One set of my classes just took a test on the different Biomes of the world. We covered 9 of them: Arctic, Tundra, Coniferous Forest, Deciduous Forest, Estuary, Savanna, Desert, Rainforest, and Coral Reefs.
During this period of study students researched the defining characteristics (rainfall, average temperature, etc…) of their chosen biome. The next step was to examine the adaptions of organisms that are able to survive and live in those different regions of the planet.
We covered countless examples of different organisms with varying traits, and different evolutionary benefits from across all of these biomes. One of the questions on the test was to provide an example of an organism from the Desert, Savanna, and Tundra and then describe one adaptation that increases the survival rate of each of the organisms.
Of all the organisms we discussed, and had to choose from, I saw an overwhelming trend that students provided the same example organism and the same adaptations as their classmates. I collected the following data:
81% of my students described the cactus from the Desert
74% described the caribou from the Tundra
61% describe the zebra from the Savanna
(Sample size 54 students)
As I graded these tests I wondered what made students remember these organisms? These adaptations? Why were so many answers so similar?
As I proctor quizzes and tests I wander through the aisles of desks answering questions and checking to see that directions are being followed accurately. I am pretty aware of what’s going on, it hasn’t been that long since I was in their seats. So, I have thrown out the idea of a vast conspiracy against me with an elaborate underground system of note passing and sharing answers via text message. (I hope)
So what are the other options?
My next thought is that many of these students have seen movies like “The Lion King” and are comfortable with recalling information related to zebras or other savanna organisms. I’d also guess when anyone thinks about the desert a cactus is one of the first things that comes to mind. Students have prior knowledge of these organisms, so they connect better with them, and can describe them more successfully.
On the other hand, I myself am fascinated with the cactus, and as a result got excited to talk about them. The fact that their roots can grow rapidly at the stimulus of moisture, and they create a flat network of roots close to the surface, like a flattened umbrella, (a simile I used in class) allowing rapid collection and then storage of up to 3,000 liters of water in their enlarged stems. Amazing.
Though its hard to actually show my excitement and awe at these organisms as I sit here typing, perhaps being a “scientist nerd geek”, as I was called by one of my students last week, is actually paying off. Perhaps my enthusiasm, though they might think its geeky, actually caught the interest of students, provided the right environment to remember, or just the memory of that time ‘dorky Mr. Reid got really excited about a cactus’. And so, voila when it came time to show what they knew they could remember my excited, nerdy ramblings.
I can’t be sure which explanation may have more influence over the outcome: my excitement during instruction, their prior knowledge, or even an option C. Whatever the reason it’s a win-win situation, learning occured.
Building connections to prior knowledge is such an important step in learning. Making the content applicable to the students, and what they already know, and have experienced is the keystone to developing long lasting knowledge and skills. On top of that how can I expect my students to be excited about Biology if I’m not. I can’t. So, I own my passion for science and accept great nick names that go along with it.