Teaching Tuesday: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?


by Amy Parachnowitsch

Today I begin in earnest a series stemming from results of a teaching survey I sent to higher education people teaching ecology (introduction here). In describing the results, I decided that the best place to start was in the middle. In later posts I will include more information on the analyzable data that came from the survey and, although it is definitely interesting, some of the most revealing information was found in the free-form answers. So to kick off the series, I summarize what people find most challenging to teach and in following weeks we’ll explore some of the tools and techniques people use to overcome these challenges.

The exact question that the following responses answered: What ecological concepts do you find are commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach? Here I am pulling together all of the verbal responses to the question (was a voluntary question answered by 138/220); anything in italics is quoted from individual response.

I’m sure it is no surprise that mathematical concepts ranked high on people’s minds as a difficult/misunderstood component of teaching ecology. Statistics and modeling (with many mentions Lotka-Volterra) figured prominently in the answers. Roughly 45 responses involved mathematical/statistical concepts suggesting the prevalence of the issue. As a particular component of statistics one person mention the philosophy of null hypotheses and the general concepts of variability, uncertainly and probability can be problematic. Probability is also a fundamentally misunderstood concept in terms of risk and risk assessment or genetic drift/evolution. And more basically, data interpretation is a stumbling block for many.

The following quotes nicely summarize the general feeling that many have about the resistance to math:

  • Anything involving mathematics, which many biology students consider an unfair imposition. Students who like science but not math seem to believe that by choosing a biology program they have entered into some unspoken pact whereby they will not have to look at equations again. With this Theoretical ecology comes up against a brick wall (and an enduring one – how many theoretical ecologists do you know that actually came through a biology stream?).
  • My students struggle with anything that involves even algebra. They come from high school thinking ecology is all about memorizing biomes and are not ready for the quantitative aspects of ecology.
  • anything involving math and modeling; students want to solve equations rather than understand them
  • And about pre-med students: they think that Ecology is a class where you think about your feelings about trees and flowers

But it isn’t only about the math itself. As three further responses suggest, we also have a hard time getting students to translate the statistical/mathematical concepts to anything ecological. One specifically referred to understanding statistical interactions in ecological terms, another talked about the difficulty of getting students to relate graphical interpretations to the underlying ecology and another mentioned the difficulty of relating models to ecology. These problems can than translate into students (in this case, senior undergraduates) that still struggle when discussing primary literature and relating it to common ecological concepts.

So we as teachers are up against the perception that ecology is easy and about facts that can be easily memorized. That means that students are not only challenged by the mathematical concepts presented to them but can be resistant to learning them as well. As an undergraduate I think I came into my first ecology classes with a similar perception, although honestly it is tough to reconstruct how I thought then. But I do distinctly I remember my first mid-term exam in Animal Ecology with Larry Dill at Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada). It was a transformative moment for me—all of a sudden I was asked to think and understand, rather than memorize. It was incredible and tough. I can’t remember how I did on that exam but I remember a stern talking to the class by Larry afterwards. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure this was a practised speech that he gave almost every time he taught. This course (followed by those taught by some other great people at SFU) was the beginning of me understanding what ecology was really about. For me, I never looked back, but our challenge as teachers is to get all our students to understand what ecology (and science in general) is, whether or not this turns into a life-long pursuit.

From a more topic centered approach, biodiversity, along with its alpha, beta and gamma types, was frequently mentioned. Competition and species/trophic interactions, population dynamics/growth, life tables, and the niche where also mentioned more than once. Nutrient cycling is a difficult subject, perhaps because it is drier than other aspects of ecology and requires memorization (as was mentioned by two commenters). So some students seem to want to only memorize facts rather than understand, but not when it comes to the nutrient cycle or taxonomy (another person’s comment). But at a basic level, students are misunderstanding basic concepts. For example, where organisms get their energy and the idea that ALL living things respire and produce CO2. So photosynthesis and respiration also showed up in the answers. Overcoming the concept that there is a balance in nature and therefore what ecosystems are and are not is also challenging. For myself, growing up in a hippy, back-to-the-land, part of Nova Scotia certainly coloured my perception of things like herbal medicine. Along the way, I had to face my own inconsistencies and now when I’m visiting old family friends, I have to decide when to get into those discussions about homeopathy or the like. But these kinds of attitudes are not unique and you don’t have to be surrounded by hippies to have them. Knowing whether these ideas are prevalent in your students can only increase your ability to reach them.

There was two topics that were consistently brought up that maybe difficult to understand/teach in and of themselves but can also be political issues: climate change (11) and evolution (19).

For those students who think that they can avoid evolution in ecology classes, the number of responses involving evolution suggests otherwise. Four responses were “natural selection” and fifteen involved evolution/genetic drift/adaptation/population genetics. Of course as an evolutionary ecologist, I’m excited to see that many are including evolutionary concepts in their ecology courses. However, it is a challenge that so many find this difficult both to understand (student’s perspective) and to teach. I am guessing that cultural context plays a role in the difficulty of teaching evolution as expressed in one response: evolution is difficult to teach without being seen as preachy or offensive. Interestingly, not all comments that suggest teaching evolution is challenging/misunderstood came from that large country with issues of teaching evolution in schools, highlighting that evolution can be a difficult subject in its own right. Further, the connections between ecology and evolution are often misunderstood such as the fact that species interactions evolve as well as the relationship and scale of ecological and evolutionary processes.

Teaching is an interaction in itself. Therefore the difficulties can come from either side of the equation. Many responses spoke of student-centered issues that impact learning.

  • I find the human-centric and animal-centric bias among our students to be a barrier to learning.
  • I feel that some simply have developed effective study skills and some have not.  As always, the latter seem to have trouble “knowing what they don’t know” – they feel as though they have mastered content when they really haven’t.
  • And on not doing homework: Many students do not read the assigned reading which also limits their learning. And from another: Difficult to teach: Discussion seminar when students haven’t read the literature.
  • Math is not the only thing student’s think they can avoid in Biology: scientific report writing (Students often take Biology as they do not want to write).

But others acknowledged their own role in the teaching equation:

  • the less well I personally know an ecological concept, the harder it is to teach.
  • I find diversity patterns especially hard to get across, partly because I have trouble myself linking them to biology.

Since every class is a unique combination of students and teacher this likely plays into why challenges vary from year to year.

As a counter to all the individual topics people have difficulty teaching: No individual concept is commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach in my opinion, but making connections across concepts is difficult for students and is challenging to teach. These two further comments speak to the complexity of teaching ecology: anything complex and all complex and therefore counter-intuitive issues, which, however, are quite common in ecology.

I want to note that not everyone had a particular difficulty and there were a few answers that said as much, as well as the many who chose not to answer. The wording of this self-assessment was amusing to me: misunderstood = evolution; difficult to teach = none. Sometimes it would be nice to have that kind of confidence but I certainly find some subjects more challenging to teach than others. And it seems that I am not alone.

So the moral of this story is that there is no magic bullet concept that once solved will make all ecology teaching smooth sailing. No surprise there. Although I wasn’t surprised by the diversity of answers to this question, seeing what they were has been very interesting. It seems many of us have a lot of challenges when teaching ecology, both from our students and ourselves. I hope these challenges don’t set a negative tone to the series and in future posts I will explore how ecology teachers overcome these hurdles.

Up next week: effective teaching tools in ecology.

Ps. After I have completed these posts, I will provide a link to the data for anyone interested in accessing it.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Tuesday: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

  1. For a supportive anecdote, I spent most of my undergrad years assuming that I, as a biology major, would not have to take a math class ever again. I think some of this was because we were not required to take any math as biology majors, but mostly came from the misconception that math wasn’t important in biology, and especially in ecology. I’m not sure where this misconception came from, and I wish someone had told me how wrong I was sooner. I missed taking math classes and feel really behind now because I haven’t taken any college level courses besides Calc I. I think the ball is in the court of introductory biology instructors to tell (and show) students, right away, how important mathematics is in biology.

  2. Great discussion on math in ecology and glad you linked it here! Wilson’s stance certainly doesn’t help the pre/misconception that students can avoid math in ecology. Although I’m not sure how many undergraduates are exposed to him.

  3. As an ecology student, I have to say that evolution was the most contentious concept for me to learn. Not because I thought it was difficult, or because I am a Christian and believe evolution happened, but because my teacher actually was belittling and preachy about those who oppose it. I felt it was inappropriate and resulted in an uncomfortable class, but I wonder how many of my peers felt similarly.

Comments are closed.