Our teaching innovation involves the introduction of a field journal assessment in combination with a Facebook group to the Practical Field Ecology course in 2016. This course has been previously taught over two weeks in the second half of May with an exam on the last day of the course. While the course was popular, a common complaint from the students was that it was too intense and there was not enough time to digest the material learned and to revise for the exam.
In response to these comments we changed the schedule of the course in 2016 by moving the exam to the 1st day of the autumn term, thus leaving the whole summer for students to revise and practice the principles learned during the course. While this change has effectively addressed students’ concerns, it raised new challenges as students are off campus over the summer and have no direct contact with each other or the teaching staff. Therefore, we have introduced two new elements to the course – a field journal and a closed (private) Facebook group.
Example of the field journal entry:
The aims of this innovation were:
(1) to keep students motivated and engaged with the course over the summer,
(2) to provide them with an effective and supportive online learning environment while they are off campus,
(3) to allow them to practice the sampling techniques and identification skills learned during the taught part of course.
These skills are very important for student employability but are currently in decline. While fieldwork itself can actively engage and encourage students with a variety of learning styles by providing a novel learning environment, without the field journal and Facebook group in combination it would have been challenging to keep all of the students engaged in this activity throughout the summer.
On the last day of the taught part of the course in May, students were given instructions on the format of the field journal and marking criteria for the journal were explained. In order to encourage students to use the Facebook group we allocated two out of total of 15 marks for the field journal to the use of social media and sharing observations with other students on Facebook. The Facebook group was set up before the start of the intensive two week course, where it was primarily used to pass information to the students about the organised activities. However, it was once the traditional teaching time had ended, that the Facebook group developed into a really effective and supportive learning environment, where the students shared their observations with one another, helping each other to identify species and sharing information about what they were experiencing. All 23 students on the course have actively used the Facebook with total of 136 posts over the summer (6 posts per student on average, min 2, max 13). The posts included descriptions of observations made by the students (often in the form of photographs or video clips), questions about species ID, comments on posts made by other students, and useful information (e.g. relevant websites for species ID).
Example of student post on course Facebook page:
Field journals were submitted on day 1 of the autumn term, and during the first week of the autumn term we ran the questionnaire and opinion poll on Facebook asking students to comment on their experience with the field journal and Facebook. The students were very supportive of our novel approach. 85% of the students enjoyed keeping the field journal, with many commenting that it helped them develop a range of skills (including plant/animal ID skills, drawing/sketching skills, observation skills, recording scientific data). When asked what they most enjoyed about the field journal, students commented that it made them realise ‘how diverse UK wildlife is and being able to identify plant and animal species by myself’ and ‘it made me really conscious of the ecology around me’. Students found the Facebook group helpful in their learning outside of the teaching sessions (74%) and all (100%) found it to be a supportive learning environment. Most found that it helped them access relevant information more quickly (74%) and most felt comfortable asking questions (68%) and sharing information themselves (68%). Student comments on use of the Facebook group were also positive:
‘It was a friendly community with people actively willing to help’
‘I really liked the quick responses to queries and questions, from the other students and lecturers’
We feel that these comments demonstrate that our novel approach allowed our diverse student group to proactively engage with their learning activities.
Example of student post on course Facebook page:
There was also a significant gain in regards to academic attainment on the course. For the field journal, the average mark was 70.7% and we feel this is evidence that our approach here worked to encourage and support the students in this new assessment activity. Part of the exam assessment is a species identification test (in which students are presented with specimens or photos of British plants and animals and have to provide their common and Latin names); in the past, students have not excelled at this, with average scores of 58.87% in 2014-15 and 59.39% in 2015-16. Following the introduction of our new field journal and Facebook approach, the average score in 2016 was 78% (an almost 20% increase in this part of the assessment). The ability to identify species is a vital skill and an important element of the learning aims for this course; it is also a skill that employers are keen for students to graduate with and one that many students lack. Our approach here has worked successfully to build these skills within our student group.
Overall it was a very effective approach and we feel that both techniques in combination allowed us to successfully deliver the course aims and benefit student learning, while also improving peer learning skills and helping to strengthen the relationships between the students and with the teaching staff. Creating an informal online learning environment enabled us to maximise student engagement outside of the classroom (and in this case over the summer break).
In summary, we believe that our innovative combination of a field journal with the Facebook group provided the following benefits for students:
- It allows for rapid response to student queries which are immediately available to the whole class (especially beneficial for students who are too shy to ask question themselves)
- It improves a variety of transferable skills (observation skills, ID skills, communication skills, drawing skills, writing skills, organizational skills, time management skills, social skills, using social media etc)
- It encourages peer-peer learning and peer support
- It provides effective and supportive online learning environment while students are off campus
- It allows development of the digital literacy of our students, giving them the opportunity to informally, but professionally communicate with one another (and the teaching staff) online, further improving the employability of our students
- It accommodates individual learning styles: students can work on the journal in their own pace over the summer
- It provides opportunity for creativity and personal expression
- It increases student engagement with the course
- It prepares students for tacking final year project (by providing experience of independent field work, ideas for topics which might be of interest)
In terms of transferability of the initiative, the field journal concept would be beneficial for any other field course in School of Biological Sciences as well as field courses run by other departments (e.g. Geography) to allow the students to record what they have learnt and to reflect on this learning. Using a Facebook group to engage learners outside of the traditional teaching time could be used on any course, and would allow staff to post additional material, and build on discussions with students inside the classroom.
Example of student post on course Facebook page:
Overall, our 2016 trial of this initiative was a success and we believe it is sustainable and intend to continue using both the field journal and Facebook group for this course in the future. We are committed to improving our approach this year by developing our activities further using the feedback that we have gathered and are planning to implement a number of changes to the format, guidelines and evaluation of the field journal:
- From a review of student feedback (based on our questionnaires and a poll that we ran on the Facebook group) we have identified that students want to see an increase in the weighting for the field journal in the overall course mark, so this year (2017) the weighting will be increased from 15% to 20% to reflect the hard work that students put into this part of the assessment.
- While marking the field journal, it became evident that students found the discussion/reflective element of the field journal most difficult. We have photographed some ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples of last year’s field journals and, with student permission, will make the anonymized examples with detailed comments on them available to the new cohort this year.
- Some students misinterpreted the criterion of originality of the observations and raised a concern that those of them who had a chance to travel abroad during the summer to more exotic destinations might get higher marks for their ‘more exciting’ observations than students who had to stay in the UK and did not had a chance to travel extensively. We hope more examples from very interesting and original observations made by students in their back gardens in the UK will help to dispel this myth.
- More detailed information on length of observations required will be provided since concerns were raised by one of the students who worked full time over the summer and found it challenging to find time to record their observations.
- We will extend the introductory session on the field journal, particularly the part on risk assessment which students have to complete before beginning their field journal observations. Some risk assessment forms went through many revisions before they were accepted, so we will invite the School’s Health and Safety Co-ordinator to teach this session and will show good and bad examples of risk assessment forms based on last year experience.
While it resulted in an additional workload for the course staff (checking and commenting on student risk assessment forms, answering student queries on Facebook), we intend to reduce this workload in the future by providing more guidelines to the students regarding risk assessment and field journal format and by reducing our role on Facebook to allow for more facilitation of interactions (e.g. directing students to relevant resources for species identification). Although answering student queries on Facebook ultimately saves time as the whole class can see the answers and this prevents repeated questions on the same issue from different students.