Having an Organism of the Day was only sort of successful

Over the past couple of years, we’ve made a lot of big changes to the Intro Bio course here at Michigan. I think we can demonstrate they’ve been really successful at improving student learning, but one downside of those changes is that I’ve worried that too much organismal diversity was cut. So, I decided to add in having an Organism of the Day, stealing the idea from my postdoc advisor, Tony Ives. I know that students in Tony’s class love the OotD, and thought it would be fun to add it in to my course.

I had few goals for the OotD:
1. To do a better job of introducing students to different kinds of organisms, especially things that are not vertebrates
2. To get students excited about those different kinds of organisms
3. To cover concepts that were sources of confusion for students and/or to help them develop process of science skills that I was trying to emphasize.

Was it a success?

I’d say it was sort of successful, sort of not. It succeeded in introducing more different types of organisms and helped me cover things that I thought were important to cover. But I think most students viewed them as just another thing to learn, in a class that already covers a lot of material (despite my attempts to cut back each year). While I know that some students liked the OotD, my general impression (though I don’t have specific data on this) is that most were not excited about them. That was disappointing.

First, let’s back up. Who were the organisms of the day? They were:

  • dinosaurs (chosen because they let me emphasize how we know things about extinct organisms),
  • hippos and their rectal leeches (hippos were the obvious choice for the class on population ecology, which is centered around Pablo Escobar’s hippos)
  • dragonflies (which linked with arthropod diversity, and which let me cover bio-inspired design, aquatic-terrestrial linkages, and adaptations for life on land)
  • Trichodesmium (which let me emphasize that not all nitrogen fixation is by rhizobia bacteria, and gave me a chance to cover N fixation in the ocean)
  • Pisaster (in the food web lecture, where we cover Paine’s classic experiment)
  • Gingko biloba (which let me cover medicinal uses of biodiversity, as well as the general topic of how to evaluate evidence related to health and science)
  • measles (which was an “organism” of the day, as our book and class teach that viruses are not fully living; this let me cover the role of changing vaccination practices in the re-emergence of some infectious diseases)
  • deep sea hydrothermal vents (not an organism, obviously, but we covered some of the organisms that live in these vents; I used this to introduce the idea that not all ecosystems have photoautotrophs at the base of the food web)
  • Red tide dinoflagellates, especially Karenia brevis (related to human impacts on the environment & eutrophication, also used to cover chemical ecology)
  • chikungunya (another “organism” of the day; used to cover how climate change and human health can be linked. If I redo this, I’d be tempted to replace chik with Zika virus, though that would remove the ability to mention that Lindsay Lohan has been infected).
  • Crepis sancta, hawksbeard (used to cover human impacts on evolution and various process of science skills like figure reading; this was all based on this paper, which I learned about from Ben Bolker via twitter)

I had a lot of fun doing the readings about the organisms, deciding which to include for which lecture, and preparing the materials on them. And I was expecting that students would like them, too, but, as I said, I think most students viewed them as yet another thing to learn. Was that true? I’d say no, but student perception is certainly important, and I think they’d disagree.

Why the disconnect? Well, in about half of the cases, the OotD was already covered when I taught the year before, just not flagged as special. So, in those cases, I didn’t add material (or, if I did add something, it wasn’t much). In the other cases, sometimes it was something extra that was more for fun, and other times it was something new but that covered something that I felt had been lacking. Trichodesmium is a great example of the latter. In my attempts to convey to students the difference between Rhizobium and mycorrhizae (which they seem to have a very hard time with), it became clear in Fall 2014 that I had left many students with the impression that all nitrogen fixation on Earth is by rhizobia. Whoops! So, I added in Trichodesmium as an organism of the day. While it’s true that that was new material, it’s material that I would have added even if I wasn’t doing the organism of the day, since I wanted them to realize there’s nitrogen fixation in the oceans, even though there aren’t legumes!

Another reason why I think the students viewed it as just more stuff to learn is that, leading up to the first exam I gave, I received multiple questions from students about whether organisms of the day would be tested on the exam. Initially, my inclination was to say that they only needed to know the OotD to the extent indicated in the learning objectives (which indicate the concepts they should know). But I knew I had written this question for the exam:

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 2.55.26 PM

From my perspective, this question could have been written about any two organisms (including two that I made up), but was more interesting to write about hippos and their rectal leeches, so that’s how I did it. To me, this question is asking them to interpret a figure showing data they’ve never seen before*, in the context of what they’ve learned about interspecific interactions. (In this case, the leeches benefit and there is no detectable effect on hippos, making it commensalism.) But, to many students, this question is about hippos and their rectal leeches. So, I ended up deciding to say that, yes, students did need to know about the OotD, so they wouldn’t feel they’d been led astray on the exam.

What will I do next time? I’m not sure. Right now, I’m inclined to leave in most of the OotD material, but to not flag is as such. That would let me still cover the topics I wanted to cover without it seeming like I’m adding in something extra. But I’m still not sure. As I said above, I know that some students did really like the OotD. And, in some cases, I know the students didn’t like the OotD because they were not vertebrates; I’m fine with having students think more about things other than vertebrates, even if they aren’t always happy about that.

So, the Organism of the Day was not the resounding success I hoped it would be, but it also wasn’t a total failure. I’m disappointed that it wasn’t a bigger success, but am reminding myself that sometimes, when I try something new in the classroom, it’s bound not to work (at least not on the first try) and that’s okay. It will be interesting to think about how to change things to try to make it more successful. If you’ve used a similar approach, I’d love to hear what you think made it work (or not)!


* For the entire semester, we tell them to assume that, if the error bars overlap, there is no significant difference, and that, if they do not overlap, there is a significant difference).

37 thoughts on “Having an Organism of the Day was only sort of successful

  1. I tried OotD as a “separate” part of the presentation and had a similar issue. It did not seem to help to engage the students and they had problems integrating the example at the beginning of the lecture with other material in the lecture.

    Instead I have the STUDENTS do a version of OotD. All students have to do a presentation on an organism during the semester and mammal are off limits! I have to provide a list of options but it’s been a very successful part of getting them to learn about other types of organisms AND about how to find reliable sources of science information online. The key is that I tell them they have to include something weird or interesting about the organism, not just size, taxonomy, what it eats.

    I love your hippo leech question, though.

    • Just curious: how long are their presentations? There’s no way it would work in my class (~550 students!), but it’s still interesting to think about. When I was at Georgia Tech, I taught Ecology, and the students did group projects. One of those related to endangered/threatened species, and sounds similar to your project (except that most of them chose mammals). I wasn’t totally happy with that assignment, but my concerns mainly related to how to encourage more effective group work.

      • If you already know the list of organisms you’re going to use for OotD (N), you could randomly assign 550/N students to each organism and have them find and email you one interesting fact about the organism before the scheduled lecture as part of participation or homework? That could be the first day’s assignment, even. Having them take ownership might improve interest. Also, you’d find out what the students think is most interesting about the organisms, and those most interesting facts would be part of what you present to the class.

      • I have about 40 students and they have 10 minutes to do the presentation (it’s a general organismal biology course for non-majors that includes a lab). It does end up taking up some lab time but the students seem to get a lot out of it.

      • @dinoverm: It would definitely be interesting to know what they come up with, but the thought of asking them all to email me makes me scared. We could potentially link it with a discussion assignment, though. Another option would be to set up polls where they could choose between different potential OotD and I would then prepare info on them for the next class.

  2. I love OotD and will eventually use it too. For now, my experience is limited to a handful of guest lectures when Tony was out of town, and feedback from his students (we hired several of them over the years). Like you said, it works well for him in that class.

    Two possible differences with your class: different courses and testing. Tony’s course is Ecology for Nonmajors. They don’t have to be there, but choose that elective because they are curious about ecology…and perhaps natural history. As I recall, they also tend to be Juniors and Seniors. In contrast, I suspect your students are required to take the course and are probably Freshman and Sophomores. If they are anything like I was in Intro Bio, they are probably struggling to keep their heads above water.

    I also don’t recall Tony testing this material (he’s not responding to my Skype message, so I can’t confirm). This could make a big difference if a student is already overwhelmed by the material. Are you going to test over it next time?

    • So, I still feel like I didn’t specifically test on the Organism of the Day, but I guess in the future I might avoid writing exam questions that deal with them at all, to avoid that concern/complaint. As I said in the post, I could have written that hippo leech question on any organisms. So, maybe it would have been better just to write it about something else? I’m not sure.

    • Yes, many of them are definitely struggling to keep their heads above water. We have many students who are first semester freshman. And the course already covers a lot of ground, so I am sympathetic to them wanting less material. But I also think it’s important to cover natural history. So, I need to find a balance there, I guess.

  3. Hi Meg,

    How much of the issue do you think was down to lots of students being premed? Premed students are perhaps particularly likely to just care about what’s going to be on the exam, and particularly unlikely to have an interest in species other than people.

    • Good question. I don’t have any data on this, but I would guess that premed students probably were less excited about OotD. I did have a few students who are plant biology majors or something like that come up to me and say how much they liked the OotD.

  4. When Meghan was talking about Organism of the Day late summer/early fall, I jumped on the idea for my Mammalogy class (giving credit to Meghan, of course). The big difference in my use of OofD is that it was taxon-specific, focused only on mammals. I presented Mammal of the Day (MofD) at the beginning of every lecture (sometimes relevant to the lecture, sometimes not) and did NOT require students to know the material for the exams. My general sense when presenting the material was that the students enjoyed it, especially when I could give odd/fun facts about the chosen species. But I had no hard evidence on if the students were paying attention/liked the material until the last exam. I asked a bonus question generally asking students what they enjoyed learning about in class. Many of them wrote something about a MofD species or a species specifically covered within a lecture. This seems to indicate that they at least retained that material (and hopefully other material as well!). This past semester was my first time using MofD and I do plan on trying again when I teach the course again in the Fall. I love Diana’s idea about having the students present their own OofD. With an enrollment of ~45, that is something that could be feasible in my class.

    • It’s great to hear that it worked well! It does seem like having students come up with the info would be interesting (though probably more work for you in the end). It would be neat to see what mammals they choose! I would guess some would be predictable (e.g., giant pandas), but others might be less so.

  5. I start intro biostats lectures by spending a few minutes and one slide talking about some interesting bit of statistics from everyday life. But it’s clear that it’s never going to be on an exam. And the “statistic of the day” isn’t necessarily tied to that day’s lecture topic. I don’t know how much difference it makes to anything.

  6. This semester I had students give a 2-3 minute presentation of a natural history observation (yep, they had to go outside and make an observation) and present a current event. In both cases they had to connect their observation/story to a core concept or topic we covered in lecture. My primary objective was to illustrate that the concepts we were learning explain the world they see around them, and apply to all living things, not just the textbook examples.

    My verdict was very similar to Megan’s; some students really liked it and others, not so much. However, I also made the students write a short (500-800) word summary for both the NH and CE they presented. As I read the summaries near the end of the semester, I realized they actually had learned from these exercises, even though some students clearly did not enjoy it. Still, I would not call it a resounding success, and continue to ponder ways to increase student interest. It is also not clear to me which part of this exercise was the most successful (writing, presentation, background research?), and which part could be cut without decreasing the learning experience. I wonder if an organism of the day is a better hook because it opens up the door for cool videos and stories, like Pablo’s Hippos!

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • “As I read the summaries near the end of the semester, I realized they actually had learned from these exercises, even though some students clearly did not enjoy it. ”

      Yup. “Did they learn something?” and “Did they enjoy it?” are two very different things. Indeed, sometimes learning comes at a cost to enjoyment, so that if you want them to learn you have to be ok with students disliking some aspect of the course. And maybe disliking you too.

      • @Jeremy: Yes, “did they learn something?” and “did they enjoy it?” are definitely different questions. This is something I’ve thought about in the context of student evaluations of teaching. I have a blog post in mind on the topic, but we’ll see when/if that happens.

      • Did they enjoy it vs did they learn something is a very important consideration. I teach non-majors who have to have some science for their degree. I decided a while back that enjoyment of the course IS important for this group – anything to help them appreciate biology, natural history, and science in general.

        I also require them to go outside during several labs and do some observational type labs. We’re fortunate that our campus borders a woods with a pond, some vernal pools and a small stream.

    • This is interesting to read! When I taught Ecology, I would have an “Ecology in the news” irregular feature, where I would bring up a news story that generally related to the material. Students really liked that, and I’ve wondered about bringing that back.

      • @Jeremy – learning and like not the same – I agree! An important distinction for sure.

        I should add, on the last day of the semester I asked the class why they think I asked them to do these exercises. They stared blankly for a minute or so. Then I read a couple exerts from their papers (anonymously) and pointed out that they had applied what they learned in class to systems we had never talked about. I explained how remarkable it can be to see the world through the lens of an biologist, even after one semester of training. The lightbulb definitely went on for some students at that moment. It was a tiny bit frustrating that I had to point this out, but perhaps that is my overly ambitious expectations for students.

        @Megan, I do note that a key difference between your approach and mine (include your Ecology in the News) is that in your case YOU picked the CE (or organism) and in my case I made the students do it. I am not sure which is better, but for the most part the students pick some really boring articles. When I pick the articles it is clear the students get more of the “wow” factor (e.g. Hippo rectal leeches).

  7. I lifted the idea for my Natural History of Maine class. Sometimes they were prompts for the lecture, sometimes they were just organisms I thought they needed to know that we weren’t going to see in the field. And I did test on it. But it was a bit different because learning details of key organisms is part of the curriculum for a Natural History course.

    It was a smaller class (~40) so I was able to present it as a guessing game. I would read a fact, look to see if anybody could guess, if not read another fact, and keep going until I got to really obvious facts and they guessed it. That seemed popular. And it meant I was guaranteed to start every class with student participation.

  8. In my last semester of organic chemistry (circa mid-1980’s), my instructor included Molecule of the Day. Within that mini-presentation were included not only specific O-chem associations, but also associations and applications with biochemistry, pharmacology, history, culture, and even ethnobotany (her specific research focus; medicinal photochemistry).

    Decades later, her lectures are still remembered, as well as the educational points and strategy. A fellow classmate, now a veterinarian and educator, and myself (retired biologist) continue her legacy in our own educational outreach work. Are we an average representation of long-term imprinted influence of this teaching method? Or could this possibly be representative of a different mindset of students from decades ago (pre-instant gratification, etc. that are purported traits of the ‘smartphone’ generation)?

    I would have loved to have had a genetics instructor like you back then…… 😉

    • Funny, I also remember the molecules from college organic chemistry (in late 90’s), even though we were never tested on them and my recollections are pretty vague (e.g. tryptophan, the long carbon chains in garlic that make it smell). Seems like keeping them fun and off the exams is worthwhile, and you just never know what they might hang onto!

  9. Hi Meghan, I teach an Animal Diversity class and do something similar, but a little left field before each class. Because the students get pretty overloaded with organisms during the semester, I usually begin each class, which may focus on one Phylum or several, by putting up an image of something which at first appears random, but which is relevant to the organisms we are studying. It is a bit of fun, is not something that is clearly going to be tested and gets them thInking about the group and some key features. I also try to use examples from popular culture, for obvious reasons. For example, at the start of my annelid lecture, I show an image of Dracula. That’s a fairly straight forward one, but it then gives me the chance to talk about the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the fact that he also wrote a book called ‘The lair of the White worm’: another annelid reference. Annelid-inspired literature perhaps! For the Cnidaria lecture, I put up an image of Will Smith in the movie ‘Seven pounds’ and ask them to guess the connection. They seem to enjoy it and I certainly get lots of comments during and after the class related to the sometimes quite bizarre connections I come up with. As a way of engaging the students, I think it works.

    • I like this idea! It also links with some of the pieces James Lang has been writing recently in the Chronicle on how to get class started and how to grab student’s attention right at the start of class. I think it would be tricky to come up with one for each class, but also like it would be fun to try. 🙂

  10. Meg i think OotD is a great idea but if you’re trying to drive students’ interest at the intro level id skip the testing, keep it short and go for the entertainment value. Give them 2-3 minutes a day where they can stop taking notes and relax and enjoy.

  11. Pingback: There are many pathways to becoming a great teacher | Small Pond Science

  12. I am doing “order of the day” for the first time this semester with my students in a non-majors class called “Insects and Human Society”. They present about an order of their choice for 8-minutes. My goal is that my students teach each other about different insect groups and not feel overburdened with details an entomologist might want to know, but the average person would not retain. Although we cover the basics, it is not meant to be a strict insect biology course– we spend most of the class discussing GM crops and mosquito vectored diseases. However, I don’t want them to miss out on the all the neat natural histories of the insects around them. Every once in a while during the semester I present the order of the day (like if they have an exam the next class). Also, groups meet with me the day before so that I can check on their progress. These are graded assignments and I will test them on being able to ID an insect to order based off these presentations. I have 20 students so meeting with a group once or twice a week is not a burden. Hopefully I’ll remember to comment about how it goes at the end of the semester. The first student presentation is today!

      • Near end of the semester report—

        I have been mostly disappointed in student presentations. They have all followed the basic guidelines of what information I wanted them to research/present, but with lack of enthusiasm/general display of interest/or ability to absorb the knowledge (i.e., they all read from their slides). They are non-science majors so that probably has a lot to do with it. Not sure how to change the assignment or prompt so student presentations are not…. so….boring. Any suggestions would be welcome. (I personally don’t think I am boring when I do similar presentations, but clearly I could be biased. I am excited to talk about insects all the time) Its frustrating because I wanted to utilize the students ability to teach themselves about insects, but I can tell the presenters are totally disengaged and so is the audience. I had them come to office the day before they presented to check on their progress and clear up any questions. Some groups showed general enthusiasm/interest in the organisms in my office, but it wasn’t carried over in class. Any suggestions for feedback strategies in this scenario would also be appreciated! I think in the future I will try again with biology majors.

      • That’s disappointing. Maybe change the overall prompt so that they can present on some human-insect interaction rather than on a specific order (I bet dung beetles would be good, though, use of aquatic macroinvertebrates for water quality monitoring maybe). While you and I might appreciate insects for themselves non-majors don’t do such a good job.

        I have student presentations in my non-majors biology classes but I let them choose the topic – it can be a non-mammal organism or a disease. The disease presentations are usually better and more enthusiastic. The organisms ones are a mixed bag – some like what you describe, others are good. I’ve started to pick out certain species that I know give a good presentation (peacock mantis shrimp, komodo dragons) and give them a list, that’s helping.

    • I teach students giving presentations a lot, and I explicitly and repeatedly tell my students NOT to give presentations that feel like Wikipedia pages. Fact. Fact. Fact. Fact.

      But many students fall back on this anyway.

      And they’re invariably boring talks.

      Hypothesis: “Order of the day” invites the Wiki style of talk. Fact. Fact. Fact. Fact.

      To the extent they do that, “X of the day” talks will fail to engage students because they’re dull to create, dull to present, and dull to listen to.

      Students need detailed instruction in, and practice with, creating a NARRATIVE. They need to learn to frame talks so that they include a clear problem or conflict to be resolved. It’s really, REALLY frickin’ hard. Even when I explicitly and repeatedly tell students NOT to do this, they will fall back on a “Wiki” style of presentation.

      I think this problem would be particularly tough with taxonomy and diversity. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some taxonomy and diversity, but those are subjects that are very tough to create a narrative around.

      But without that, students and instructors will both end up frustrated.

      • Your right, they did turn out like wiki articles. They were supposed to incorporate how the insects impact human society and “fun facts” but again, unless I directly steered them towards something “neat”, what they came up on their own was typically the boring stuff. I think in the future I may make it a reading assignment whereby I have the groups read an article indicating “cool” natural history or human interaction and have them present the research in the context of “whats this bug and what does it do?” Maybe that will get them to be more narrative…since they will present a research avenue (a research “story”).

    • Not sure it would work for an ‘order of the day’ assignment, but I don’t allow undergraduate students to use slides for presentations. If they do, they invariably present boring talks where they read loads of facts. I make them give the presentation without prepared slides (they can go to the board if they want). They end up being much more engaging, and have more interaction with other students.

      • Loriann: Here’s a suggestion for new prompts:

        “What problem does this taxon create?” Or,

        “What problem does this taxon solve?”

        If they have to structure the talk around a problem, they’re more likely to get to some sort of narrative.

        Hpom: I have students do talks with and without slides. My experience was that removing slides alone didn’t do a lot for improving the narrative present in students’ talks. It can certainly help students get practice at other things (which is why I do it), but as I said above: building a narrative is hard.

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