Class activities for upper-level courses: blog posts, debates, critiques of media coverage, and more!

I am currently in the process of designing a new upper-level course that I’ll teach this coming Winter semester (which, in the terminology of just about every other school, is the Spring semester). The course will focus on Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine. Evolutionary Medicine is a reasonably well-established field by now; I’m kind of making up the term Ecological Medicine, but it seems to be a reasonable term to me and to others that I’ve run this idea by. Basically, this course will cover topics like ecological drivers of disease dynamics, zoonoses and disease spillover, global change and disease, the hygiene hypothesis, ecological and evolutionary aspects of vaccine use, and ecological and evolutionary perspectives on cancer. My goal is to use these topics to introduce students to key ecological and evolutionary concepts (e.g., competition, tradeoffs), and to show how ecology and evolution can be relevant to human health and disease.

My plan for this class is to have it be discussion-based. I taught a few discussion-based classes at Georgia Tech, including one where I only gave very short (5 minutes or less) lectures to introduce concepts. Watching the students work out virulence-transmission tradeoffs on their own was incredibly rewarding, and really helped convince me of the value of student-centered learning and flipped classrooms. It was clear that the students were engaging with the material in a much deeper and more meaningful way. It was also my favorite class to teach – so much more enjoyable for me than lecturing! So, this new class will have a similar set up: minimal lecturing from me (this time, I will aim to give them the mini-lecture at the end of the preceding class period, to introduce concepts that will help them with the readings) and most class time devoted to student-led discussions of papers.

What are my goals for the class? As I said above, my primary goal is to introduce students to basic concepts in ecology and evolution, and to help them understand how ecology and evolution are relevant to human health and disease. My secondary goal is to have the students learn how to read and critically evaluate the primary literature. We are all bombarded with information on a daily basis; knowing how to critically evaluate it is an essential skill, in my opinion.

So, I am now at the stage of choosing the readings, deciding what activities to include, and how to assess learning. Choosing readings takes a lot of time (especially for a topic like evolution and cancer, which is not one that I’ve read a lot about), but is a great excuse to catch up on various aspects of the literature. Deciding on activities and assessments is also taking up a lot of my time, in part because I can’t decide exactly what to do. I’m pretty sure I want to work in a few readings that are not from the primary literature (e.g., this NY Times piece on evolution and cancer by Carl Zimmer) and also have them listen to some podcasts (e.g., parts of the Patient Zero and Parasites episodes of RadioLab). I don’t know exactly how I will incorporate the podcasts, yet – probably just as another topic of conversation, though I’m quite interested in hearing other ideas of how to use them. And, of course, there’s likely to be an early activity that uses MythBusters to teach about experimental design!

In the class I taught that was most similar to this, we had exams that were based on the primary literature. These worked really well. They were open book exams, and asked questions such as:

McCallum et al. 2009 studies whether transmission of Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) is more likely to be density or frequency dependent. What is their conclusion? Why do they conclude that? What are the implications of this conclusion for the likelihood of extinction of Tasmanian devils?


What is the most important result of Ebert 1994? Justify your answer with the data he presents. In addition, suggest a way in which this study could have been improved (e.g., what additional comparisons could he have made?) and explain why that would be an improvement. For this last part, suggest something more creative than simply increasing the number of replicates.

I think they worked pretty well, and I plan on using a similar design for exams in this class.

In terms of other activities and means of assessment, I’m still up in the air. So, I turned to twitter, saying

In response to that, Karen Lips suggested also considering a blog post or video and also an assignment where students compared science vs. media coverage of the same article, both of which I think are interesting ideas. Jarrett Byrnes suggested having students read a ‘controversial’ paper, what came before and after, and then writing a persuasive essay on the topic. Mike Sears suggested having them write popular articles of science pieces, and, conversely, having them critique popular articles related to science. This was similar to the suggestion from the Lab and Field, to have students write a “New Scientist”-style review or summary of an article for the general public. And, finally, Andrew MacDonald suggested having them build/edit a Wikipedia page. All excellent ideas!

Considering these different ideas:

1) News & Views style paper: I’ve had students do this before, and it has worked pretty well. But it basically has students engage in the papers in a way that is similar to what they do in the other aspects of the course (in that it’s thinking critically about a scientific paper and explaining it to a scientific audience). It does have the students work on writing, but, since there isn’t enough time in the class to do this iteratively and really work on the writing, those benefits are somewhat limited.

2) A debate: I’ve never done this, but one of my colleagues at Georgia Tech did this with a grad class of his. It seems like it would be key to choose a topic that is truly up in the air (one possibility I thought of for this class would be something like “Is global eradication of polio possible?) But I think my class will be too big to implement this well. Because, unless I am able to come up with a lot of topics along those lines, we would need to have multiple debates on the same topic. And, as Rachel Tell pointed out on twitter, that would be the definition of “to the pain”; plus, it’s hard to grade after having gouged out ones eyeballs after listening to the same debate 10 times!

3) A presentation: I’ve used these in classes before, but, again, it seems a bit like the News & Views approach in that it doesn’t really have students engage with the material in a different way than they would otherwise. It also suffers from what I think of as the “divide and conquer” approach, where one person introduces the disease, one person talks about challenges to eradication, etc. I’m sure there are techniques to helping avoid the “divide and conquer” approach with group work, and I would love to hear more about them!

4) Blogs: in some ways, this makes a ton of sense. I mean, I write for a blog – I know something about this! Plus, it would have the students present the material for a lay audience, which would be a different way of talking about the studies. So, I like this idea a lot. I know that Jessica Green and Joshua Drew both use this approach in classes of theirs. And Ethan White pointed out that writing for the public can be more motivating for students, which makes sense to me. One potential issue, raised by Ethan, is that there might be FERPA issues with doing this now. This had not occurred to me, and is something I’ll need to look into.

5) Wikipedia page: has many of the same benefits and potential drawbacks as a blog post, in my opinion, but I know so much less about doing this. I also don’t know how I would grade such a thing. Thoughts on that?

6) Comparing scientific article with the media coverage of that article: I really like this idea, in part because it could help students realize that they need to approach press releases and media articles skeptically! I imagine that I would let students choose their own pairings of press release/popular press article and scientific article, and then would ask them to compare the two. This could end up being really interesting, I think! It also could be linked with a blog post – that is, they could do the comparison in a blog post. This might be my favorite option so far, perhaps because I think it links well with one of my course goals – learning how to think critically about material they are presented with.

7) Check sources in a popular press article: This would be similar to the above, but would have the goal of teaching students that, if they read something interesting in a popular science article, they can follow it through to the primary literature. For this, I would give them a well-written popular science article (two that I was planning on using in this class anyway are When You Swallow a Grenade by Carl Zimmer and Some of My Best Friends Are Germs by Michael Pollan, both of which deal with the gut microbiome). I would then have them find one of the articles cited in there, read it, and write a summary of it (or something to that effect).

8) Write a popular science article related to a scientific article: this idea is similar to #6, though doesn’t require the comparison. It certainly would be a good exercise in seeing how well they can digest and summarize concepts, which would be interesting. I could set this assignment up so that they have to do it about one of the papers we’re already reading in the class, or that it should be on a new paper of their choosing. Again, this could link with a blog post assignment.

9) Controversial paper: this assignment seems more geared towards a grad-level class to me, because it requires more extensive background reading and placing of the study in a broader context of studies that came before it and that followed it. But maybe I’m selling my students short?

10) Videos: This isn’t something I’ve thought much about, though I wonder if students would be more hesitant to do this than a blog post. Or maybe I’m just projecting! I have heard that the library here at Michigan will help students learn how to prepare a short video for the general public, which would definitely be useful.

Right now, I think I’m leaning towards option 6 (or maybe 7), but I’m still deciding. I’ve scheduled a consultation with someone from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. It turns out they do course planning consultations, which seems like an excellent resource. But I’m also very interested in feedback from our readers. So, if you used these approaches and they’ve worked well or have been disasters, I would love to hear it!

Related posts:
Why I use clickers: part 1 and part 2

37 thoughts on “Class activities for upper-level courses: blog posts, debates, critiques of media coverage, and more!

  1. First, thank you for sharing these thoughts, I’ll bookmark and share this for our future master or grad classes!

    Second, we’ve been running for a little while a class where the students discuss 1-2 papers per session, then take turns writing a blog post about it:

    The students are graded on participation (basically each session they get a yes/no on participation, then I compile) and on their blog post. Return from the students is that it’s one of their toughest classes and that they learn a lot.🙂

    I like the blog because in addition to the writing exercice, it provides an archive of what we’ve covered, and allows people to follow from afar. We are indexed on, so some posts get quite a few views (and some almost none…).

    Editing Wikipedia seems to me problematic, because there’s a possibility that a change is reverted for reasons which are not the fault of the student.

    • That’s an interesting idea. In the past, I’ve always had students come up with questions ahead of time and discuss them in an online forum, but never had a follow up activity related to the papers. I have been thinking about changing that anyway — a colleague has students answer a few questions about the paper before class, and then they have to modify their answers based on the discussion in class. I think I like the idea of a blog post as follow up better, in part because then the students could help each other more. Doing that might change the way I would need to do the exams — or, then again, maybe not.

      Thanks for the idea!

    • The ability of the public to change a Wikipedia entry is one of the problems that I see with that type of assignment as well. Though perhaps there are ways to prevent this? I am not well-versed in creating or editing wikis.

    • A comment on the Wikipedia option; you could always do a sandbox version of a wikipedia page (especially suitable for a new page), and then make it live after it has been graded. This would largely eliminate the problem of reversions. Either way, the pages are version controlled so you could also grade a specific time-stamped version.

      • I like the idea of a ‘sandbox’ version (I wasn’t familiar with that term!) I like that a wikipedia assignment would mean that the students were improving a widely viewed resource (that they surely use themselves!) The sandbox version solves the grading problem, and also allows me to give them feedback before posting it. Now the key will be to see if I can figure out more specifics about how to implement this. Thanks to The Lab and Field (, I can see how this could easily work for a taxonomy course, by having them work on a taxon entry. It’s less clear to me what type of entry to have them focus on for this sort of class, but hopefully I’ll think of one!

      • To be clear, sandbox pages are created within the userspace (could be a user created specifically for the course) but can be edited by other users as well. However, they are not easily searchable, so the chance of somebody finding and editing it is very slim if it has not been posted into the main space. And as I wrote earlier, if it happens that somebody from outside the course has edited a page you can always see it in the version history and easily rollback to previous versions.

        A bit more about userspace drafts.

      • Meg-> The article you linked to also highlight another good reason for creating/editing pages in private userspace, so that they can be checked by you for obvious errors before being posted publically.

    • Meghan, we have been assigning the writing or revising of wikipedia entries for a while and I am a big fan. I want students to practice writing, critical thinking, and all the other stuff they are supposed to do when they write papers, but got tired of a desk drawer full of papers at the end of the semester – I figured we might as well put it on WP so it might be useful to others. By assigning groups of 2-3 students to critique and rewrite entries, they work on their writing while also practicing conflict resolution, team work, and all the other stuff that comes from being forced to work with people you don’t know.

      The trick is to break the assignment down into smaller components. Wikipedia has a ton of resources for instructors who want to include WP in their courses; I posted some links and a copy of our assignment here:

      • Thanks, Emilio and Tobias! I think this thread is a good candidate for a “hoisted from the comments” post. Lots of great stuff here in the comments!

  2. Meg,
    I really enjoyed the Twitter discussion on this and your blog post above. I have a couple of other thoughts on the subject right now:

    1) On option seven above, I don’t think that the Michael Pollan piece would fit well. He is notorious for not providing citations and in all versions of the piece that I have read this is true, no citations. While the students could probably search the primary literature for related articles that he /may/ have used in developing the piece, that doesn’t really seem to fit the assignment that you have laid out above.

    2) Have you considered including some information on the concept and movement of One Health? Your course sounds like a great platform for those ideas and ways of thinking.

    • Your first point raises an interesting question: if I go with that style of assignment, how easy should it be for students to follow a link to the relevant primary literature? Carl Zimmer links to the studies, which is great, but many science writers do not. This means that, if a student wants to follow up on an interesting idea they read in a popular press article, sometimes it will require a good bit of work to figure out if that statement is well-supported by data. If the goal is for students to learn how to do that (for when they want to follow up on something they read in the future), then maybe something like the Pollan piece is a good one, actually. But it could also be asking too much. And, if I gave them the choice of those two pieces, I would imagine most of them would choose the Zimmer one, since it would be easier to track down the sources.😉

      Regarding your second point: I wasn’t aware of those initiatives, but I had thought about the EcoHealth Alliance: It could be interesting to figure out a way to link more to these sorts of initiatives/alliances. Maybe I should remind myself that the course will evolve through time, and I can add/change assignments and activities as it evolves. I don’t need to do it all in the first year!

      • I hear your points on my first point, but does Pollan even mention the name of a scientist or a specific study that could be reasonably searched in that piece? (I haven’t read it since it first came out) He doesn’t usually, which would change the assignment significantly, in my opinion, from: Compare and contrast the popular media coverage to the actual science. How well did this author convey the science/represent the science being covered?
        to: What science do you think Pollan was trying to communicate, did he do it accurately and well?

        Both approaches probably have merit, but they are definitely different in both approach and learning outcomes, I think.

      • Yes, you’re right that it changes the nature of the assignment. I don’t really want the focus to become on a particular science writer (even if he is as famous as Pollan). Definitely good food for thought — thank you!

  3. Regarding debates, a friend of mine has done a jigsaw-style in-class debate in upper-level undergrad classes with good success; the students enjoy it AND they retain the material well. He breaks the class into teams of 3 (or 4 could work, too, I suppose) and then presents a scenario to the class. Each team but one defends one point of view, and one team has to make a decision based on the debate. For example: the scenario is that a nuclear power plant is proposed in the city (where the college is located). One team is a group of environmentalists for the plant (clean energy!), one is a group of environmentalists against the plant (safety!), one team is a group of local residents, one team represents the nuclear power industry, one team represents a consortium of city businesses, and the final team is the city council that has to decide whether to approve or deny the permit for the nuclear power plant. Each team is given readings that relate to their role to do as homework. And then the teams gather in groups to discuss how they’re going to best argue for their roll. Then there’s a period-long full-class debate, with the city council giving its answer at the end.

    • Oh, this reminds me that I did something like this as an undergrad, but had forgotten! In my ecology class, we did a debate on whether to reintroduce wolves, with different groups being assigned the roles of different stakeholders. I remember that I was assigned the role of someone who worked for Defenders of Wildlife, with others assigned to be farmers, tourists, etc.

      Thanks for the reminder! This does make for a more interesting assignment than just a two-sided debate!

  4. I took an undergrad class where we did video projects, and all I would say is do not underestimate what goes into making a good video. Ours was a science communication class and we had a professional science video maker work with us for several hours one afternoon, teaching us about things like B-roll, good shot composition, and how to properly use the camera, tripod, and microphone. Learning how to use video editing software is a whole other undertaking, and it’s hard to even scratch the surface of a program like Final Cut in a short training session (and all of this assumes that the students will have access to the tools and equipment they would need for this project). I’ve seen other courses where professors had no experience with videos themselves but assigned them to students without offering any help or resources whatsoever. Please do not do this! It makes the exercise more about figuring out how to make a video than about learning the material and presenting it in a new way, and it’s really really frustrating. That said, I think a lot of students would like doing a video project, provided they had the tools to actually accomplish it.

    • Given that I just had to google “B roll”, this shows that I don’t know much myself about making a good video! If I go with this approach, I would definitely need to enlist the help of a resource like the library to make it feasible. But that would require deciding that I wanted to devote a substantial amount of class resources to having students learn how to make a good video; right now, I’m not sure that’s the best use of class time (but I reserve the right to change my mind!)

      • Right, I think that’s the trap that’s easy to fall in especially if you don’t have a lot of experience making videos (not that I do either). If you’re going to do it “right” it takes a lot of time. In a science communication class it makes sense to spend that time; in Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine, maybe not (but maybe!).

    • Good points. I often wonder how Jeremy Long gets such excellent music videos from his students. Might be worth asking him for a guide to that technique in coursework. (and worth it for me to think about, as I’m allowing a similar option as a final project for my own students…)

      Then again, I❤ iMovie.

    • On making videos: A colleague of mine did this with reasonable success but enlisted the public education/video production staff of the university to come in and give a primer on dos/don’ts. They had a really good catalog of examples of best practices culled mainly from open material on the web. If you do something with videos, look for these folks at your institution. Every school has these staff to make promos/commercials/fundraising/outreach material. Have them come in and share, they will likely be excited to be asked.

  5. One assignment from a different class that I enjoyed was writing an annotated bibliography on a topic of my choosing (related to the course material, obviously). It was good experience reading the literature and distilling the main points, and it gave me (more of) a reason to read about topics I was interested in. I only had one course in which I ever did this, which is a little surprising to me because it seems that writing annotated bibliographies could be pretty useful? In fact many of my friends (and we were all seniors at this point) had never even heard of an annotated bibliography(!) and gave me blank stares when I talked about them. We also had the option of annotating the works separately or grouping them into a few citations with several paragraphs of text comparing them; the latter option gives a better challenge IMO.

    It is a little bit drier than some of the other suggestions like blogs or debates, but I liked writing them in that course. Maybe at UMich they’re customary, but I almost made it through undergrad without ever having experience with them, and I’m glad I didn’t.

    • I have gotten the impression, speaking to mentors and other faculty members, that making/being assigned to make annotated bibliographies used to be a lot more common than it has become in the past decade.

      • I don’t recall ever having to do an annotated bibliography for a class, which is interesting now that I think about it.

      • I guess they are pretty easy to get the hang of. Still (or maybe therefore?) I thought they were fun. You could take it to the next level with twitter and make students tweet the gist of the paper–must be concise, only one tweet–and then Storify the results or something. Now I’m being a little facetious…but that would actually be kind of fun too….

  6. I used to use role-play debates in a final year course I ran whilst at Imperial College – I used to pick a topic, say proposed exploitation of a peat bog near a small Scottish village, ask two people to volunteer as the company and then assign roles ranging from dog walkers, crofters, conservationists, whisky distillers, foresters, garden centre owners etc for when we ran the Puiblic Inquiry. Students loved it and they learnt a lot about the impotnace of peat. Also used it in court-room situations – such as when anti-GM protesters destroyed a field trial of potatoes. It also had the benefit of making the studnet sinteract with each other as they formed alliances and strategies. I did have to have a rule that every student had to make a contribution to the deabte/trial/whatever, or risk having the mark on their accompanying essay capped.

  7. Pingback: Teaching Evolution via Infectious Diseases: Smocovitis talk at #Evol2013 | Dynamic Ecology

  8. There is a blog that focuses on mathematical oncology, especially evolutionary and (I guess) ecological aspects called Warburg’s Lens that stated recently. They are trying to popularize preprint publishing in evolutionary medicine, so showing that blog to students might help them get a feel for the “latest-and-greatest” while also introducing them to open science. It might be worth talking to the guys that run it if you want suggestions for papers to discuss (especially if your students are comfortable with math). I know three of the guys behind the project (David Basanta, Philip Gerlee, and Jacob Scott), and I’ve bought this article to their attention.

    If you are still looking for fun topics to discuss in the class, then the only suggestion I can make is to look at the disease avoidance hypothesis for ethnocentrism:

    [1] Faulkner, J., Schaller, M., Park, J. H., & Duncan, L. A. (2004). Evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms and contemporary xenophobic attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 7(4), 333-353.

    [2] Navarrete, C. D., & Fessler, D. M. (2006). Disease avoidance and ethnocentrism: The effects of disease vulnerability and disgust sensitivity on intergroup attitudes. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(4), 270-282.

    But this suggestion is not based on some deep understanding of the hypothesis or evolutionary medicine or ecology. I just like this hypothesis because it is so drastically different to the game theoretic approach for studying ethnocentrism.

  9. Pingback: Using Wikipedia in the classroom: a cautionary tale | Dynamic Ecology

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