Elementary, Dear Watson

Dr Daniele Colombaroli, Department of Geography

College Excellence Teaching Prize 2019


Biogeography (GG2043) is an UG Geography course for 2nd year students focusing on the understanding of the key mechanisms underlying the distribution of species on Earth, over multi-temporal and spatial scales. Final monitoring from previous years revealed that students often struggle with the large breadth of topics and skills taught, and a lack of more practical sessions. Hence, I designed a novel and creative form of student participation based on a fictional crime scene that combines Biogeography themes and Forensic Science. This innovative approach is conceived to consolidate (and simplify) the learning process, and to foster student engagement.


Game design and training objectives

The practical session starts with the description of a fictional Crime Scene: the disappearance of the iconic “Man proposes, God disposes” from the Picture Gallery. Several botanical evidences are found at the crime scene, and students are split in to investigating teams to analyse and identify the plant material with the use of microscopes. Training objectives are directly inspired by Forensic Palynology methods: forensic scientists use botanical evidence such as plant macrofossils and pollen or crime scene reconstruction (Mildenhall 2006). In a progressive difficulty level, students use online plant distribution maps to match the identified plant material with the provenance of eight fictional characters that are suspected for the theft (see figure below). A set of rules for solving the case include: a limited time for analysing the evidence, in-group discussions for debriefing, and a unique solution to the case. The group that first solves the case wins the competition.



Solving the case: learning outcomes

The session ends with a plenary discussion, and students reflect on the fundamental differences between concrete evidence and clues (e.g. each suspect’s alibi), and on alternative analytical approaches (soil analyses, DNA) that could further strengthen their inferences. In a separate session (Term 2) students then have the chance to develop their own Forensic case-studies, inspired by real forensic investigations (“Ötzi” the Ice man mummy from the Bronze Age), or more fictional stories from the literature.

In this cooperative problem solving approach the learning experience is boosted with creativity, and students can demonstrate a full range of cognitive learning outcomes ( Kraiger 1993) including: 1) skill-based (pollen and macrofossils identification); 2) “declarative” knowledge (the biogeography of plants taught in the course); 3) “procedural” knowledge (the use of online maps to define species distribution ranges) 4) “strategic knowledge” (elements of abstraction and unexpected relationship between actors and a biogeographical area).


Beneficial effects

The beneficial effects of instructional games and cooperative problem solving for enhancing student learning have been highlighted in many studies (for a review: Randel 1992). The pedagogic rationale is grounded in problem-based learning process requiring creative approaches, and in the social interaction that promote motivation, task involvement and group cohesiveness through competition (Garris 2002 Leach 2006)., Specifically, 3 key aspects highlight the added value for learning in GG2043:

1) The opportunity to revise class material and to find the conceptual links between topics (plant taxonomy, species distribution ranges). Compared to a conventional lecture, immediate feedback also enhances confidence in students (Garris 2002).

2) Development of analytical skills (identification of plant material) and scientific reasoning, i.e. inductive (microscope analyses) and deductive reasoning (matching distribution maps to solve the case).

3) Students take an active role in their learning: best case studies developed by students can be turned into new forensic group games, bringing student contribution directly into teaching.

Oblinger (2003) noted that Millennials (and post-millennials) exhibit learning preferences on teamwork, practical activities, and technology. In this sense, the integration of online maps and group laboratory work in a mystery game can evoke curiosity (a driver of learning, Garris 2002), and thus reach these generations better.



In a word-cloud student feedback (see figure below), students highlighted the “interesting, fun and engaging” aspects of this exercise, but also its “interactive, innovative and thought-provoking” roles, again emphasizing the potential of group gaming as an alternative pedagogical approach to increase science interest among students.





Garris R, Ahlers R and Driskell JE (2002) Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming, 33 (4), 441-467,

Kraiger K, Ford JK and Salas E (1993). Application of cognitive, skill-based, and affective theories of learning outcomes to new methods of training evaluation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 311-328.

Leach GJ and Sugarman TS (2005) Play to win! Using games in library instruction to enhance student learning. Research Strategies 20 (3), 191-203,

Mildenhall DC, Wiltshire PEJ, Bryant VM (2006) Forensic palynology: Why do it and how it works. Forensic Science International 163 (2006) 163–172

Oblinger D (2003). Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials: Understanding the new students. EDUCAUSE Review,38(4), 36–45.

Randel J, Morris B, Wetzel C and Whitehill B. (1992). The effectiveness of games for educational purposes: A review of recent research. Simulation & Gaming, 23, 261-276.

See other case studies on our Seminars and workshops page