Assignments with benefits – materially rewarding student work

One of the banes (and there have been a few) of my life as an academic, has been the necessity (or is it?) of having to assess student achievement and attainment using exams, tests, essays, quizzes, talks, posters, whatever. I very early on in my academic career decided that students on my undergraduate and postgraduate modules, should not just be tested for memory, knowledge, analysis, evaluation and synthesis but in skills that at Imperial College, London, in the early 1990s were hardly, if ever, mentioned. Yes, you guessed it, posters, talks, debates and group working. These all being things that when I was an undergraduate we received absolutely no training in at all. My final year module in Applied Ecology ran for a solid five weeks in the run-up to the end of the Christmas term. I had a dedicated base room where we could store materials and was not used by anyone else during the module.  In other words, I could timetable independently of the central system – a great boon. As members of the British Ecological Society will know, the week before Christmas heralds the fantastic BES Annual General Meeting, so it was a no-brainer, I would build the coursework part of the assessment for my Applied Ecology module around a mini ‘BES Christmas Meeting’. Why not? It is all part of the scientific process anyway😊

The Mini Conference

I decided that for the actual conference, the students would produce a poster, based on a recently published real paper of their choice, and a talk, which could also be based on the same paper.  Their brief was to adopt the identity of the author and speak and present as that individual.  I also ran a poster making and how to give a talk workshop so that the students knew what was expected from them.  I was, as it turns out, the only module leader in the Department doing this!  I set aside specific slots in the timetable when a dedicated space was available for me and the students to be together for three hours a week where they could work on these and consult me if they came across any problems.

A couple of excerpts from the 1997 Applied Ecology mini-conference – some of you may recognise at least three names that aren’t mine 😊 You may also notice that their interests have changed since then.

The Research Syndicate

The other skill that final year students need to acquire, is how to write scientifically, both in terms of publishing and for their final year projects.

As I have mentioned before, I have huge amounts of unanalysed data which I am always trying to donate to people with more time and modern statistical expertise than me to knock into publication shape, e.g. aphid overwintering, effects of long term herbivory on bird cherry trees, and flowering patterns in sycamore.   For this I provided all the raw data files, the methods and materials so that the students could get a real feel for what it was all about and which data set they would like to analyse.  They had free choice of the data sets and could also choose how much of it to analyse to tell their stories. I then provided five training sessions about scientific paper writing; why we do it, what it is meant to achieve and how papers are structured and read, plus a little rant about the tyranny of impact factors! They were also given five afternoons of access to R training via my PhD students. These were group sessions and I encouraged the students to discuss their approaches between them – after all, as scientists we work in groups.  The output, which was independently done, was a ‘scientific paper’.  The best of which I would help knock into shape for publication to a real journal (see reference list for a few examples).

The Class Debate

Running alongside everything else was the class debate.  You might think that this was a busy module, but the whole point of this module was to get the students to interact – I was, and am not a great believer in the ‘jaw, jaw, jaw’ approach to teaching, especially to final year students.  This exercise involved me stetting a scenario, (my favourite is the one illustrated), and allocating named characters to each student. These ranged from local shop owners, RSPB Wardens, Wildlife Trust employees, Forestry Commission employees, Commercial foresters, Whisky distillery owners, Garden Centre Owners, university academics, ecologists, fishers, local residents (occupations chosen by the student) and, of course, the owner of the peat extraction company and their PR Officer.  I then let the students form alliances and come up with their strategies for the Public Inquiry, for which I allowed a whole day.  Each student produced a short essay as part of their coursework and I allocated extra marks for each contribution made during the debate which I added to their essay marks.

My last ever class debate at Imperial – a sad day, but all good things come to an end.

A few of the characters – anyone recognise the suave city gent in the centre?

The formal part of the course ended with the mini-conference where all the students spoke and some were involved as session chairs. Posters were judged by students and staff as were the talks.  At the end of the two-day conference it was prize giving time.  Top papers, talks, posters and essays were all given copies of books that I thought would be of interest, (Stephen Jay Gould featured a lot), runners up were given book tokens and third placers a bag of chocolate coins (Christmas you know).  Incidentally all winners were given a huge chocolate medal 😊 Plus the students had all their course work marks to take away with them for Christmas. Win-win all round.

Something a little bit different – Cash for assignments – The Antenna article

For our MSc students I thought that it would be nice, that as well as learning a new skill, writing for a general audience, they had the opportunity to be both published and earn a little bit of cash to help pay their way though the course.  Luckily, a solution was close to hand, the Royal Entomological Society, Student Essay Awards.  Even more fortuitously, the submission date for both the coursework and the essay award were very close together.  I provided students with past essay winners and a brief session on the different approaches one could take, from short pieces of fiction, to a ‘news item’, to a factual ‘did you know piece’.  The world was pretty much their oyster. So again, a nice way to make coursework fun.  You will, if you have clicked on the link, seen that we here at Harper Adams University have done quite well over the years.  I also recommend that you spend a few minutes reading some of the winning essays – they are truly wonderful.

Post script

The whole exercise was also very rewarding for me. I got to really know the students and felt that I had done some very useful mentoring. Decades later, I am still in touch with many of the students, including many who are no longer in academia. I was also privileged to win a couple of teaching awards (just certificates, no cash), on the back of this, so definitely worth the effort.

References

Butler, J., Garratt, M.P.D. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Fertilisers and insect herbivores: a meta-analysis. Annals of Applied Biology, 161, 223-233.

Goodwin, C., Keep, B. & Leather, S.R. (2017) Habitat selection and tree species richness of roundabouts: effects on site selection and the prevalence of arboreal caterpillars. Urban Ecosystems, 19, 889-895.

Leahy, M.J.A., Oliver, T.H. & Leather, S.R. (2007) Feeding behaviour of the black pine beetle, Hylastes ater (Coleoptera: Scolytidae). Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 9, 115-124.

Leather, S.R., Ahmed, S.I. & Hogan, L. (1994) Adult feeding preferences of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae). European Journal of Entomology, 91, 385-389.

Leather, S.R., Small, A.A. & Bogh, S. (1995) Seasonal variation in local abundance of adults of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis L. Journal of Applied Entomology, 119, 511-513.

Leather, S.R., Fellowes, M.D.E., Hayman, G.R.F. & Maxen, J.S. (1997) The influence of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) provenance on the development and survival of larvae of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Bulletin of Entomological Research, 87, 75-80.

Leather, S.R., Beare, J.A., Cooke, R.C.A. & Fellowes, M.D.E. (1998) Are differences in life history parameters of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea modified by host plant quality or gender? Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 87, 237-243.

8 Comments

Filed under Teaching matters

8 responses to “Assignments with benefits – materially rewarding student work

  1. Sounds like you were (are?) a great/fun teacher. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how most of the standard curriculum in even the highest credited universities hardly ever prepares you for writing a real paper

    Liked by 1 person

    • , and that most PhDs, therefore, are struggling greatly at this. Although I have had a lot of practical skill training at Wageningen university, I have never, for instance, written a report, based on journal guidelines. To be honest, the statistical curriculum I had was laughable. I basically had to figure it all out from scratch at the start of my PhD (thank God for Crawley’s R Book).

      I now try to keep these things in mind in my own teaching, and I will certainly draw some inspiration from this post – thanks for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin Pareja

    Hi Simon,
    Fantastic piece! I remember every exercise from the applied ecology course! I worked on the sycamore aphid dataset with Joe Hughes, and I presented a poster and a talk on the ecology of intercropping. That was 1998, so the year after the excerpts you posted. I also remember the debate, more vaguely, but the peat debate does ring a bell.
    Biology had just moved in to the Fleming building that summer, so it was the first term in the new building.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tim Diekötter

    Dear Simon,

    Reading your text, brings up very good memories of my ERASMUS year at IC in 1997! It was a very good time!
    I am still in academia and I took on many of your great ideas to spice up my own teaching. Thank you very much for your enthusiasm in teaching and the early introduction to science!
    Best wishes,
    Tim

    P.S. I think, the mini-conference was right after an exam day – I remember a clasemate’s (who was still exhaling post-exam party aftermaths) hilarious question, whether the flight ability of Santa Claus’s reindeers, could possibly be a consequence of the inbreeding in this animal, the speaker had just been presenting on.

    Liked by 1 person

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