Encouraging students to ‘think as biologists’: independent field-based projects and peer assessment as a deep learning strategy

Geoff MacFarlane, Kevin Markwell, Liz Date-Huxtable


Based on criteria of contextual factors that encourage a deep approach to learning, an independent field-based activity for students of behavioural ecology was created. The project was designed in such a way as to allow responsible choice in the method and content (animal species) of study, involved posing questions and problem solving, and modelled the process of conducting and publishing the results of research. Results from collection of quantitative data on students’ perceptions suggested that the learning context created through the activity encouraged problem solving, provided appropriate feedback, had clear aims and goals and was constructed in a fashion that allowed flexibility and responsible choice. Students’ perceptions of their orientation to learning were consistent with attributes of a deep-learning approach. Students agreed that the project encouraged learning for understanding, engagement, confidence and self-efficacy, and personal growth. To address the problems of obtaining insufficient feedback during the writing of a scientific manuscript based on the project, a peer assessment component was introduced modelling the scientific publication process. Providing feedback to peers helped students critically reflect and identify the important attributes of a paper suitable for publication. Receiving written feedback from peers also allowed reflection and modification of writing and the interpretation of findings.

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