In a rapidly changing world, ecological education must evolve to more effectively help students improve their scientific skills. Although this is increasingly emphasized (e.g., the “Vision and Change” report), educators are often challenged to integrate skills development activities into classrooms (especially lecture-style ones) alongside voluminous content. Thus, a key question is: How can we design lessons that simultaneously enhance deeper learning about content while helping students practice scientific skills? A general framework to guide responses is that of learner-centered teaching in which the instructor’s and students’ “pedagogical niches” are reframed: teachers have the role of guiding students through activities in which students more critically and deeply engage with information and each other as co-teachers/learners. The objective of this talk is to describe and evaluate three simple but rigorous learner-centered teaching techniques for ecological education. Methodologically, their design, implementation and refinement was motivated by the goal of giving students specific tasks requiring data analysis, locating and reading scientific articles, synthesis, and interpersonal communication. In addition, a key goal was to create approaches that could be adapted for use in a variety of ecology courses across sizes and student levels.
The resulting teaching techniques have been used for four years to successfully engage students in learning content and improving skills. The first is a “round-robin” exercise in which students (in small groups) pass around and interpret data from several, complementary studies. After summarizing the data individually, students collaborate to write synthetic conclusions and follow-up questions. The second is a modified “jigsaw” in which students independently locate and read articles before class; in class, students discuss and synthesize their findings in a short report. The third asks students to answer a set of questions about a reading before class; in class, students work with a partner who has different questions to share and refine their individual answers, and then respond to additional synthesis questions. With all three techniques, nearly all students came prepared and effectively achieved the key outcomes. Another key result was that the instructor had more opportunities to interact with students one-on-one to answer and ask questions, yielding more teachable moments and informal assessment of learning gains. The three techniques have been highly adaptable across diverse courses, making lesson planning more efficient. By implementing such learner-centered techniques, ecological educators can create more dynamic “classroom ecologies” that provide opportunities for students to improve their environmental knowledge and scientific competencies.