Using Abstracts to Evaluate Sources

Brief Description:

In this activity, students practice reading abstracts as part of the research process.  Working in small groups, students both determine how articles may address various facets of a sample research question and identify aspects of the question that remain to be addressed. This exercise, followed by class discussion, prepares students to select sources based on the value of the information they bring to a research project and to view research as an iterative process.

Primary Learning Outcome:

  • Monitor gathered sources and envision what additional information and perspectives are needed. (2.4)

Additional Learning Outcome:

  • Describe the value that information derived from various sources would bring to a research project. (5.2)

Time Needed:

20-30 minutes, depending on length of class discussion


  • Worksheet and Abstracts [Word] [PDF]
  • Printable Activity Plan [Word] [PDF]


  1. Check for familiarity with article abstracts by asking for a volunteer to define them, and if needed, providing an overview. Depending on the topic, it may be important to discuss structured abstracts.
  2. Introduce the activity, the sample research question, and the questions for discussion. The instructions and questions could be displayed on a slide or in a public Google document that also provides a URL for the groups to access the doc and type their answers.
  3. Divide students into groups, and provide each group with a different abstract to read and discuss. 5-10 minutes.
  4. Ask each group of students to describe their abstract in terms of the discussion questions on the worksheet.
  5. Extend the discussion by asking students to identify where their answers overlap and diverge. Which articles seem to cover the same aspect(s) of the research question, and which provide unique information? Which aspects of the research question still need to be addressed? Use student responses to highlight the iterative nature of the research process.
  6. Optional: Introduce Bizup’s BEAM framework for understanding the different roles information from sources can perform in research-based writing: background, evidence/exhibit, argument, and methodology. This discussion would be particularly effective if sample abstracts are chosen to fulfill those different roles in addressing the sample research question. Discuss how considering the potential uses of information can help guide source selection.

Instructor’s Notes:

This activity promotes exploration of research questions as problems with multiple facets and encourages students to move beyond simply searching for a proscribed number of sources by considering how they would use information from sources to address different aspects of their research questions. It introduces the idea of research as an iterative process by engaging students in checking a group of pre-selected sources for information gaps. Students who participated in this activity enjoyed working in the public Google document together, naming their teams, and comparing their findings.

More Information:

Bizup, J. (2008). BEAM: A rhetorical vocabulary for teaching research-based writing. Rhetoric Review 27(1), 72-86. DOI: 10.1080/07350190701738858

Questions about this activity? Contact Aimee Gee.

Creative Commons BY-NC-SAUsing Abstracts to Evaluate Sources by Aimee Gee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.