Teaching Tuesday: Incorporating primary literature into courses

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As academics, we spend a lot of time reading primary literature (although we often feel it is not enough). It is a real skill to learn to decipher how journal articles are written and how to read them effectively. One barrier is the language and learning a discipline involves learning the language. However, even if you know all the words and concepts, the format of papers is different from most everything else we might read.

From a survey I did of ecology teachers*: many think that reading primary literature is important in teaching ecology. I included answers for reading textbooks as a comparison. I wasn’t surprised that there was a bit less emphasis on textbook reading but it is obvious still a useful resource for teaching ecology. I certainly also had the impression that reading journal articles was important as an undergraduate but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

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So if you are using or want to use primary literature in an undergraduate class, how should you go about it? There are perhaps 101 ways to effectively use journal articles as teaching tools. The link is a detailed article which outlines what you can use primary literature for, how to identify good articles, challenges with using primary literature and how to overcome them and finally how to assess learning. There is tons of good advice there, so if you are looking for ways to incorporate the literature but are unsure how, it is a good place to start. Here’s a more personal account of one professor’s approach to integrating the primary literature into a class. I like the idea of building up understanding and directing the students so that their reading is productive.

I found when I was an undergrad, I basically learned how to read primary literature by doing it a lot. My first attempts felt a bit like looking through a fog. I would attend discussion sections where we’d read papers and there were a few students presenting each time. I don’t think I learned anything until I presented a paper myself. Before that, it seemed that every time I missed the main point of the paper.

So when I started running my own section for a writing intensive group of an ecology course as a teaching assistant, I realised I didn’t want my students to be stuck in the rut I had been in. We were to discuss many papers during the semester and I couldn’t wait for the end for all of them to be comfortable. I also didn’t want the focus to be on me (the section was meant to facilitate their independence), so I didn’t want to break down every paper for them. Inspired by discussions in a class about how to teach writing that I was taking, I came up with a simple plan to get students to overcome any issues they might have with discussing primary literature.

The methods were simple**:

  1. Choose recently published papers on topics that students will be able to understand without much background.
  2. Describe the general layout of a paper and how to read it (be brief to give students as much time as possible to read).
  3. Break students into pairs, and have each pair read a different paper for 10-15 minutes.
  4. Allow the pairs to discuss the paper for ~5 minutes.
  5. Give each pair 2-3 minutes to tell the class what the paper was about.

As instructors, we often discuss how to approach reading a paper but we rarely address the intimidation that many students feel when reading scientific writing. Often students get so bogged down in the details of a paper that they can’t see the forest through the trees. So I wanted students to avoid getting caught up in details they didn’t understand (e.g. statistical methods are particularly prone to this). My hope was that I could help students overcome their fears of both reading primary literature and then having something to say about it. I have to admit the first time I tried this I was terrified. I knew that I could briefly read a paper before a discussion and contribute if I needed (sometimes happened more than I’d care to admit as a grad student) but I wasn’t sure how they would do. I wasn’t asking them to describe in detail the paper and I specifically choose papers that were relatively easy to understand the main points.  I hoped this was enough. To my relief, it worked!

Student comments on this activity:

  • “An invaluable skill! Keep encouraging this. Thank you!”
  • “Was useful because it helped me think about the essential information”
  • “Speed reading will be a skill I keep-usually I spend so much time I get confused in the readings.”
  • “Great. Not only familiarized us with various ecological concepts and studies but helped with the ability to skim/read scientific papers for pertinent information.”
  • “Speed reading was helpful in understanding take away messages from papers—it is a great skill.”
  • “very useful”, “relevant and important”, “practical”

I was able to describe paper reading very briefly in the beginning of section because my students had all been exposed to reading primary literature in previous courses. If this is the first time your class has seen a journal article, maybe more effort would be needed here. At the end of class I would also take a few moments to point out what they couldn’t pick up from their quick reading. For example, I’d ask some directed questions to the teams about the articles that I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t have picked up on. My goal was to get them to be able to figure out the main story of a paper and realise that they could understand that without knowing all the details. But I didn’t want the take away message to be that fully reading a paper is never necessary. The rest of the semester we discussed many papers and they also needed to read and summarize papers working up to their final proposal so there was many opportunities to teach them about how to read and learn from the literature.

I was lucky because I had small groups of students to work with. I can see ways in which you could modify the activity for larger groups. Maybe having them share what the paper is about in smaller groups rather than the whole class, for example. Mainly I think it is important for them to have to say something about the paper. It is through being forced to quickly summarize the points that students actually learn to ignore all the detailed methodology that they tend to get caught up in. We can tell them to focus on the big picture but most of them (including me as an undergrad) won’t. By not giving the time to get bogged down, they quickly learned to look at the big picture. I was really pleased that both times my students were able to use this experience throughout the course. The discussions were more lively than I’d ever had before as a TA and I did very little talking.

In general, I think incorporating primary literature is important for learning in the sciences. Whether it is exposing students to the papers themselves or their products in an deconstructed way, efforts we make to teach students how to read the scientific literature can only expand their understanding of what science is all about. Now whether they should be able to access the literature after their degree is complete is a whole another debate…

*if you are new to Teaching Tuesdays, I’ve been doing a series of posts that have derived from a survey I distributed broadly to ecology teachers earlier this year. If you are interested in knowing more about what ecology teachers are up to, you can read more here (intro, difficulties, solutions, practice and writing).

**after doing this activity with my students in a couple of courses I remember reading something similar. I think the article was maybe in an ESA newsletter (Eco 101, perhaps) but my cursory searching hasn’t found it. Although I had thought I downloaded it, there is nothing on my hard drive either. If you know of this article, please send me the link! (Update: link, thanks Gary)

Teaching Tuesday: Writing in Ecology

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In my continuing series on teaching ecology, I am going to focus on using writing in ecology classes. The following is a lot of my opinion, some of the results related to writing from a survey of ecology teachers and a few links to writing resources that I find helpful. If you are interested in exploring past posts stemming from the survey I did of ecology teachers you can read them here (intro, difficulties, solutions, and practice).

Writing is a particular interest of mine, stemming from before I taught a ‘writing in the majors’ section of ecology as a graduate student. Students applied for this section and they attended two sections a week with me with their grades based on my section rather than exams. I was given an amazing amount of freedom to run the section and both times it was incredibly fun. I didn’t need to give lectures (they attended those with the rest) but I had my first opportunity to organise a syllabus and be in charge as a teacher. It was a wonderful experience as a graduate student. In conjunction to teaching a writing-intensive section, teaching assistants for these writing-intensive classes also took a short course on how to teach writing. I learned an incredible amount by taking the course and teaching myself. My advice to any PhDs out there is if you have the opportunity to do something like this: do it! The skills I learned teaching these sections have been invaluable to me as a teacher.

I think that learning to write and specifically scientific writing is an important skill. Of course, writing is crucial if you want to go on in science, but scientific writing is also something that students can benefit from regardless of what they ultimately do. So I’m showing my colours and biases here. I think writing is essential and if we haven’t made an effort to teach students to be better writers, than I think we have failed as university teachers. Of course, it is possible to divide the responsibility of teaching writing skills across classes in a program and there are places where it is easier to do (fewer students, for example). However, I always find it disappointing when I see upper level undergraduates that have been able to get by without being able to write well. I know that some think that their subject should take precedent over skills like writing (they should have learned that elsewhere!). Given how important the ability to write is for science careers and so many others, I think we need to have some focus on writing in every course. After all, what is the use of knowing an answer if you can’t communicate it?

Maybe we ecologists are just a communicative bunch, but 62% of the responses said that writing is essential for teaching ecology.

writingimportance

So how many use writing assignments in their courses? Well, a quarter rarely or never assigns writing research papers or proposals. So there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. It could also be that teachers are using different forms of writing assignments in their courses or make exams that emphasize writing as well as content. Being a skill, writing takes practice, so if we want students to learn to write we need to give them the opportunity to do so. I think with effective time management and teaching, writing can be incorporated to any class. For example, I’ve had students write exam questions and figure captions as very short writing assignments. Of course one of the best ways to learn how to write, as well as how ‘real writing’ works, is to have multiple drafts. I was lucky enough to be exposed to forced multiple drafts as an undergrad. Without the forced part, I wasn’t really learning how to improve my writing but that is only something I realised after the fact. For an upper-level plant ecology class I took, Elizabeth Elle had a clever way to use her time efficiently by doing not quite multiple drafts of the same work. We had a report early on in the class that was heavily commented on and then a larger paper towards the end. Even though these papers weren’t the same topics, capitalizing on the fact that students tend to make many of the same general mistakes again and again, we had to show that we had improved any issues in the final paper. Later working with Elizabeth and my masters advisor, Chris Caruso, really helped me hone my writing. I am still appreciative of their patience. It was only working through many drafts of my writing that got me to think directly about the writing, rather than just the content I needed to include. For me, writing is an on-going learning process. However, multiple drafts are time-consuming for students and teachers and only 15% of ecology teachers always use them. The trend is generally that fewer who have writing assignments also get students to do multiple drafts but the difference isn’t by much. To me this suggests that many who emphasize writing in class are also utilising feedback on drafts to help students learn the skill. I think that with effective time management and

writingassignments

So if writing is important, than how should we teach it? I’ve gathered a few sources that are mostly directed towards professional scientific writing but I think they contain lots of good tips than can be adapted to use in classes as well.

Here’s a detailed post on clear writing including a macro that detects your most verbose of sentences. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to use it, I tend towards long and involved sentences where I include lots of information that I end up needing to break up into smaller pieces in the revision process but I would probably benefit from getting those run-on sentences highlighted in red straight away. Here’s some more tips on how to write a scientific paper and on the beginning, middle and end of scientific papers. There is also this simple intro to writing for scientific journals and as mentioned by Brian McGill in his post about clear writing the Duke scientific writing site is also useful.

Writing in ecology assignments can also include summarizing existing research, so this plain language summaries post might give you some useful tips for students. It is written for scientists who want to communicate their findings more broadly but it seems that this is a good way to also assess if students really understand the literature they are reading.

Further guidance for writing detailed research proposals can be found as an example in TIEE (teaching issues and experiments in ecology). Here the students build upon data they collect and then create proposals but it also provides lots of good tips on helping students to come up with ideas and write proposals.

Finally, a list of common writing errors.

Up next week: ? I have a few more posts in mind from the survey results, including getting into the demographics and potential biases of the answers. I also haven’t included all the questions thus far and there are a few interesting things to discuss from the comments section. I want to reflect a bit more on what I’ve already written about and what might be left that is interesting to say. If you have anything in particular you want me to address, just leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can include it.

Teaching Tuesday: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

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Continuing on in my presentation of results from a survey of higher education in ecology, I am going to spend this post summarizing how teachers are teaching ecology to (mainly) undergraduates and whether they think there are barriers to changing the way they teach. If you are just coming upon this Teaching Tuesday now and want to know more, you can find a brief introduction, what ecologists find difficult to teach and effective teaching tools in past posts. (update: links should be fixed)

To follow up everyone’s favorite teaching tools, I want to dissect a little more what ecology teachers are actually doing in their courses. The majority of respondents were basing their answers on what they are doing in undergraduate courses (43%, introductory and 43% upper level).

First, I wanted to tease apart the time spent lecturing by teachers and the amount of course time students spent listening to lectures. There is a lot of evidence out there that simply listening to lectures is not an effective way to learn, but I wanted to assess how common it actually is for students to only listen to lectures. Because ecology courses can often have separate sections for labs/field work and these might be taught by different people (teaching assistants, for example), I thought it was useful to contrast the teachers’ role from the students’ perspective. Following are the answers to: What percentage of your in-class teaching time is spent lecturing? and For your students, what percentage of your course is spent listening to lectures?

lecturing listening

Indeed, students seem to generally spend less time in lectures than the teachers are lecturing, suggesting that students might be getting some of the non-lecturing time with other instructors/teaching assistants. But just to be sure, I also came at this question from another angle and asked how frequently teachers used extensive lecturing. Many do frequently use extensive lecturing and the majority think that lecturing is important or essential for teaching ecology.

lecturing2lecturing3

There is a lot of lecturing going on in ecology classes, likely because the teachers think it is important but there is also obviously more to the story. So what is happening when teachers aren’t lecturing?

We saw last week, few ecologists are using clickers in their courses but think-pair-share (basically getting students to talk to each other about an issue before a larger class discussion) was mentioned as an effective teaching tool. There are a number of people using the technique, but about half are basically not. However, I think that there might be a bit of skewing here because some might actually use similar techniques without realising there is a name for it. Although it is impossible to know specifically what kind of class discussions these include, the majority of ecology teaching does include class discussions.

TPS discussions

Further on the theme of students talking to one another, group work is common, and a similar pattern was seen in the answers for cooperative learning. Therefore, ecologists are getting their students talking and learning from one another.

groupwork

Letting students decide course content is not common but interestingly, it is not unheard of in ecology classes. Almost half of the people said students select topics at least some of the time and about a third occasionally use just-in-time teaching.

StudentTopicsJITT

I expect in line with many of our experiences, ecology instruction involves quite a bit of lecturing but this is spiced up with other activities. But say that you wanted to change the way a course was run or try a new technique, what are the biggest barriers for ecology teachers? Well, I’m sure that this won’t be a shock but it comes down to two basic things: time and money.

timeresources

But what about large class sizes and students who are resistant to change? Well, people do seem to find some issues there, but not nearly as strong as time and resources:

classsize students

What about the classic stereotype that ‘professors’ (in quotes because the survey includes  different positions involved with teaching) don’t care about teaching and just want to do research?

motivationdistraction

With the strong caveat that people who take time out of their day to answer a survey about teaching may have some strong opinions about teaching and be personally motivated to change/try new things, personal motivation is not a strong barrier to change. (Or, you could take the negative view and say that people won’t admit that it is.) Probably related to the time issue, distraction from research is seen as a stronger barrier to change than personal motivation. Time invested in one activity must come from somewhere, thus a somewhat classic tug-of-war between teaching and research can occur. However, if people had more access to the logistics of trying a new technique and knew better how to make that efficient, than perhaps changing teaching styles/techniques wouldn’t be such a time sink. As a commenter on last week’s post said, maybe we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel for every course but instead can learn from one another.

knowledge training

But here is the real kicker: if teaching effort is not appreciated or rewarded, than it becomes harder to put those activities to the top of your list. effort

Of course, there is a bit of circularity here. If teaching is appreciated by your department/university, than they will likely also invest in ways to create time and resources, including training, for their teachers. But for those with limited time, resources and appreciation, it is not surprising that people continue to teach as they have in the past. I definitely got a taste of this with a course I was asked to teach. Everything happened fairly last minute with changes to the course leadership and teachers (including me). Given that I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, I generally followed the previous lectures and activities given in the course. Now I am looking for ways to improve my section of the class but of course, it would take up much less of my time if I just retaught the way I (and those before me) have done before.

Despite some of these challenges to change, if this survey is any indication, ecology teachers are doing some innovative things with their classes.

Up next week (if I can manage to get some time to write surrounding the pollination conference I’m attending): Writing in ecology.

Teaching Tuesday: teaching tools ecologists find effective

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As an antidote to last weeks challenges to teaching ecology, here I’ve collected all the responses to the question: What teaching tools do you find most effective in ecology courses? As before, text in italics is quoted from responses.

It was somewhat heartening to me that the most common effective teaching tool used by ecologists is the outdoors. Field trips were mentioned 55 times as the best way to teach ecology and they are also frequently used in courses.

field trips 2field trips

Now I know that all ecology isn’t field-based but getting outside seems to be a good way to inspire students and getting them thinking about the world around them in a different way. On this general theme, laboratory exercises and hands-on-activities were also frequently mentioned. There were also a couple mentions of using videos as an effective teaching tool and if you are thinking about incorporating videos into your classroom you should stop right now and head over to Dynamic Ecology. There you will find an amazing list complied by Meg Duffy of all sorts of ecology/evolution videos handily categorized by subject. Videos can be also be a way of “getting outside” in courses where this is tough to do by giving real world examples of ecological phenomena.

 A second theme to emerge was “active learning” techniques. Active learning basically refers to any technique that involves a more student-centered approach than straight lectures. In part, the involvement of labs and field exercises for ecology courses and the importance that most place on these activities already adds active learning to an ecology course. However, there was this little gem of a comment to remind us that our job as teachers is to create an integrated course with a purpose to the various activities: Making sure lecture and lab are well integrated. But it also seems that ecologists are finding it useful to break-up or replace lectures with active learning activities like clicker questions, think-pair-share, and the like.

Clickers—some love them, some do not and it seems that most ecologists do not use them. Meg Duffy also has a pair of posts on why she uses clickers in her courses (Part 1 and Part 2) with some links to pedagogy behind them (found in part 1). As you can see below, Meg is quite the maverick in the field (only 12% use clickers sometimes to always) but there is a growing acknowledgment that these kinds of teaching tools can be highly effective for teaching (e.g. this article in Science is behind a paywall but you can listen to the podcast for free). And here’s a glowing account of clickers in science classrooms. Another suggested TopHat, which is a platform where you can use cellphones, computers or tablets instead of buying a particular clicker system. But, of course, it is important to remember that it is all about the questions you ask using clickers and that to be effective these need to be thoughtful. Unfortunately, we are at the stage where most of us aren’t using clickers, so there is not a resource of questions that you can modify for your course.

clickers

I also want to share this anecdote of one person’s experiment with how to change up a lecture. It highlights some of the pluses of engaging students during lecture time—it can be more fun, tell you about where the student’s understanding is at and demonstrate to the students what they do and do not know. As the author suggests, there are probably many ways that this kind of engagement can be involved but the game show style seemed like a fun idea. I find that it’s easy for students to sit in lecture and think they understand a concept without knowing that they don’t really get it. This year I started having 3 students at a time come up to the board and I’d ask them a question (e.g. draw a graph of productivity and how it would be influenced by different levels of disturbance). They could get help from their “fans” behind them (1 student from the left, 1 center and 1 right were chosen so their audience behind them was their fan base) so there wasn’t so much pressure on the selected students up front. It was actually a great way for me to find out what they knew. For instance, the first time I did it I learned that nobody in the class knew how to draw standard error bars… If I had just drawn it, I think they’d all just nod and think “oh yeah, I knew that” but when they were pressured to stand up and do it themselves, even with help from the fans, nobody could do it. It showed me that I had a different expectation of what they knew than what they did know (I just assumed everyone in their Junior year of college would know how to draw standard errors). Later in the class I asked them a density dependent question and they all got it in under 10 seconds – I was so surprised! I thought that one would stump them. I think the same thing can be done with clickers, I just haven’t taken the time to figure out how to get clickers to work in my class (and frankly the game-show environment of the 3 contestants up front is sort of a fun way to break up the monotony of a lecture.

In direct contrast, there was the following comment: I have tried lots of alternative techniques but students like straight lecture the best. I think there is a real issue here; whatever the teaching tool or technique you use, you need to make it work for you. We are all different in our teaching styles and there is no one solution fits all. And not to pick on this one commenter, there are a number of potential reasons for this problem. It might be that the teacher likes to lecture best and therefore puts more effort into that activity, stacking the cards for lecturing. Or it might be that they never got training on how to make the alternative techniques they’ve tried effective. Whatever the reason, this comment also made me ponder whether we should care what students like best. Of course it is nice (and sometimes very important) to get back good student evaluations of your teaching and course. However, if we are in the business of teaching and care about it, than we should be more concerned with whether students learn than how much they liked how they were taught.

Discussions can be a useful way to get students thinking about the material and gaging how well it is understood. Think-pair-share is a basic technique where students first think about a question, then discuss with their partner/neighbour and then the results of these discussions are shared with the class. I suspect even the person who commented that they didn’t know what this was, has some idea of it in practice. But even general class discussions were frequently mentioned as useful to teaching ecology.

Flipped classes are an approach where students learn content at home (via video lectures, reading, etc) and do “homework” in the classroom. Class time is then used to interact with the instructor and fellow students, rather than passively listen to lectures. One person answered by saying that they wanted to do this more and it is what I imagine you’d see in Terry’s classes. I plan to do some more of this next spring for my Ecological Methods course. I have been slowly shifting from the lectures that were given in the past in this course to more active techniques, in part because lectures on things like quadrat size and shape tend to be dry for both the students and me.

Ecology is a science, and many suggested that the best way for students to learn is by doing. Everything from reading primary literature to designing experiments to writing proposals to conducting studies/experiments to analyzing data to presenting findings, basically teachable versions of what ‘real’ ecologists do was suggested as a useful way to teach ecology. I hope that every student walks away from their ecology courses at least knowing how scientists study ecology.

Finally, a number of people suggested particular tools or sites that they find useful.

TIEE, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, was brought up twice as an effective teaching tool and I can personally second the use. Last year, I revamped the diversity section of the course I am involved with teaching (Ecological Methods). Instead of using a made-up dataset that had been used in previous years, I tried the lab on diversity in tall grass prairie. Students really appreciated being able to relate the diversity estimates to real data and I think it was a useful way to approach the subject before they collected their own data.

Simulations of ecological processes are an alternative to running labs and field exercises. SimUText got this this endorsement “Love it!” and the associated EcoBeaker was also recommended. Judging from the answers to the question: “What tools would you like to be more available for use in teaching ecology?” cheap affective computer simulations are one of the top requests. Clearly there is a desire to use these tools, especially as resources for courses diminish and lab/field components seem to be under increasing pressure.

Although directed at high school students, one person suggested this site for good activities for non-majors. When I was a TA for a biology major required evolution course, we also used the activity for demonstrating natural selection. So in some contexts these might also work for entry-level majors courses.

And then there was this: chalk (seriously). There is definitely something to be said for writing things out for students to follow your process.

This is a class I would like to attend: I prepare 2-5 slides/lecture about news stories or papers I’ve read since the last lecture that are relevant to the course, to make the point with the students that what they’re learning has relevance to the rest of their lives, and that my goal is to make them educated voters, citizens, taxpayers. A high goal but one I certainly hope that we can achieve through our teaching.

Next week: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

Teaching Tuesday: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

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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.

Teaching Tuesdays

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by Amy Parachnowitsch

This isn’t a real post but rather a heads up for the coming weeks.

As a part of a course on scholarly teaching I took last winter, I began to think more deeply about teaching styles and techniques. I was finding a stark contrast between what I was discovering about effective teaching and learning and the experiences I had as a student or a part of the teaching team. So for my project in the course, I decided to ask ecologists about how they were teaching and why. I created a survey (link still active here if you want to add your voice: teaching survey) and sent it to as many ecologists as I could reach through various list serves, facebook and twitter. I summarized a portion of the results (from Swedes) for a teaching conference at my university in the spring but haven’t had the chance to share the dataset in its entirety with the ecology community and especially those that so kindly took the time to answer the survey. This blog seems to be the perfect venue to share the results. And so I begin a series called Teaching Tuesdays. Over the coming weeks I will share the insights into ecology teaching and practice I’ve gleaned from the survey. Hopefully I will succeed in summarizing the data into some digestible chunks.

Before I start the series, I want to acknowledge all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules to fill in the questionnaire. I truly appreciate the generosity of the ecological community. Without you this would not be possible!

Next week: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

Interviewing for a faculty position in Sweden

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by Amy Parachnowitsch

Last week I interviewed for a faculty position in Sweden. Given that it is my second of such interviews and that the process has had me fairly distracted me, I thought I would write about how it works. This might be of interest to those applying for these kinds of jobs or as a comparison to other systems. I was certainly surprised by the process when I first applied because it was such a stark contrast to what I expected from North American hiring.

Applying: First, in my experience applying for a position in Sweden takes much longer to put together than a North American tenure track job. The application process is all on-line with various attachments, rules, and instructions. The general requirements are similar; you need to present your CV including teaching experience, publications (ten are attached), research plan and teaching philosophy. However, how these pieces fit into the various components can be different. The devil is in the details. For example, in my recent application there were no fewer than three places that I was to enter something about students I have supervised. It was challenging to know exactly how these should differ as well. Further, teaching was broken into experience/merits, supervision and a self-reflection on the role of a teacher (all separate sections). There was also a section where you were to describe your personality. This also came back in the interview process where all candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word. Quick, try to answer that one without dwelling on the positives and negatives of any given word too much (I answered optimistic). Another big difference in the application process is that letters of recommendation are not requested, only contact information (perhaps to avoid wasting people’s time?). Publications are of course in your CV and you attach 10 publications but you also need to describe your role in all publications you attach and your motivation for choosing those 10. After you send in your application, you wait, but we (the applicants) were given a timeline of when the decision about interviews would be conducted shortly (~one week) after the closing date. Thus you know precisely how long to wait (about three months). Unlike North American jobs where it is sometimes unclear what stage the search is in, all the applicants receive the information at the same time.

The interview/review committee: in an effort to control nepotism in Sweden because it is a pretty small country, departments do not actually decide who is going to be hired, even for permanent/tenured positions. The idea seems to be that they want the best person for the job and that an independent panel can assess that. It is also so that people can be judged fairly. At a certain point it seems difficult to do this and tough when some candidates are known in the department (with so few universities, it is not uncommon for people to have done their PhDs or post docs in a department they are applying to). So although I haven’t seen the interview process from the other side, my impression is that although fit seems to be considered, no one making the decision has a vested interest in who is hired. Depending on the university the committee can be from across sciences or a more narrow group (within biology, for example). Externals are brought in to review all the candidates first and determine the five (at least in both of my experiences) who are invited to interview. For my non-tenured position there was one external reviewer, two for the tenure-track position. The external reviewers do not have a final vote for the candidates but inform the decision. There are also student representatives on the board and others representing the union, for example. So far, one interview brought in the external reviewer for the day while the other did not.

The interview: The interview is short, over the course of a single day, with all five people interviewing on the same day. The interviews are back–to-back (with coffee breaks (fika) and lunch, of course! This is Sweden after all). You have a short presentation of your work. Seriously short—in which you should discuss your research program, short and long term goals and demonstrate your teaching abilities (“The candidates are requested to prepare a 20-minute presentation of their research program and plans for the future, emphasizing both short- and long-term goals. This is an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate their teaching skills”). Yeah. My experience has been 15 mins for the non-tenured position, 20 for the tenured (but maybe a difference of the universities rather than the position type). In the interview for my current position, the talk was only for the committee and was immediately followed by a ~30 min interview. The one I just did had a 20 min talk followed by 5 min of questions; it was open to the public but in practice was mainly attended by the committee. The interview for the tenured position was in the afternoon for 45 mins. Fairness is taken very seriously here so they keep to the time. It seems that the same basic questions are asked to all candidates with some variation. Mostly these questions are not about your science but about everything ranging from teaching, conflict resolution, how do you see yourself in the department, etc.  Following all talks and interviews, the committee sits down and ranks the five candidates.

The day: unlike North America, you don’t end up meeting with people in the department in an official way. Both my visits included a tour of the department and meeting with the department head but the people who you meet will not influence the decision or even have an opportunity to do so. It also means that you often meet the other candidates. This last interview was even strange because I collaborate with two of my fellow interviewees. Like I said, Sweden is a small country. So all the candidates had a joint lunch together with a few people from the department.

The wait: Waiting for an answer is also short. Generally the committee decides on the day and they will let you know within the week (<24hrs for one and <48 for the other). Unlike in North America, the process is transparent. So you receive the comments by the external reviewers (this is for all the candidates that apply) and all candidates are informed of who is invited for the interview and then they also receive the final ranking of the interviewees. So you immediately know not only whether you got the position but also where you rank compared to other candidates. All the other candidates also know this about you. So that can be a little disconcerting. However, despite being transparent, you really have little idea about why you are ranked as you are. The external reviews reflect two opinions but don’t tell you how the committee considered them. As for the final assessment, there was no real indication of why they made the final choice. So similar to my impressions for NA position, you are left to wonder why you weren’t given the job and whether or not you should have done something differently.

I was the top choice in my current position (few people refuse offers here, maybe because there are so few) and I was down at the bottom for the latest (they ranked the top three). Tough to know why and now it is time to lick my wounds, reflect on what I have learned, and get back to work. I’m grateful for two more years of salary to do just that.