Development of an Inquiry-Based Activity from a Content Intensive Curriculum

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Amanda Heddle, Environmental Science, Policy and Management

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

Teaching Problem: The main objective of General Entomology Laboratory is to train students to recognize different groups of insects. Insects are phenomenally diverse so there is a great deal of material to cover, even if only a relatively brief survey is presented. This is traditionally accomplished through the study of dried insect specimens and the main characteristics for identification, which involves a great deal of rote memorization. The characteristics are often hard to discern and students get easily frustrated without a lot of assistance. Although interest levels can be maintained by using live insect demonstrations and incorporating field trips into the class, the problem still remains that students must learn to recognize these animals and that straightforward memorization does not lend itself to the retention of information. In the semester I taught the laboratory section for General Entomology, there were twenty-eight students enrolled which, in a content intensive course, presents a problem for developing activities that are inquiry-based. The immediate problems I faced as a teacher for this class were how to take the content of the class and facilitate learning through inquiry rather than memorization, and how to make sure that students received personal assistance with specific problems they faced when trying to identify their specimens.

Solution: In order to overcome these problems, I designed a scavenger hunt that was focused on collecting many different insects. The hunt focused on biological attributes of the insects rather than identification. For example students were asked to find and identify insects that live under water, are mimics or predators of other insects, or represent immature stages of insects (for example, caterpillars or maggots). The students were divided into teams of 4-5 people and time was allotted during lab sessions for this activity. Students with different levels of experience were placed together, and I directed students with specific questions to students whom I had already assisted with the same problem. This approach accomplished several goals:

  1. Students learned through their own inquiries and formed a connection between the insects they found and the ecology of that insect. This led to much greater motivation for discovering the identity of the specimen; they were learning to identify for the purpose of the task itself, rather than for the purpose of an examination.
  2. Students were motivated to “win” the hunt, and worked on their projects outside of classroom time in order to finish collecting all the specimens from the scavenger hunt.
  3. Frustration levels were reduced considerably and added to the collaborative atmosphere of the classroom. In addition to these qualities of the exercise, students learned more about local insects, the ecology of insects and improved and enhanced their collecting techniques.

Evaluation: There were two methods by which I evaluated the success of this teaching method. Firstly, the collections were graded on the basis of whether the correct insect had been found and correctly identified. These grades contributed to the overall grading for the lab. Secondly, student evaluations reflected their own perception that this was a successful and highly enjoyable exercise.