleagues (2019), is a novel way of giving ownership of an active learning process to the students within established scientific practice.  

Feedback was positive.  Not only did the students feel that they learnt about specific topics, they also began to be able to unravel complex study designs, interpret data, understand about confounding influences and look at evidence thoughtfully.   Of the suggested 5 reasons for running a Journal Club suggested by Aronson (2017) in the context of primary health care, our club seemed to satisfy three of these: encouraging novice practitioners to read and appraise publications critically, developing understanding of  how to do clinical applied research, and importantly,  improving their debating skills, leadership skills and peer mentoring.

It was a truly co-operative and peer-led venture in a time of real crisis. Many of these students were seeing their peers infrequently, and only online, and were struggling with anxiety about the lack of work placements able to take students at this point in the pandemic. Being creative, taking ownership of learning and experiencing flexibility was beneficial to them and what a joy it was for me.  I look forward to repeating the experience within the curriculum but without the context and chaos of a pandemic!  

An example of the post-it board at the Summer Journal Club

Aronson JK (2017) Journal Clubs: 2. Why and how to run them and how to publish them BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine 22:232-234.

McGlacken Byrne SM, O’Rahelly M, Cantillon P, et al. (2020) Journal club: old tricks and fresh approaches Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 105:236–241 

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