Evaluating the Impact of TIEE Activities on Student Learning: Lessons for the Instructor


Although the importance of active learning is well known, many educators have not yet incorporated it into their classrooms (Sherman 1985, Mattingly 1997, Alters and Nelson 2002). The reasons for this are many, but the one most cited is that more information is conveyed in a shorter time by using traditional lectures to cover the material (Terenzini 1999). Although that may be true, the aim of teaching is to have students learn the material, and traditional 50-minute lecture periods where the students passively write down what the instructor says may not be an effective teaching method for most students. Instead, there is evidence that students learn more when they become actively involved in their education (McNeal and D'Avanzo 1997, Terenzini 1999), either in cooperative learning situations, where students work in small groups to learn a concept or to answer a posed question (Spurlin et al. 1984, Ebert-May et al. 1997, Terenzini 1999), or in other active-learning scenarios, where the students can pose and answer a question with guidance from the teacher (McNeal and D'Avanzo 1997, Terenzini 1999).

Teaching Investigations and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE) activities help educators incorporate student active learning into their lectures and labs with support from other active learning practitioners (D'Avanzo et al., 2006). Included in each volume are peer-reviewed figure sets, data activities, issues and directed experiments designed to help instructors begin to use active techniques in their classroom with some guidance and expected outcomes. This allows the instructor to try something new with the confidence that it will lead to successful student learning.

This preliminary study was conducted to determine if TIEE activities provide a viable link between traditional-style lectures and cook-book laboratory exercises and active student-based inquiry to facilitate student learning. I used TIEE activities to meet several learning objectives for both the student and me as instructor. Instructor goals were first, to develop the role of student input for planning lectures and lecture activities, and second, to develop the use of student-centered activities during lecture and laboratory classes. Before undertaking this study I had not used any active-learning techniques in the classroom — I was the sage on the stage. Under the guise of doing research for this study, I felt I had the freedom to try new techniques in the classroom. One of these was to ask, before covering a topic, about student background knowledge and misconceptions to better structure my lectures. Student-centered objectives were: 1) to increase understanding of basic ecological concepts by using active learning, and 2) to increase the ability to use the scientific method to answer ecological questions. The student objectives are very similar to my learning outcomes for the course in general (see Syllabus in Resources) so that by addressing the student objectives for this study I was also meeting the basic objectives for the course.


I conducted this preliminary study in Fall 2005 at Wells College, a small (~450 students) liberal arts college located in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Wells College was historically an all women's college, but in Fall 2005 began to admit men. The class that I chose for the study was Biology 213: Ecology and Evolution, a required 3 lecture hour/ 3 hour lab course for all students in the Biological and Chemical Sciences major. During this semester there were initially 19 female students in the class (one dropped the class for personal reasons). I only taught this course for one year as a sabbatical replacement, and I inherited the textbook for the course, which was Ecology: Applications and Concepts (Molles, 2002), supplemented only by TIEE materials.

At the start of the course, I gave the students an eight-item, instructor-created pre-test to gain insight into their background knowledge about the course (See Pre/post test in Resources). I chose 5 very general multiple-choice questions, from past materials I had used in classes, and 3 open-ended short answer questions, so that the students would have to write their answers and develop their thoughts before even starting the course, to assess the background knowledge that the students had about Ecology. In order to maintain student anonymity the students created a code name to identify their tests. At the finish of the course, I gave the students the same test as a post- test along with a list of the code names that they used to help them remember their name. This way I was able to utilize paired t-tests upon completion of the course to assess student learning with the eight-question test. Unfortunately, the use of code names did not allow me to correlate the final course grades with the results of the pre- and post-test.

I created Ecology Fun Days where we used a TIEE figure set What Are the Impacts of Introduced Species? TIEE Volume 1, Figure Sets 1, 2, 5 (D'Avanzo and Musante, 2004), and the TIEE Data Set Energy Balance and Trophic Status in Fish (D'Avanzo, 2004) as lecture activities. I chose this figure set mainly because it started with simple activities, such as reading charts and graphs, and became more complex as the students completed more activities. By the time we got to the more complex Figure Set 5 (Gypsy moth invasion and links to outbreaks of Lyme disease), the students understood the importance of collaboration and thinking through each task. The data set allowed the students to gain familiarity with excel and making and interpreting graphs. By putting these days on my syllabus, I was able to stick to them and not use the excuse of having insufficient time.

Throughout the course, usually once a week to get ongoing feedback, I gave students note cards at the end of a class session with specific questions. I used this assessment approach at the beginning and end of sections of the textbook, when introducing difficult concepts, to reinforce topics covered during lecture, and to identify student misconceptions. For example, I asked students to answer questions such as: What did we talk about today?, or Tell me the main ideas behind (major concept here), or How does temperature relate to species distributions?, and my favorite, Why are we talking about both ecology and evolution in this course? I also used the note cards to 'check in' with the students — I asked if there were any major problems with the way the course was going, or if the exam was fair, or what I could do to help their learning. I asked students to answer questions anonymously, so that they were honest in their answers. The following lecture I would discuss what they said on the cards. Further discussion of the concept would often follow because other students had questions as well.

I also used several TIEE experiments in lab, namely Effects of Eastern Hemlock on the Establishment of Interspecific Seedlings, TIEE Volume 1 (Murray and Winnett-Murray, 2004), and Life Under Your Feet: Measuring Soil Invertebrate Diversity, TIEE Volume 3 (Boyce, 2005). Because the labs are available as freeware by downloading, I mainly followed the lab activities as written.

I made use of standard assessment measures, such as two exams plus a final comprehensive final, a reflective essay at the end of the course (see Reflective Essay in Resources), and several other lab activities, to calculate a final grade for each student.


Students did equally well on the lab and the lecture (Figure 1; t=0.235, P=0.81). The final average for the course was 83.5%, with a standard deviation of 9%. The grades ranged from 63-96%.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Average student grades (percentages of total possible points) on class exams and lectures. Averages were similar between lecture and lab.

Students scored similarly on the multiple-choice portion of the pre- and post-test (t=-1.24, P=0.23). However, qualitative comparison of responses to the written questions showed that 72% of students finished the course with more knowledge of What is ecology? (see Pre/post test question 6 in Resources; Figure 2A), 33% of students finished the course with more knowledge of What is science? (see Pre/post test question 7 in Resources; Figure 2B), 45% of students finished the course with more knowledge of graphing and 33% of students finished the course with more knowledge of experimental design (see Pre/post test question 8 in Resources; Figures 2C and 2D). Table 1 gives the pre- and post- test responses to the What is ecology? and the What is science? questions, as well as my qualitative ranking of better or same. No student had a worse answer for these 2 questions on the post-test.

Figure 2A

Figure 2B

Figure 2C

Figure 2D

Figure 2. Qualitative differences between the pre-and post-tests in answering questions (see Pre/post test in Resources). A. “What is ecology?” (question 6) B. “What is science?” (question 7) C. Students were asked to make a graph (question 8), and D. Students were asked to evaluate an experimental design (question 8).

Table 1. Student answers to the pre – and post-test questions (see Pre/post test in Resources). A) What is Ecology? (question 6) and B) What is Science? (question 7) as well as my subjective scoring of better or same. Student numbers in both A and B refer to the same student.

A. What is Ecology?
Student Number Pre-Test Answer Post-Test Answer Subjective Grading
1 The study of the environment and how it changes/adapts The study of environments and organisms and how they affect each other Better
2 Ecology is the study of organisms and their environment, how they interact and how one may affect the other Ecology is the study of organisms and environments and their interactions Same
3 The study of the ecosystem Ecology is the relationship between organisms and their environment. It is the interactions that occur between the 2 and with each one. Better
4 The study of an environment and its inhabitants The study of organisms and their interactions within the environment Better
5 Ecology is the study of how species, both plant and animal, interact Ecology is the study of the interactions of species and their environments Better
6 The study of the way organisms interact in their environments Study of organism/ecosystem interactions Same
7 Seeing how the organisms and the environment in which they live interact – relationships between organisms and organisms and the environment The biotic and abiotic variables in a system and all their complex relationships/influences on each other and the environment Better
8 The study of biotic and abiotic conditions on earth The study of abiotic vs. biotic factors in an environment Same
9 Study of the environment The study of interactions between organisms and their environment Better
10 The study of the ecosystem and environment The study of our environment(s) and the interactions found within the biomes that characterize different communities Better
11 Study of the environment and relationships between environment and species The study of interactions between populations, animals, and the environment and how species survive Better
12 The study of how organisms interact The study of living things and how they interact with their environment Better
13 The study of differing environments and how they interact with each other The study of animals/organisms and their interactions in the environment Better
14 The study of organisms interacting with the environment The study of natural environments and their populations Same
15 Ecology is the study of natural systems and how various parts of those systems interact Ecology is the study of how living things interact with each other and the environment Same
16 Ecology is a science of the environment Study of the environment and animals in it and how they interact Better
17 Ecology is the study of plants and the environment Ecology is the study of organisms and their environments Better
18 Ecology is studying the environment, and ecologists study the factors that influence the environment The study of the relationships between organisms and the environment Better
B. What is Science?
Student Number Pre-Test Answer Post-Test Answer Subjective Grading
1 none A way of asking a question or study Better
2 Science is the how and why and pretty much everything… don't forget the why not part…. That's a big one A way of knowing and a way to learn/discover new things Better
3 Science is based on facts, data, observations, etc. Science is data and information that was collected, obtained, etc. Same
4 none Obtaining knowledge and the study of things around/within us Better
5 Science is anything relating to technology, life, mathematics, etc. Science is a collection of fields of study which rely on evidence based facts Same
6 An attempt to understand and explain how the world works according to physical laws A method of obtaining knowledge by observation and testing hypotheses Better
7 Critical look at the world – use of scientific method to try to make sense of nature/math/universe An objective, logical inquiry into life and all its components using the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, predict, test, decipher Same
8 Science is a form of learning how things work, using educated guesses and confirmations resulting from experiments Science is using hypotheses and experimental data to try to account for various life activities Same
9 All sciences use the scientific method. Sciences find out the mechanisms of how nature works and prove hypotheses Testing of hypotheses and exploring the world Same
10 A way of thinking that promotes educated guesses about how to explain unknown ideas A way of asking/answering questions that we have no explanation for Same
11 The study of life and processes The study of life and processes Same
12 The study of life The study of life Same
13 The study of different parts of life including the functions and other aspects The study of living and non-living matter and organisms Same
14 A discipline concerning testable explanations for the world at large A way of knowing thru testable and reproducible theories Better
15 Science is using observations of the natural world to form conclusions about how it works Learning through observing the natural world and asking/attempting to answer questions Same
16 Science is how things function. It's how we explain pretty much everything. Study of the natural world, pretty much everything (very hard to define) Same
17 Science is the study of life and all its components Science is the study of all living things and the world around us Same
18 Science is the nature in the living world The study of an organisms' life, based on examining tests and proving facts Better

The final reflective essays yielded meaningful results to understand how students learned during the course. Students varied in what they learned most from the course (Table 2), but most students said that they learned more from labs than the lectures. Although 56% of the students mentioned the general category of 'field studies' as the most effective portion of the course, the TIEE activity, Effects of Eastern Hemlock on the establishment of interspecific seedlings (Murray and Winnett-Murray, 2004) was named most frequently as being the most effective field experiment (27%). Students stated that the hemlock lab was valuable because: It was good to design experiments somewhat independently and do something resembling original research…; …I do enjoy designing experiments, which made the hemlock lab one of my favorites.; I especially enjoyed the hemlock lab because it was a study that ecologists are still not sure about so it was cool knowing that we could potentially discover something.; and At first we had to go out and make observations, return a week later to collect samples, and then do some research and greenhouse experiments. All of this is enough to make a student feel like a real ecologist for a while.

Table 2. Percentage of reflective essay responses that mentioned class activities that students believed to be the most and least effective learning experiences (see Reflective essay in Resources).
Activity Most effective Least effective
TIEE: Hemlock 27 % 0
TIEE: Soil 0 17 %
TIEE: Figure Sets 11 % 11 %
General: Field Studies 56 % 5 %
General: Quantitative analyses 0 22 %

I was also able to stick to the five scheduled Ecology Fun Days in lecture throughout the semester. Although most students did not find them as effective as I hoped (Table 2), others stated that they were a valuable part of the course.


Overall, TIEE activities helped me to incorporate more student-centered activities in both the lecture and lab of a sophomore-level majors Ecology class. Students increased their understanding of what ecology is, based on posttest responses. In addition, by using the TIEE Hemlock activity, students were better able to utilize the scientific method to answer a question they posed. Similarly, I was able to incorporate more student active techniques, such as the use of note cards to tailor lectures based on student misconceptions and discussion based on the TIEE figure sets to teach important ecological concepts, while still reaching the learning outcomes I had set for this course. Thus, I met the objectives of this study, although the data is limited in showing the effectiveness of TIEE activities on student learning.

Research in learning theory has demonstrated that constructivist learning, or actively participating in gaining knowledge and building on past experiences, is how most students learn (D'Avanzo 2003a). Because of this, misconceptions that students have learned in previous courses can greatly influence the amount of knowledge they gain in a course (D'Avanzo 2003a). By addressing these misconceptions, instructors can help students advance in their learning. During this course, I made use of note cards to ask about student misconceptions, and we discussed their answers before starting a new topic. Addressing their prior thinking about a subject allowed students to question their 'knowledge' about a topic — causing them to think about why they thought what they did, and hopefully increasing their ability to think critically about what they 'know' (D'Avanzo 2003a, D'Avanzo 2003b).

Practitioner Reflections

Educational research is necessary to elucidate pedagological methods that lead to greater student learning, and recently more instructors are becoming interested in researching the effect of their teaching methods on student learning (Alters and Nelson 2002). Many of us are trained as quantitative scientists, and lack knowledge of many of the qualitative methods that will be useful to determine changes in student comprehension. This leads to interesting studies that have limited replication and thus, limited generality. This study falls under that category: it was conducted for one semester, with only eighteen students, and due to the use of anonymous code names, I cannot even trace individual student results. However, the value of this study was more for my own benefit: I gained confidence in utilizing active-learning in a traditional lecture course, and because of this study, I continue to use those methods in other courses.

Researchers have been publishing the results of active learning studies in journals such as Higher Education, and Journal of Higher Education; however, most of us are just beginning to incorporate these methods into our courses. Using TIEE activities, I was able to draw on materials implemented successfully in other courses, with notes from the author that helped explain unknown concepts. For example, think-pair-share and jigsaw activities (D'Avanzo and Musante, 2004) allowed me to visualize the activity before using it in class. When I did use it in class, the instructor notes were helpful enough for me to feel prepared — even though it was a completely new experience for both the students and me. One student said in the reflective essay at the end of the semester: I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the ecology fun days on zebra mussels and gypsy moths. Mainly I attribute this to the surprisingly cooperative and interested attitude of fellow students… Besides learning some basic things about both case studies it was a good experience in practicing ecological logic.

This course did increase student learning about ecology and the process of science. Students were better able to answer scientific questions and make conclusions based on data at the end of the course. However, the limited data does not allow me to conclude that these improvements were due to the use of TIEE activities. The reflective essays do allow me to make some conclusions. In the words of one student: Overall, I feel like I was much more interested in the labs this semester and thought about them in the context of 'real life' a lot more in comparison to the labs that were done solely in the lab in previous courses. Not only does being an active participant in their education help students succeed in a particular course, it allows them to see the interconnectedness of their courses — indicating that they are, in fact, learning (Terenzini 1999). At least one student in this ecology course made that connection: Accepting a learning opportunity in one discipline may help you understand certain concepts in another. Finally, becoming active in their own education may allow a student to learn much more than we, the instructors, expect: Learning that it is not only the professor's job to make me understand the material was also a big step in my road as a student. I became aware that while the professor is there to teach me and help me understand it is also essential for me to read and make an effort to understand the material because I am the only one responsible for my learning….What we learn in school is not only to pass an exam but to help grow as intellectuals and be more productive in making the world a better place.

Participating in the TIEE study has allowed me to expand my use of student-active techniques in my courses. In all courses that I teach, I now use note cards frequently to keep communication open with the students. Most recently I asked a freshmen Biology course to explain on note cards why they did poorly on their first exam (the average was a 68). Although I was nervous to read their answers, I was shocked to learn that most viewed the exam as fair, and they realized that the problem was with their lack of studying. This self-reflection on their part will hopefully allow them to perform better on future exams. Before participating in this TIEE study, I never would have considered asking the students how things were going in the course, and now that I see the value in it, I can not imagine not asking the students how their learning is progressing in my courses.