What was the activity?
The move to online teaching and learning due to Covid-19 promoted an evaluation of my level 3 ecology course and whether an exam was appropriate and represented an authentic assessment which could be carried into the workplace. Over the years, students had taken part in non-assessed debates on various topics, for example, should whaling be banned? should we cull one species to save another? should all humans be vegan? The effort and enthusiasm of the cohorts towards this activity fostered a thought to replace the exam with a group presentation. However, in my experience, some students enjoy oral presentations and group work, while others do not; this was borne out by concerns some students raised when consulted on this change to the course.
Within the Environmental Science field, environmental consultants are frequently asked to speak to stakeholders about projects and developments. Therefore, to give students experience of speaking about a topic that invites many opinions, and to be a meaningful and work-related assessment, the guidance states that the students are a group of ecologists who have been asked to speak on their topic to stakeholders who include lay-people, green campaigners and scientists. They are also told that the stakeholders are looking for a balanced view on the topic (thereby ensuring that the students undertake a critical assessment) and that they should provide an overall recommendation as to whether ‘we should or shouldn’t’ based on the science rather than a moral or ethical perspective.
The relevant topics for the year are included within the guidance, which also has some information about the topic referenced to the source which is usually a journal article, to encourage students to use and reference peer-reviewed papers. Although I create the topics for the group presentation, students can choose which topic they wish to contribute to, and this is done through the an activity on Moodle. A limit to the number of students choosing each topic is applied to ensure an even spread across all the topics.
Students are included in the apportion of weightings to the various components of the assessment (in other words, personal presentation, group presentation, peer assessment). During the seminar, students vote on whether to include a peer assessment and then decide on how the weightings are split between the components with input from me on what the previous cohort agreed. Students are also provided with a list of criteria upon which group and personal presentations will be marked.
How did it impact students?
Hannah: “I had much trepidation about the group project as I find public speaking particularly intimidating, and I was concerned that my nerves would prevent me from delivering an engaging presentation worthy of a good grade. However, as the guidance was not restrictive, each team member was able to work to their strengths and apply their individuality to their part of the presentation which made the final presentation less daunting. As an individual, I enhanced my analytical skills by reviewing a variety of academic literature and data and presenting the key findings in a detailed yet concise manner within a presentation format. These skills are far more valuable for the workplace than the skills obtained for written examinations. I also felt that the presentation allowed me to showcase my knowledge and understanding of a topic more effectively than I would have in a written examination.”
Bethan: “support from students included: they were reassured by their contribution to the weightings of each element; they felt that it was better preparation for the world of work than an exam; they supported the restriction on numbers for each topic; for those with presentation anxiety the knowledge that it would be through Zoom was appreciated.”
Any advice for others?
At undergraduate level, it is important to stress to some groups that they must ensure that the content is relevant to the topic. The presentations can be carried out in person or through Zoom/MS Teams, with the benefit of the latter being the recording option which can then be shared with an External Examiner and the students themselves. This has the further benefit of students being able to link their feedback to the recording of their personal presentation. Finally, make the topics interesting and of value to the students – the topics chosen for this academic year were situations where ecologists are currently involved in assessing the future of the species or practice.