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Case 23
Life after University: Assessing Final-year Environmental Science Students to Ensure Success in a Research Workplace


Dr. Debra Panizzon






SiMERR National Centre, Education Building, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia.

23.1 Context

Science students at the University of New England complete a group of core and elective units as part of a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Environmental Science, or Bachelor of Natural Resources degree. Resource Survey and Habitat Evaluation (RSHE) is one elective unit available to students in their final year of study. It comprises 26 1-hour lectures and 13 3-hour practical sessions over a period of 13 weeks (i.e., a semester). Approximately 50 students complete the unit each semester.

The unit is aimed at providing environmental science students with an understanding of the survey methods applicable to ecological research by developing skills in planning, conducting and reporting on an individual research project. To assist students in data analyses, they are introduced to a suite of statistical procedures, which are used to help them support or negate their hypotheses. Not surprisingly, the life-science students who enroll in the unit are challenged initially by the idea of statistics (Neumann2001). This fear is often based upon previous teaching experiences whereby statistical analyses are presented as recipes for data analysis with little real-world application. As a coping strategy, many students learn by memorizing and regurgitating statistical procedures (Murtonen and Lehtinen2003).

To overcome the dread that many students express in the first lecture for RSHE, an inquiry approach is used. Unlike most other science units, the practical sessions become the major focus with much of the time being spent trialing different survey method designs (e.g., use of different sized quadrats) and discussing the various components of research design (e.g., size of sample, replication, etc.). Lectures support these practical experiences providing students with the theory necessary to understand why particular methods are more appropriate in particular areas. This ensures that teaching is focused and contextually relevant to student learning facilitating a deeper understanding of the research process (Panizzon and Boulton2005).

The case study reported here is the result of three years of evolution by the science lecturer based on reflective practice, student feedback and collaboration with a science educator.

23.2 Learning Outcomes being Assessed

By the end of the unit students are expected to have:

23.3 Assessment Procedures/Details

The assessment tasks for RSHE are designed to represent the real-life steps involved in the working context of ecological scientists, thereby, preparing the students for careers as researchers or natural resource managers. Rather than appearing as isolated tasks, the staged sequence provides the students with the opportunity to build up their skills and expertise using feedback from preceding assessments. So, while tasks are being assessed summatively, they are used formatively to improve student learning in an ongoing manner. The effect of this approach is a demonstrable improvement in the students’ understandings of the research process.

23.3.1 Assignment 1: Development of a research proposal

In this task, the students identify an area of research interest (e.g., the leaf breakdown rate of poplar leaves compared to eucalypt leaves in a local stream) and develop testable hypotheses. Subsequently, the students develop a research design including details about the location, research sample, data collection methods (how and when), data analyses, and a timeline for their proposed project.

This assignment is introduced and discussed after the practical session and introductory lectures in the first week, so that students are familiar with the concepts identified. In the ongoing weeks, these concepts are developed further so that students are able to use the information gained from lectures to complete their assignment task.

Peer assessment of research proposals (Formative only)

With a draft of their research proposals completed, the students are put into groups to review other proposals. This is undertaken during a practical session with each student encouraged to pose questions, raise possible research issues, and seek clarification about any aspect of a proposal. Students are able to use this feedback to rework their original research proposals before submitting them to their lecturer for marking.

On submission, the lecturer marks and returns the research proposals within a week. This assessment precedes a mid-semester break (4 weeks) when the students complete their fieldwork. Subsequently, they return to study in the following semester ready to prepare the first draft of their research findings.

23.3.2 Assignment 2: Seminar involving a presentation of findings

For the seminar, their students present their hypothesis, an overview of their research design, details about the sampling methods and analyses, and their initial findings. This is completed in a 15-minute timeslot with a question period allowed at the completion of the seminar. Evaluation occurs by peer review using a template consisting of a series of Likert scales. Each of the criteria is allocated a mark with the lecturer pooling the data from the evaluation sheets to determine an overall mark for each student.

In addition to this mark, each student receives valuable feedback from the process, particularly in relation to the questions raised by their peers during the presentation. This information can be used by students in writing up their final reports.

23.3.3 Assignment 3: Written research report (Summative)

The final report, in essence, is a traditional research report. In reality, it represents a compilation of the research process that each student has experienced from the initiation of the hypothesis to the analysis and presentation of the data.

23.3.4 Assignment 4: Examination

The focus of the 2-hour exam is to provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate what they know by applying their knowledge and understanding to a series of ecological research scenarios. These are developed around real-world environmental issues in Australia that are topical and of interest to the wider community. This approach contrasts greatly from a traditional science exam that favours students who are able to memorize and regurgitate scientific facts and content.

23.4 Strengths and Limitations

23.4.1 Strengths

23.4.2 Limitations

23.5 Contributor’s Reflections on the Assessment

Part of the success of the approach outlined in this case study is the crucial link between pedagogy, content and assessment. Biggs (1996, p. 360) refers to this as ‘constructive alignment’, whereby, frequent assessment allows the students to appraise and to evaluate their own performance in relation to individual learning goals. For example, the staged variety of assessment tasks linked into the sequence of steps in the scientific method, the ‘ownership’ of a small research project by students, the peer interaction along with the cumulative feedback provided an engaging learning environment that allowed students to monitor their own progress in an ongoing manner (Hannan and Silver2000Toohey1999).

The major advantage for students was the perceived relevance of the assessment tasks in preparing them for their future careers. Interestingly, nearly all of the students interviewed over the last few years identified that the unit provided them with the first opportunity to write a research proposal and design a scientific investigation. This is surprising given that students are in their final year of study when undertaking the unit. Efforts are now underway to apply these strategies to other units in the biological sciences.

23.6 Acknowledgement

Appreciation to Professor Andrew Boulton from the Department of Ecosystem Management for allowing me to observe and study his teaching methods and approaches.

23.7 Bibliography