Article: Turner, M.G., W.H. Romme, and D.B. Tinker. 2003. Surprises and lessons from the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 1 (7): 351-358.


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 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 is 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 section 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).

TIEE is designed to stimulate faculty to think more deeply about teaching and learning and apply what they learn here to their particular styles and situations. In contrast, this section is more prescribed because it is a four-step process that we recommend. This is because pre-post testing and classroom research are such foreign ideas for faculty that we believed more guidance was required. However, we very much encourage teachers to look at the resources below and design action research approaches most suitable for them.

Action Research with the Turner et al. article: Misconceptions About Disturbance

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 stated in the “Notes to Faculty” section, you can use this article to address a misconception shared by many ecology students: disturbances such as fire have irreparable and permanent effects on natural systems. 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 Turner et al. article to specifically address it, and then seeing if/how much the misconception changed as a result of your “interception”:

Step One: Pre-test — Use questions that expose the misconception that environmental change is a “bad” thing — in this case that disturbances cause irreparable harm. How you do this depends in part on the size of your class. Below are several examples.

Step Two: Intervention (your teaching) — Use the Turner et al. article in a class session, being sure to clearly bring out the idea that large forest forests can be normal events in certain habitats.

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 Turner et al. article. Another way is to give students a new statement to analyze, such as the one below.

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

Student comment about Large and Infrequent Forest Fires:
Small to moderate-sized fires that take place every so often are OK in forests where fires historically have occurred because it’s a normal thing and the forest can recover pretty quickly. But very big fires that happen rarely, like once in 50 years or something, are not normal. They just destroy too much of the forest and it takes a really long time before the trees and other plants and the wildlife to come back. It’s like a huge flood or a hurricane that just wipes everything out.

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.

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?

A specific example: Professor Smith learned from the post-test essays that about half of her students agreed with the idea that large fires cause irreparable harm. In response, she again showed data from the Turner et al. paper, told students that many still believed that large-scale fires were “bad” for the environment, and asked why this might be so, in light of the Turner et al. findings. She discovered that some students did not make the connection between the Turner paper and their misconception.




Action Research