The newbie plant ecology bloggers are off to a great start

Plant Ecology BIOL3290 blog 2019"You won't get asked to write a multiple choice exam as a feature of your job after you graduate with a Yorku Biology degree, but you will probably be asked to write memos and reports."

In fact, this is not strictly correct, because, if you are a first-responder for your organization, you will have to write periodic multiple choice tests, as, indeed, I do!

That being said, multiple choice tests are NOT a frequent feature of white-collar employment. Therefore, I have made this statement to EVERY third or fourth year undergraduate class I've ever taught. This includes over 50 courses in Plant Ecology, Applied Plant Ecology, Design for Sustainability, and Field Biology, which going on for over a thousand students.

I have ALSO been at lots of curriculum review committee meetings over the decades, at which professors complain about the poor writing skills of students. NEVERTHELESS, at the end of the day, they have never been willing to make room among crowded BSc degree course requirements for a mandatory writing course, or, for that matter, a mandatory statistics course. In my department, both of these kinds of courses are still optional, though some courses do have statistics as a prerequisite.

My response, as a professor, to all of this moaning, and inaction from my colleagues, was for me, early on, to take the individual pedagogical decision of making the development of effective writing and research skills a major component of my undergraduate Biology courses.

I didn't just do this in upper year undergraduate courses. In 1999, when I took over as course director of the second year Ecology course, BIOL 2050, I introduced a research essay assignment.

However, the Teaching Assistants didn't have time to grade these essays, due to their laboratory report marking commitments. So, during the six years that I taught the course, I graded 100-150 (depending on course enrolment) 12 page essays, over the Christmas holidays. Yes, it was a lot of work, especially when my kids were very young, at the start. But, it was well worth it, pedagogically, for both my and the students' learning. By the way, if Stephen Heard is reading this -- I encouraged students to write in active voice!

I always aim to include platforms and scaffolds for students to write and to provide insight into the concept of writing as a process for students. For example, this from my twitter assignment:

An interesting perspective for #highered essay writers: Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate #BIOL3290

When I stopped teaching Ecology in 2006 to become director of IRIS, I went on to learn a lot about writing for websites and doing social media. I found these fairly novel forms of academic communication were excellent channels for getting information out to diverse publics. Consequently, after I returned to undergraduate teaching in 2014, I developed a slew of assignments for students to learn about, and practice, science writing formats that are different from the traditional laboratory report and essay.


Post-graduation, students tell me that they use these skills IRL

I have been delighted to see interest in public science, science communication and citizen science take off in STEM communities in recent years. In response to this ongoing discourse, I have continued to refine my assignments. As well, I've had students tell me how their twitter, wikipedia editing or blogging assignments became relevant and helpful post-graduation.

The current student blogging assignment in Plant Ecology is a reflection of my ongoing revising and updating of these alternative written format assignments. This year, my pedagogical focus is on providing students with an authentic opportunity to learn about, experience, receive and give effective, constructive feedback.

So far, students are in the process of writing each of their five blog posts. For the rest of the term, students will update and improve their posts in response to their own reflections and feedback from myself and other people.

PS You can see how my Plant Ecology assignments for online platforms have evolved since 2014, by searching for the hashtags, #BIOL3290 and #BIOL4090.

The hashtags have changed because Plant Ecology was a fourth year course, BIOL 4090, for 25 years. However, at one of those curriculum review meetings, the department agreed, after some discussion, to make it a third year course, in which students could gain a broader understanding of plant ecology, before moving on to more specialized, applied fourth year courses.

For information about some of my other written assignments, please see:

Assignment on Wikipedia editing

Assignment on Tweeting Science and about Teaching with Twitter, in general