What does modern pedagogy theory say about field classes?

I have been  thinking a lot lately about how the modern pedagogy movement has been focused almost solely on what have traditionally been indoor lecture courses. I won’t claim to be an expert on the literature in modern pedagogy, but I haven’t seen anything and couldn’t find anything with some quick Googling that applies modern university pedagogy theory to field courses (recommendations welcome in the comments) .

I have commented in the past that while I am annoyed by the unthinking group-think around the modern pedagogy movement involving active/flipped/inquiry-based/peer-instructed/just-in-time/etc classrooms, and wonder if we aren’t missing some elephants in the room by our recent focus on this area, it seems pretty clear that it is a good thing we are now having conversations about classroom pedagogy and have a good toolkit emerging.

So what exactly would the modern pedagogy movement think about undergraduate field courses in ecology? Are they already doing the right thing? Or are they as much in need of innovation as lectures?

I think the answer depends. As both a student and a teacher, I have been involved in two very different types of field courses.

The first type is often attached to an ecology class or a stand alone field course (OTS being a canonical example). It involves going outside and conducting experiments or observations. I think such courses have already naturally tapped into the best of modern pedagogy. They are inquiry based – they have students working on their own to answer a question. With students working in small teams a fair amount of peer instruction happens. Since students do their own measurements, analysis and write-up it is active learning. They’re certainly hands-on and real-world relevant. If the students do reading at home to prepare for the field trip you could argue they are flipped, although I don’t think too many ecology labs have this structure, and I don’t think its essential to tick off every possible box of modern pedagogy.

The second type of field class I have been part of are those usually attached to an -ology class (ornithology, entomology, mammalogy or plantology (aka botany🙂 ). These classes often have a focus on memorizing specialized vocabulary for describing the anatomy and physiology of the group of interest (this often coming from lab dissections) and then applying these terms to memorize and spot identify dozens of taxonomic groups. These are really memorization-focused classes. Which means they fall really low on the Bloom hierarchy (recapped in my earlier post). And they have a lot in common with lectures, at least as traditionally taught – the expert stands and pontificates while the students look on – really just a lecture with a live specimen in hand and no walls around the classroom. Now that last fact of a live specimen and no walls around the classroom is pretty darn cool. In fact its great. Its why I became an ecologist. But does it really change whether its a lecture? And does it really change how much students learn? And how much they retain?

I personally am in the process of thinking through what what this second type of class would look like in a modern pedagogy style. How high up the Bloom taxonomy would you aim? What general principles/concepts would you even try to teach in say a botany or entomology class? Would peer-instruction work when none of the students have seen the organism before?

So far the things I have thought are:

  1. How would you replace those outdoor lectures. The best alternative I’ve thought of is turning students loose in small groups with a key or field guide trying to figure out on their own what they’ve found. You will get through a lot less species (like maybe only 1/4 as many), but I think they will be retained better and they will learn the process of identification instead of memorization.
  2. In a weird sort of flipping, I think you may need to spend a good chunk of lecture preparing students for the time outside. EG – put up a picture of leaves from five different maple species and have the students spend time in small groups developing a key to distinguish these species.
  3. Beyond species ID, emphasize things students can observe with their own eyes (e.g. growing in wet vs dry soils, associations with other species, elevational and successional gradients) rather than more abstract but cool things like allelopathy, nitrogen fixation.
  4. Deemphasize terminology. You’re not going to be able to ID trees without knowing alternate vs opposite, simple vs compound leaves. But do you need to know cordate vs lanceolate leaves or is a field guide (or key) with pictures good enough? And can’t we just say heart-shaped and grass-leaf-shaped?

Some of this probably differs drastically between undergraduates and graduates as well. A graduate student doing vegetation analysis probably does need to know what cordate means to be able to use keys. And they probably do need to know all the species, not just learn the process of keying out.

Or maybe we should just abandon -ology classes. Perhaps everything should be an OTS-like class centered around inquiry and experiments, and they will learn some species along the way? This seems extreme, even antithetical, to me but if I am honest, it might be the full logical application of modern pedagogy to field courses. IE that -ology courses as currently structured should go away?

Those are my thoughts at the moment. What do you think? What do you think a modern pedagogy -ology class would look like. Or should they continue to exist? Would you try to move up Bloom’s hierarchy? What are the higher level principles you would try to teach? Which techniques out of active/inquiry-based/peer/just-in-time/flipped would you apply? What would the class look like? Would you do a graduate course differently?

27 thoughts on “What does modern pedagogy theory say about field classes?

  1. Very nice topic! OTS-like courses are truly awesome and I coordinate one with a colleague at our graduate school in ecology. The OTS-like, active learning, inquiry-based, peer instruction, real-world mentality is the guide to most of the undergrad and grad courses I teach.

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  3. I have been thinking a lot about this, because I too loved my -ology classes and love teaching them, but I’m frustrated by how little the students seem to retain and how boring some of them find the classes. I think one suggestion is to retain the lecture strategy for the most abundant species towards the beginning of the semester, pointing out characters that are reliable and unreliable, and then rely on the field guides and field experiences to fill in the (huge) taxonomic gaps. Another is to have them study up on the identification and natural history of a few species, then in lab be responsible for leading a station to which the others rotate, that way they can teach other students repeatedly and reinforce the knowledge for themselves (I’ve seen this done and I think it works). Another is to get the students competing with themselves and one another to find, identify, and document (and contribute those data to large citizen science databases like eBird or iNaturalist) as many species as they can. That way they’re motivated to learn the skills they need to distinguish the species, and they learn the process in the meantime. And, by building camaraderie in the field they associate the process of natural history with fun, which it is!

    I don’t think we should get rid of these classes, if only because a large number of students do find them extremely enjoyable and they ignite or fuel interest in wildlife and ecology among any number of students who will go on to become doctors, lawyers, etc. I just hope they remember positive outdoor experiences from their -ology classes when it’s time to vote.

    • Hmm… Andrew’s reply makes me think that there’s a “type” of person who loves these classes. You guys both love nitty gritty details, right? You go to trivia nights? You outclass all your friends and relatives in following the sport of your choosing in remembering games, scores, etc.? You remember people’s names without too much trouble?

      I know (and love) people like you. But we’re not all like that. Many (most) of us simply don’t get the thrill of knowing everything about something. And that’s why so many students are bored by these types of classes. This type of learning doesn’t turn them on. It’s not the *style* of teaching, it’s the *content*.

      (For me personally, I’m a systems thinker. I want to know how everything works and is interconnected. So, yes, tell me which types of teeth are good for eating which kinds of food. But don’t make me remember the arbitrary name that some 18th century guy decided to give to the animal with 3 of these types of teeth, one with a groove down the outside.)

      • I think you’re right, Margaret, and I definitely identify as the type who loves these classes. Any other suggestions on what we could do, teaching -ology classes, to better engage systems thinkers?

      • Classifications *are* “systems thinking”. Almost all classifications reflect some sort of process. So IMO memorizing classifications *without* understanding the underlying system is a waste of effort. OTOH the end result of any process is a thing with a name and ultimately you have to know the name to communicate. So if the name arises from the system, great; if not, toughluck,

      • @jim: Yes, there’s an order and structure to classification, the names aren’t just arbitrary labels. But I think that’s a different sort of “systems thinking” than what Ben Bolker or Margaret has in mind.

      • Classification may or may not be a different form of systems thinking than Ben or Margaret had in mind. But there are higher level general principles in the -ologies. So far we haven’t had much discussion on this, but my question was sincere about what the higher up principles in the Bloom hierarchy we should teach are. This seems to me like a more productive route than just assigning -ologies to rote memorization that should be dropped.

      • Great comment! I think it is important to recognize the different kind of thinkers in a class (or also a lab/working group) and embrace this diversity.

        We had an undergrad course in Ecology at my university in Germany that incorporated the whole process of an ecological study. At first the class talked about the question which the study should adress and which hypotheses we want to test. and what data we need to test those. Then we set up different experiments we want to conduct and formed teams of five persons for the field work.
        During the field phase we went outside and gathered the data we needed. For example in one experiment we looked at the relationship between insect and plant diversity. Every team sampled insects with standardized net catches in five grassland sites and assesed the vegetation. Every plant that could not be described in the field got an ID and a specimen was taken to the lab.
        During the lab phase all the samples were described using keys by the whole class while forming specialist groups. The people attending the botany courses in the same semester described the plant species and the rest joined groups for the description of different insect taxa. Some people were looking at true bugs, some at beetles and so on. This way the class generated one huge data set together.
        Then we had the analysis part where we got a short introduction into R and data analysis.
        The course exam was that every group of five people wrote a paper about three of the experiments during the summer break.
        The great thing was that every type of thinker was useful during this process. The bug people overlooked the description of the insects and helped others, the botanists explained the group how the differentiate between the grasses. The data and R-lovers wrote the R-scripts, made fancy figures and helped the others when they desperately needed help with error messages in R. The system thinker thought about how everything interconnects and mostly wrote the discussion part of the papers.
        This way everyone had an important role in the process and the class learned about the steps of an ecological study and gained taxonomic knowledge. And it really worked great! Even for the lecturers since they had much less work to do, because most of the field work and lab phases were overseen by three hired student assistants from higher semesters who helped where help was needed. I think that is a great way to teach ecological science. I am still, as a Phd student, going to my beetle guy when I need some information about taxonomy, while he comes to me when his R script keeps crashing.

  4. Hey Brian,

    Interesting article. Something I spend way too much time thinking about myself🙂 I spend just over 6 weeks a year on Deakin University, Australia, UG ecology field programs for our Wildlife and Conservation Biology degree. I will say the learning that occurs in the field (not just discipline knowledge but fundamentally important life and generic skills) far out weighs what can be developed in the class.

    You make the point about students going to the field “prepared”. This is something we have been doing more and more over the last 11 years as we have been trying to get our field courses just right (there is no thing as just right, but…). I have to say that it actually does make some difference to how the students are able to engage in the field. One example is I give a two hour class on trapping and handling small mammals. We look at the traps, discuss how they work, what we do to limit stress on the animals, discuss ethics etc. Then we go over some video footage of handling small mammals etc (we stop, go back, slow down and talk techniques and approaches). When we hit the field the students are really focused on getting it right, and we just reinforce ideas they have already been presented with.

    I also run a field unit in Borneo. For this one we have a 4 day intensive program in Australia. Each students develops briefing documents and presents to the rest of the group on key environmental aspects relevant to Borneo. Half the class present our local Australian situation on the same topic. This has been enormously useful in helping our students remove their rose coloured glasses about Australia, and arrive in Borneo with a more open less judgmental mindset.

    Upshot, the field is the place to be for anyone wanting to be an ecologist. Prepping students before they hit the field helps provide context to the students, and facilitates deeper engagement in what they are doing. Focusing on working as a team and learning how to collect and report information is also highly beneficial as well.

    Thanks for your article.

    • “the field is the place to be for anyone wanting to be an ecologist. ”

      Nitpicky and irrelevant aside: not every ecologist or wanna-be ecologist is a field ecologist. Quoting a lovely passage from Ben Bolker:

      “Quantitative ecologists are only loosely anchored by the natural history of particular systems. Even the word “systems” is a giveaway; we see organisms as realizations of ideas, not as furry, feathery, or green individuals. Many of us came to ecology from physics, or mathematics, or statistics, because we loved its ideas. If we didn’t care about the organisms, we would have been content as mathematicians or physicists, but our true love was for the way that real ecological communities could embody general mathematical concepts of dynamics and variation. Our attachment to ideas gives us great flexibility, even more than other ecologists. Some of us are drawn to model systems, such as microcosms of flour beetles or plankton, where we can put ideas to searching experimental tests; others are drawn to the opposite extreme, that is, to long-term observational data from systems such as lynx populations or measles epidemics that challenge our ability to infer ecological processes from patterns. In either case, we are primarily interested in how we can use organisms to understand general principles rather than in the particular organisms themselves. This flexibility lets us pursue interesting questions wherever they lead.”

      (source: Bolker 2005 BioScience)

  5. I’ve actively avoided all these sorts of memorization classes (with the result that I avoided biology *completely* in grade school). What’s the point of them, exactly? What exactly do you want students to remember ten years from now? These days we’ve got the internet — all sorts of actively curated guides plus social media plus contact emails of real experts for the truly rare. I have never been unable to identify something I’m interested in, despite never taking a memorization course. I just ask.

    Unrelated: the format of the OTS foundation course is to have a day of “natural history” at each visited site prior to developing projects. (Students need to have a sense of the system before coming up with hypotheses to test…) This day includes lots of information about plants, insects, bird, mammals, etc. It’s one of the favorite parts of the course for a lot of students. Everyone learns a lot. But maybe the fact that botany and entomology and ornithology and mammalogy are all taught intertwined is what makes each natural history day so fun and memorable. Maybe if you have the goal of having students memorize identification of species, you need to get rid of doing it in a rote way, and instead weave the sorts of stories about place and interrelationships that allow students to remember.

    • “I have never been unable to identify something I’m interested in, despite never taking a memorization course. I just ask.”

      Not always true, of course. But I suspect it’s more often true than many advocates of the importance of natural history would like to admit…

      • Of course its true in the case of birds, butterflies, mammals, shrubs, wildflowers and trees, which comprise probably 99% of requested identifications (so you are absolutely right that its mostly true), but a vast minority (<1%?) of species diversity practically anywhere. Not being able to key something tricky out (e.g. parasitoids, grasses, or asters) or at least get it to a point where you get it to the *right* expert (if one still exists – there are groups now without them entirely!), is really an inconvenience to folks who can do it. Museum folks are really nice (absolutely always in my experience), but I know they appreciate you having done your best before taking it to them for confirmation or true determination. And while this doesn't require those -ology classes (textbooks and keys are generally usable to most folks with the help of internet resources for figuring out characters), they certainly help.

        Nick Gotelli had a really nice paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society about this. Its worth reading. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/359/1444/585

        And a caveat about some of the "identification" website (ispotnature being my main culprit here, bugguide is far better) – people are very quick to give IDs based on often terrible photos without real identification characteristics. Many of them are plain wrong in even well-known groups! Some field guides – often regional or state-wide and published by small publishing companies – have pretty egregious errors, too.

        On another note: I agree with Margaret that "if you have the goal of having students memorize identification of species, you need to get rid of doing it in a rote way, and instead weave the sorts of stories about place and interrelationships that allow students to remember."

        I'm not a memorization person – I've keyed out hundreds of insects and plants, but have to compulsively use the index for characters as they leave my brain seconds after entering it. But having a cool fact or two about each species you see REALLY makes it stick (for me). I'll always remember the Osprey's strange toe arrangement and the screwy seeds of Erodium just because they are fantastic (and every species has something like that – we just have to find out what it is).

      • Setophaga: Don’t get me wrong — I think that some subset of people should definitely learn to be experts in identification of certain groups. We need those experts (and we should recognize their importance)! But I don’t think we need these types of classes. Anyone interested in learning to do so should apprentice with an existing expert to learn the ropes and then will invariably have to learn from print (and other) materials as their expertise increases. A lab or two in a more general class about how to use a dichotomous key? Sure. A whole semester of memorizing the traits of one group of species. No way.

      • @Jeremy: True that not everyone can always find someone to ID their organism? Sure. But for any organism that shows up in a standard college course, I think it’s a safe bet that you could just ask around.

  6. What we did in botany back in my student days was: we built groups of 4-6 people and each group had a “experimental field” next to university. We had something like 2-3 month to ID the plants there and then there was a test where the professor picked up plants and we had to tell him what it is. He knew the species list, so you could be sure he would pick up some plants you had IDed wrongly or you had not seen before.
    Most students kind of hated it. But the thing is that you learned to organize yourself. How can a group most effectively ID all the plants and teach them to the other group members. And we had some fun out there, having a picnic or barbecue while IDing plants. I think even the ones who hated botany had some knowledge at the end (not species level, but they then knew e.g. what a bellflower looks like and can start from that point now).

  7. I took both entomology and invert zoology in undergrad, and in both cases the wrote memorization of taxa was pretty low.

    In entomology (on-campus, lecture + lab), basically our entire grade for the lab was to collect, mount, and ID an insect collection. Everyone got really into it, even the student who was really afraid of insects at the beginning of the semester. But the emphasis was on the key, not necessarily memorizing the characters for each family. So it was an -ology class, without an independent project per se, but still a huge amount of self-directed learning. Also, we were treated like scientists: we checked out our collecting gear and kept it in our dorms, so that we could collect at any time, and we had access to the lab any time so that we could mount specimens when we needed to, much more like a field station atmosphere. (Obviously not possible under many circumstances.)

    Invert zoology was a field station class (lecture + lab + field), and we did a pile of dissections, which is standard for the course. We also did a project, à la OTS-style courses. So in theory we got all parts – the lecture, with the “march of the phyla,” the lab to do the hands-on observations and dissections and see how the animals work, and the field/lab ecology component as well. I’m not sure that the first two parts work well without the field/project component, though, having now been on the teaching end of the course.

    I have also seen students get into projects similar to what Andrew describes – for instance creating a Wikipedia page for a particular taxonomic family.

    The capacity to do this ID work or not can define the questions asked – just like any other skill. I just spent a couple weeks doing a bunch of ID work that would take the other members of my lab months, to the point where doing it at all was out of the question until I got here. So I don’t think “should -ology still be taught” is the question. More, “how to make the courses most valuable for those of us who want to take them.”

    • Yes, I have to agree that my -ology class experience wasn’t at all like what Brian described.

      Entomology labs involved field surveys, dissecting and drawing insects, and behavioural observations. My ornithology labs were a few ‘learning to id’ sessions (which included id-ing from study skins) but mostly designing and conducting field observations, and making study skins (great way to learn parts of birds). Mycology was field trips, making spore prints, and making beer and wine. The lecture portions of all of the above focused more on ecology, development, interactions, etc. The only pure memorization in those classes were family relationships.

      The only -ology class that was just memorize names and life cycles was parasitology (which I hated since most of our mark necessitated spelling scientific names correctly).

      I actually think that -ology classes provide more opportunity for and integrate more active learning, etc. than traditional broad courses like ecology or genetics. Classic YMMV

  8. My thoughts on active learning etc. is that if we want students to be able to process information, solve novel problems and apply what they are learning than we must provide them with the opportunity to do so. So I am a fan of being more explicit and clear about our goals for our courses, what the key competencies we value are and how we will help students practice and master these competencies. I did not think your previous posts on this topic were disparaging about this idea, they were was just being reflective. But with that said, I think that if we converted all our classes tomorrow to be “active learning/flipped” or “student oriented”, that most institutions would simply continue to teach esoteric and largely irrelevant courses to most of our students, they would just be in round rooms and perhaps use choke boards.
    A central question we often fail to ask ourselves is what do the students need based on their own future career goals, values and the types of careers they will pursue? How can –ology courses help them develop as conservation biologists, land managers, health care providers, teachers, policy makers and future citizen (this is who they are or will be after all)? How do we make courses that reflect our changing demographics and their values as well as the needs of society? Many students of color and first generation students value careers that have practical and social implications and if we want to value their involvement we need to evaluate even the field courses and –ologies that inspired the small group of us that went on into research. I appreciate Margaret’s perspective (even though I teach an –ology) as we really should be convinced that we are teaching and developing courses for the right reasons and not just following tradition.
    As the current vice chair of Education for OTS and a past course student and coordinator, I am always glad to hear that the courses have had such a great impact on so many as they did with me. Still, our audience and their values and needs are changing and so we are working to develop models that combine the strengths of the OTS hands-on-approach with methods that teach more transferable skills and have direct demonstrable impacts while also leading in new directions that we as an organization value. As ironic as it may seem for such an amazing course, the number of graduate students enrolling in them has declined substantially. For the graduate courses, we have thus moved from the boot camp approach we all loved and were inspired by to being more thoughtful about science communication, conservation and developing transferable skills because this is what the new graduate students and the faculty that send them tend to value. In sum, I believe that even with field courses we must be mindful that we serve a need and remain relevant. Most students don’t grow up to be postdocs and write esoteric papers no one really reads and even those that do have a hard time filling the ranks of those that can teach the courses that inspired them.

    • Thanks for your comments. YOur statement “So I am a fan of being more explicit and clear about our goals for our courses, what the key competencies we value are and how we will help students practice and master these competencies.” is I think the most central point for me.

      I increasingly think that we need to start putting more energy into why we teach before we worry about how.

      And very interesting to hear the update on OTS

  9. In regards to the –ologies, it was nice to read some suggested on how to make them more interactive and not make them so taxonomically heavy. Taxonomically heavy classes will simply lead to use making sure that there is more that the student will forget. Here are just a few things that I have done to help make my course more interactive.
    1. Understanding morphology and evolution. Morphology seems to be a key to most –ologies and to some degree it is essential for understanding a given group or figuring out what you may have. In the course we beginning by talking about the different subphyla within arthropoda, their characteristics and contentious phylogeny. The students explore these groups in lab, learn about homology and read a few current papers. Then they work in pairs to create a new subphyla. They draw it, list the key characteristics and then argue its placement within the overall phylogeny, acknowledging homoplasies and homologies. Later on, when they learn about insect phylogeny they will create a new order and place it with the overall phylogeny. This time they do it as if they are submitting a manuscript to Zootaxa. This does a tremendous job of legitimizing the process, particularly when they will submit it to another student who will edit and provide feedback as a reviewer before the final paper is turned in. The ability to use their own creativity to learn and explore morphology has been extremely powerful and it helps when they have to key or work on their collections. Finally, the students then submit a popular science story that revolves around the new order. This time the order has to reinforce key concepts that we discussed in class. Does the order demonstrate different types of insect learning, shy insects are specialist herbivores or the costs and benefits of being involved in a mutualism? This project allows the students to purse their own interests. Happy to share the material I have developed on this if anyone is interested. I was inspired here by botanists who have students make keys.
    2. Readings. I am working to lecture less and allow the students to apply and share their thinking more. So usually on Fridays we discuss papers. To increase participation, I have different small groups read different papers (for which they short summaries) and then we discuss their papers in class. For example, after taking about insects as herbivores we are left with the question of why so many insects are specialists. Each groups reads a paper that argues that insects are specialists because of predators, coevolution, cognitive limitations or host use efficiency. The goal is to allow students to apply what they know and to interpret and evaluate what they read. They also have an opportunity to work on their scientific argumentation skills. By adding the twist that students then have to write a summary of the topic more broadly, I learned that I could get them more involved in asking each other questions.
    3. For the hard core ento students or those that are interested in exploring research, I usually develop a group project that gets them working together to address a question. This is not for class credit but has been tremendous in allowing kids to push themselves and their understanding of entomology.
    4. Future. I’d like to work on integrating the lab and lectures. An important part of understanding insects is by understanding their physiology. I’d like to thus teach some topics directly in the lab. That is, when we learn about digestion, why not dissect the insects at the same time?

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