Most teachers agree that writing is an important skill for students to master, yet not all teachers incorporate writing assignments in their courses. Employers agree that written communication is important for college graduates, yet in a survey, less than 10% of employers thought that colleges did a good job preparing students for work. Writing an animal species account for Animal Diversity Web (http://animaldiversity.org) provides students with a real-world example of writing skills and provides resources to instructors who want to incorporate writing in their classes.

Why Writing Is Important

Few things frustrate a teacher more than poor writing and math skills in their students. While some college instructors feel that English and Math departments should teach these skills, many others are incorporating intensive writing and quantitative literacy into their courses, and many universities have instituted writing in the discipline, writing across the curriculum, or communication in the major as part of a student’s general education requirement. Practicing the forms of writing most common in a discipline provides students with practical training for future employment in their chosen fields. When writing is properly incorporated into a biology course, both student and teacher can see that it advances content learning (Kosinski-Collins & Gordon-Messer, 2010; Morgan et al., 2011). Even though it is generally agreed that writing is important, it is not always the case that students or faculty embrace intensive writing assignments. Assignments that include intensive writing components take time away from what’s “important” to us – social activities for students (see Nathan, 2009; Arum & Roksa, 2011) and research for college faculty.

In their 2010 book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write that students often embrace a credentialist-collegiate orientation that focuses on earning a degree with as little effort as possible. An instructor who increases the academic rigor of a course by incorporating an intensive writing assignment risks pushback by students and, potentially, lower student evaluations, which many universities consider in retention, tenure, and promotion decisions. This situation – students limiting their workload and teachers either fearing poor student evaluations or wanting more time for research – has led to what higher-education researcher George Kuh termed a “disengagement compact,” whereby each party agrees to leave the other alone (see Arum & Roksa, 2011). In a survey of 1000 employers in various industries, less than 10% of employers thought that colleges did an excellent job of preparing students for work (Johnson, 2011). Further, on key hiring criteria such as adaptability and critical thinking, applicants performed below the employer’s expectations (Johnson, 2011).

Students want to know that teachers are working hard on their behalf. Students and faculty alike are more likely to embrace challenging assignments when both parties clearly benefit. In Table 1, we list the potential benefits to both students and teachers of writing a species account for Animal Diversity Web (ADW, http://animal diversity.org).

Table 1.

Eight benefits for students and teachers of writing a species account for Animal Diversity Web (ADW).

What’s in it for the student?What’s in it for the teacher?
Solid contribution to a global understanding of biodiversity Faculty, student, and institution get national/international recognition on ADW and Encyclopedia of Life 
Demonstrate research and writing skills to a wide audience Evidence of service outreach credit for merit and retention decisions 
Student input into choice of organism helps connect student interest to biology and provides them with ownership of the assignment ADW participation meets grant expectations for outreach activities; e.g., National Science Foundation “Broader Impacts” 
Experience with peer-reviewed publication process Introduces students to peer-reviewed publication process 
It’s free! No need to purchase specialty software or books Incorporates inquiry-based learning through a structured but open exercise with the flexibility to be used in multiple majors and general education courses 
Focus on local/regional/international species can help awareness of targeted biomes Productive use of technology without heavy overhead costs 
Provides a publication that can be used as a writing sample for a job or graduate school application Improves scientific literacy of students by promoting critical thinking and reading and connects them to the natural world 
ADW accounts are used by Encyclopedia of Life, Quaardvark activities, biomimicry database, and are often referenced in peer reviewed publications like Science, thus increasing visibility Connects faculty to a community of other teaching biologists around the country and world 
What’s in it for the student?What’s in it for the teacher?
Solid contribution to a global understanding of biodiversity Faculty, student, and institution get national/international recognition on ADW and Encyclopedia of Life 
Demonstrate research and writing skills to a wide audience Evidence of service outreach credit for merit and retention decisions 
Student input into choice of organism helps connect student interest to biology and provides them with ownership of the assignment ADW participation meets grant expectations for outreach activities; e.g., National Science Foundation “Broader Impacts” 
Experience with peer-reviewed publication process Introduces students to peer-reviewed publication process 
It’s free! No need to purchase specialty software or books Incorporates inquiry-based learning through a structured but open exercise with the flexibility to be used in multiple majors and general education courses 
Focus on local/regional/international species can help awareness of targeted biomes Productive use of technology without heavy overhead costs 
Provides a publication that can be used as a writing sample for a job or graduate school application Improves scientific literacy of students by promoting critical thinking and reading and connects them to the natural world 
ADW accounts are used by Encyclopedia of Life, Quaardvark activities, biomimicry database, and are often referenced in peer reviewed publications like Science, thus increasing visibility Connects faculty to a community of other teaching biologists around the country and world 

Incorporating Animal Diversity Web into Your Course

When you visit the website, you will learn that the Animal Diversity Web is an educational resource written largely by and for college students (Myers et al., 2013). The following excerpts from the site illustrate that ADW is an online encyclopedia, a science learning tool, and a virtual museum (excerpts taken from http://animaldiversity.org/about, with the authors’ permission).

ADW is a large searchable encyclopedia of the natural history of animals. Every day, thousands of classroom students and informal visitors use it to answer animal questions. ADW facilitates inquiry-driven learning, that is, teaching about science by leading students to use the methods of science. The large database is structured, providing consistent information for all species to foster comparisons. The Quaardvark query tool (http://animaldiversity.org/q) allows a user to find information on a specified set of species. Students can explore patterns and relationships, learn how to frame and answer scientific questions and, with the help of a good teacher, experience the excitement and satisfaction of doing science. The long-term goal of the ADW project is to create a database rich enough that students can discover for themselves basic concepts in organismal and conservation biology. ADW also provides a way to make the contents of research museums available globally for teaching and research. Initially, efforts were directed mainly at mammals. Photographs of scientific specimens are available for representative species from most mammal families. Several hundred Quick Time Virtual Reality Movies of skulls are also available. These allow the user to “rotate” the specimen, providing an excellent impression of its 3-dimensional structure. ADW staff has written in depth about and illustrated many of the characteristics of interest to students of mammals. An important goal for the future is to encourage species accounts to cover other groups of animals and include other media such as animal behavior video.

Finally, ADW is a resource that provides instructors with an engaging way to improve students’ writing, research, and math skills. Because an essential feature of the ADW is student authorship of species accounts, instructors can have students contribute written species accounts that will engage writing and research skills, or they can investigate questions using Quaardvark that will engage research and quantitative literacy skills (see example activities at http://animal diversity.org/q).

Developing effective writing assignments takes planning, and a number of excellent online resources can help. Hildy Miller’s Designing Effective Writing Assignments is a good example (Miller, 2008). She emphasizes that instructions need to be as clear and specific as possible. A common mistake when designing writing assignments is not providing students with adequate guidance. ADW provides Instructions for Contributors that will guide students through the logistics of writing the account and using the online workspace. There are also resources for instructors. Miller (2008) also suggests designing assignments that offer several choices of topics and allowing students to draw on their strengths and interests. ADW provides an enormous variety of animals to write about, increasing the possibility that a student will find a species that interests them. For two examples of student writing, see Anderson (2009) and Starjnski (2012) (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

An Animal Diversity Web screen view of Starjnski’s (2012) species account on the pygmy killer whale. The account is easily searchable using the top box by clicking on links such as Reproduction or Behavior. The student is required to research and write for the 12 fields and correctly enter the references (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Feresa_attenuata/).

Figure 1.

An Animal Diversity Web screen view of Starjnski’s (2012) species account on the pygmy killer whale. The account is easily searchable using the top box by clicking on links such as Reproduction or Behavior. The student is required to research and write for the 12 fields and correctly enter the references (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Feresa_attenuata/).

Instructors can incorporate activities on topics important to them that complement the writing assignment. For example, plagiarism is a problem for high school and college students (Blum, 2009; Cvetkovic & Anderson, 2010), and we assume that students understand what plagiarism is. In fact, many universities use resources like TurnItIn.com to check for plagiarism in papers, and the ADW editorial staff also checks for plagiarism before publishing a species account. Be proactive by designing an activity that focuses on plagiarism. Also, reading primary literature can be challenging for students. If a student in your course writes a species account for the pygmy killer whale (Starjnski, 2012), the class can read and discuss a paper on that species (e.g., McSweeney et al., 2009). Finelli et al. (2005) describe an activity on reading primary literature that works well in a 50-minute lecture period.

Difficult by Design

Writing a good, well-researched species account is not easy, nor should it be. In a contrast between U.S. and Japanese teaching methods, Hess & Azuma (1991) cite numerous examples of American education’s obsession with arriving at the right answers quickly (reference in Nelson & Harper, 2006). Teachers from elementary school through college are too willing to answer students’ queries quickly rather than let them struggle to find solutions. This research and writing activity follows what Mariolina Salvatori (2000) calls a “pedagogy of difficulty” (also see Salvatori & Donahue, 2005). Although American education resists difficulty and complexity, writing a species account challenges students to persist in attempting to find information on poorly described species. The organisms selected by each student vary widely in the amount of published information available, and students quickly run into a variety of problems they need to solve. Their first response will be to ask you for help. Students need to understand from the beginning that they will encounter problems, they will be challenged to solve them, and they will be given the time and resources to solve them. Some of these problems may include, but are not limited to, a paucity of data on the species, a majority of published resources in a language other than English, information available only in rare books or obscure publications that cannot be accessed online, and difficulty understanding the technical literature. Also, students may be overwhelmed with references and must efficiently sort through and summarize a large amount of information. Initially a student may feel unclear about how to proceed and may want to quit or choose another species. It’s important that there be a forum for students and that the instructor discusses these challenges and shares potential solutions, some of which are explicitly outlined in the ADW guidelines. By grappling with ideas, issues, and frustrations, the student gains confidence and increases the potential for creativity and transformation (Nelson & Harper, 2006).

It’s important that students learn that difficulties are not signs of incompetence or inadequacy. To address this, Salvatori (2000) developed “the difficulty paper” as a way for the instructor and student to identify those difficulties and turn them into moments of understanding. A difficulty paper could be assigned in conjunction with a primary literature reading (e.g., McSweeney et al., 2009) to allow students to articulate what they found hard to understand in the text or problems they encountered extracting information appropriate for the assignment. It is an opportunity for you, as an instructor, to model for your students that you also find parts of a text hard to understand (Salvatori & Donahue, 2005). Difficulty papers could also be assigned at strategic points during the semester (e.g., during the week that references are due to be entered into the ADW template). These are designed to be short, one- or two-paragraph papers that identify common problems to be discussed as a class. As an instructor, it is a welcome challenge to facilitate these discussions as they change from semester to semester.

Taxonomy Changes but Phylogeny Is Forever

In addition to contributing to online encyclopedias like ADW and Encyclopedia of Life (http://eol.org) that can be accessed by people around the world, students generate and discuss questions throughout the semester-long assignment. A common revelation comes when there is a paucity of data on a species. The most common explanation is that not much work has been done on the species, which often begs the question, Why is that? Another explanation is that the species is a recent discovery or was split from another species (e.g., cryptic species). This provides an opportunity to discuss how fields such as systematic biology and paleontology are hypothesis-driven like any other field of biology. It provides an opportunity to discuss species concepts, molecular evolution, and how technologies like DNA sequencing can transform entire fields of science. Finally, it provides an illustration of how scientists argue among themselves. For example, there is debate regarding the proper scientific name of the mink – Neovison vison or Mustela vison. Regardless of who is “correct,” a student writing a species account for the mink would need to know about this taxonomic debate to fully research the animal.

What Do Employers Want in a College Graduate?

A 2006 survey conducted on behalf of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) found that both employers and recent graduates believe that higher education should give students more experience with real-world applications of their knowledge and skills. The survey found that the four most important skills that employers look for in new hires are teamwork skills, critical thinking/reasoning, oral/written communication, and the ability to assemble and organize information (AACU, 2006). Incorporating an Animal Diversity Web project into your class addresses the following learning outcomes that employers and recent graduates have identified as important when preparing college students to succeed in today’s global economy (AACU, 2006):

  • Concepts and new developments in science and technology

  • The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing

  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources

  • The ability to solve complex problems

  • The ability to be innovative and think creatively

  • The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics (see example activities using Quaardvark)

Publishing an account provides a student or recent graduate the opportunity to highlight a real-world class project that provides tangible evidence that they met outcomes important to employers, and because the account is published online, it is available for potential employers to see and evaluate.

Acknowledgments

We thank Karen Francl, Alec Lindsay, Link Olson, and the participants of the BioSync workshop in Chicago for help on Table 1. George Hammond III, Tricia Jones, and Roger Espinosa provide technical and educational support for Animal Diversity Web. This work was funded through a National Science Foundation TUES grant, “Discovering Patterns in the Natural World” (F028494).

References

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