I started developing these exercises in 2014 to encourage students studying Ecology to focus more on understanding the theories and principles we were introducing in classes, rather than attempting to learn every point and example. It was very clear that students could explain exactly what was happening in relation to an example we had used (E.g. explain the interaction between barnacles that Connell described in 1974, or give an example of competitive exclusion) but if we changed the example, the students would often struggle to see that competitive exclusion was occurring. Being able to make sense of data in a graph or table and figure out what ecological principle is shown is an important skill and one on which we probably hadn’t been spending enough time. We perhaps assume that students will pick up this ability as they progress through their studies.
I was looking for an approach that would encourage students to engage with short answer questions, without adding to their assessment burden and increasing my marking. But if I just set two non-assessed exercises in a lecture class and asked students to use the time to answer the questions and then discuss the answers, would they turn up? Students are assessment-orientated so would something non-assessed be sufficiently valued? To embed the approach, we decided to change the format of the exam from answering two essay questions, to answering eight short answer questions from a choice of 20. The questions would use settings, species and situations that they had not been taught about in class, but involve a theory or principle that they had covered in lectures. Cross-cutting questions would encourge them to think across the topics, rather than seeing each type of interaction in isolation.
I quickly realised that I was going to need a lot of exercises to make this work. Twenty previously unseen questions for the exam, the same again for a resit exam and lots and lots of practice questions. This is not an easy exercise for our second year students (we have 4-year degrees in Scotland, this is the equivalent of first year in England and Wales). Being able to practice on a large range of examples covering the topics in this course gives our students more confidence in dealing with these types of questions. I am constantly on the look-out for good examples that I can incorporate or adapt.
If someone had published or developed these types of resources, it would have saved me so much time and work. Having built up a pool of these questions, I wanted to make them available as a resource for others to use.
All questions have a model answer that I use to show students the sorts of ideas that they should include in their answers. These are based on the conclusions of the research on which the question is based. There may be alternative answers to some questions, I do not claim to have the only appropriate answer, just one of them. I am happy for students to make use of these web-pages in their own learning and independent study but I also know that the temptation to look at the given answer can sometimes be overwhelming; the value of these exercises lies in trying to figure out eh answer. Once you know the answer, it often seems so obvious that of course you would have figured out. To reduce temptation, I have only provided a model answer for the first exercise in each of the topics. The rest of the answers are available in a pdf which I would be happy to send to anyone emailing to request it.