Assessing a field course

Just before the Kenya staff depart for our field course each year,  we tend to hear a lot of comments from our colleagues about our impending “vacation” in Kenya. However, while the trip can definitely be fun, it is by no means a holiday; we have many early mornings, long days, heavy discussions, and quite a bit of deep thinking about biology and conservation. Accordingly, we build assessments into the trip to ensure that the students are properly motivated to pay attention and internalize the vast quantities of information to which they are exposed in Kenya.

(Observing the biodiversity at Lake Nakuru)

Non-Exeter people may wonder how a field trip can possibly be assessed–after all, we spend a good portion of our time riding around in minibuses, looking at wildlife; we can’t very well give points for each new species spotted (though that might be a good way to increase our chances of finding a leopard each year!). Instead, students get their points in four ways:

1. Prior to the trip, students work in groups to research a Kenyan theme–things like history, climate, biodiversity, or particular destinations on our itinerary. They produce a short presentation that is delivered at a “minisymposium” prior to the trip, plus they create a 2-page summary that can be incorporated into our Kenya field course handbook. That way they can share their findings with other students and increase general knowledge about the places we will be visiting. This year, we also used the background research to form the first several posts in the field course blog.

2. During the trip, we keep track of student participation in activities and discussion groups that are held periodically throughout our journeys. This includes a session where we debate the utility of behavior research to conservationists, and presentations where students discuss the results of the herbivore censusing they performed during our time on the savanna.

(Group presentation during our last day in Kenya)

3. Shortly after the trip, we hold a conference-style poster session during which students give small poster presentations on a conservation topic about which they learned during the trip. People are invariably attracted to themes associated with the “big five”–human-lion conflict, for example, and rhino poaching–but there are always a few surprises. This year, many students were intrigued by the situation at Lake Naivasha, which is threatened by invasive species and overuse of water. Even though students often have similar topics, it is amazing how they manage to locate different references and put quite diverse spins on the same ideas. I find it difficult to visit everyone during the 2-hour session because it is tempting to dwell at each poster and get into lengthy conversations about what person learned during the trip. It is impressive how expert people can become in such a short period of time.

(One of this year’s posters. Click here for a PDF version.)

4. The final assessment is the most traditional: a test. The trip handbook provides examples of the sorts of questions students can expect, so at least they can mentally prepare for the type of thinking they’ll be asked to do during the exam. Really, the most important thing is paying attention during the trip and listening to the ecological, behavioral, and management details that are discussed by both staff and guest speakers. Those who read outside literature (which is required for both the first and third assessments) will be in particularly good shape.

Hopefully the students find the assessments to be fair; I think it’s safe to say that they definitely find them educational. The ultimate goal, of course, is not to earn a particular mark, but to gain an understanding of ecosystems and real-world applications of biological information. There is much to be learned from reading about those issues in books and scientific papers, but nothing really beats heading out into the field and getting some first-hand experience. Whatever minor complaints the students may have about the trip, I think they would give it an A+ for opening eyes and expanding minds.

All content by Dr. Caitlin Kight