Article: Barange, M. 2003. Ecosystem science and the sustainable management of marine resources: from Rio to Johannesburg. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(1): 190-196


Although ecology faculty have extensive research training, most do not realize that they can do research in their own courses. This is a different kind of research than we are used to — often not controlled, without replicates, and so on. But it is still research because we can develop hypotheses, ask specific questions based on these hypotheses, and then collect and analyze data which in turn inform the questions and hypotheses. There are numerous journals dedicated to interesting research on teaching (e.g., Journal of Research in Science Teaching).

One type of classroom research is called “Action Research.” In this type of research, faculty ask specific questions about their students or their teaching, gain information about these questions, and use this information to learn about teaching and their course in particular. A list of Action Research websites are below. Action research is an aspect of “Scientific Teaching” (Handelsman et al. 2004).

Below we describe a four-step process which you can use to conduct research on your use of the Frontiers article. The theoretical bases for this TIEE Scientific Teaching are three areas of research on learning (D’Avanzo 2003 a,b): metacognition (knowing what we know), misconceptions (firmly held beliefs that are incorrect) and adult development stage theory (stages that learners are thought to go through as their thinking about a discipline matures). Read more about these theories here.

Action Research with the Barange article: Misconceptions About Change

Misconceptions: students come to class with background knowledge that may or may not be correct; when incorrect this information is called a misconception (or prior/alternative/intuitive conception). Students’ misconceptions are notoriously difficult to change, and numerous studies show that students come to class – and leave – with the same content misinformation even when the content is directly dealt with in a class.

As emphasized in the “Notes to Faculty” section, you can use this article to address a misconception shared by many ecology students: change is “bad.” That students have this misconception may surprise you – which is one of the reasons why students retain these alternative conceptions. Faculty are unaware of them!

The next section provides suggestions for assessing whether your students have this misconception, how you can use the Barange article to specifically address it, and then seeing if/how much the misconception changed as a result of your “interception”:

  1. Step One: Pre-test — Use questions that expose the misconception that change is a bad thing. How you do this depends in part on the size of your class. Below are several examples.
    • In a small class you can ask students to answer a short list of questions (in class – not as homework). Be clear that this is not a test, is anonymous, and has no bearing on their grade. Tell the class that it will help you better design the course for them. Students can write very short essays about questions such as “In a well known National Forest, the numbers of birds has gone up and down repeatedly over the last 15 years. Do you think that these changes in bird numbers very likely indicate some kind of environmental problem? Briefly explain why or why not.” You can also use multiple-choice questions as described below.
    • In larger classes, it is harder but not impossible to ask students to write short essays. A real benefit of polling large classes is the large N. You can hand out index cards, pose the essay question described above, and simply ask students to drop the cards in a box as they leave the classroom. (Again, explain that this is not a test and is anonymous). You don’t need to look at all the cards; you can randomly sample them until the answers become repetitive.
    • In any size class, you can also use multiple-choice questions. The question above could be modified with choices, such as: (a) yes, because healthy environments do not vary like that, (b) maybe, because healthy environments probably should not vary like that, (c) no, because numbers of some birds naturally change a lot, and (d) no idea.
  2. Step Two: Intervention (your teaching) — Use the Barange article in a class session, being sure to clearly bring out the idea that large inter-annual and inter-decadal changes in population density can be quite normal.
  3. Step Three: Post-test — Decide on a way to assess your students’ learning in regard to the misconception. This could be through a brief essay or multiple-choice question similar to the ones described above but specifically concerning information from the Barange article. Another way is to give students a new figure to analyze, such as the one below.
    Fig: Catch vs Tree Growth
    Figure by Smirnov et al. titled “Environmental Changes in the North Atlantic and Health of Terrestrial and Marine Communities” (http://www.pml.ac.uk/globec/Publications/Presentations/CEFAS_2002.pdf)

    For this essay, students are asked to respond to a comment about this figure supposedly written by another student. The idea is to compare their response to an ecology expert’s (e.g., you).

    For homework give students this figure plus the paragraph below written by “a student” and ask them to write a one-page (300 words or so) analysis of the student’s commentary. Along with your written description of the homework assignment, give a little background of the figure (such as the location, what a fir is, and that Growth Index indicates rate of tree growth). You may also need to explain a double-y type plot if students have not seen one before.

    In the essays, you are looking for the kinds of comments you would expect from an ecologist, e.g., that the “student” 1) describes some of the patterns evident in the figure but misses others (and gives examples), 2) rightly observes the similar patterns in the fish and tree data, but does not suggest a likely reason (that they both are responding to some environmental factor such as weather), and 3) comments that given the large variation in both trees and fish over this time period, the statement that the decline from 1960 on “doesn’t look so good” is unwarranted. Only excellent students would clearly describe each of these points.

    If you have a large class, you can skim these essays — or look at a sample subset. You don’t need to grade these, but give students a point or two for doing the work.

    Student comment about Catch vs. Tree Growth Fig. (Smirnov et al.)

    “Well one thing for sure is that the fish catch changes a lot from 1920 to 1990 — I mean just look at the numbers — it’s all over the place and goes from 0 way up to more than 800 thousand tonnes. The tree growth changes an awful lot too, although I am not sure what growth index means. The fact that the fish and tree numbers seem to go up and down together may be just a coincidence, I don’t know. Overall two things make we wonder about the health of the fish and the trees. The first is that the numbers for both go up and down so much. The second is that there is pretty much a steady decline in both from 1960 on — that doesn’t look so good.”
  4. Step Four: Reflection and Response — This is probably the hardest part of the whole process — once you have your “data,” what you do with it.
    • This kind of evaluation is a way for you to think more deeply about your students’ learning — what you really want them to learn and what inhibits them from achieving this goal. When done well, classroom research like this can help make students’ thinking more transparent — so that you can better design on ways to “get through” to them. The idea is to reflect on their learning as opposed to your teaching.
    • Discussing your findings with a trusted and knowledgeable colleague may be the best thing to do, if you have such a colleague. You could also email one of the TIEE editors or post a question on Ecolog (ECOLOG-L@LISTSERV.UMD.EDU), a discussion forum used by ecology faculty).
    • What you do in the class of course depends on what you have learned and also the time you can spend on follow-up. At a minimum, in the next class session you should report back to the students and give an overview of their writings — good points and ones many missed — and use this as a way to again discuss how ecologists think about change.
    • If students made good progress between the pre and post-tests, say so and praise them. Don’t expect a big change; modest growth as a result of one class session is a real achievement.




Action Research