Active-Learning Fellows: Revamping a Graduate-level Dendrology Course

During the summer and fall of 2017, the Center for Instructional Technology led the Active Learning Faculty Fellowship.  Thirteen faculty from a variety of disciplines shared experiences and learned about using active learning techniques in their classrooms.

In this guest blog post in our series about the Fellowship, Nicolette Cagle, Lecturer, Nicholas School of the Environment, describes new activities she used in her course.

If you are interested in getting ideas to bring more active learning into your own class or if you are interested in the Fellows and other faculty development opportunities, contact us to talk with a consultant.

When I was an undergraduate student at a large, land grant institution in the Midwestern U.S., I took a dendrology course, i.e., a course about trees. The older, male professor structured the course around one central element: lecture. Lecture took place both in-class with the support of slides and out-of-class with the support of real, live trees.

Despite the fact that I loved trees and performed well in the class, I felt divorced from the subject. I’d sit in the front of the large lecture room. I’d squeeze my way up to the front, as we stood around a tree on a freezing November afternoon. And yet, in all that time, the professor never heard my voice. My fellow students never heard my voice. I had learned about trees, but I felt separated from the subject by a veil of silence.

Nicolette Cagle showing features of a tree to students.Twelve years later, I had my chance to teach dendrology. When I first began teaching the subject, I aped the undergraduate model of teaching that I had experienced: lecture. I had fewer in-class lectures, but I held forth pedantically in front of over a hundred trees. Like me a dozen years ago, students squeezed to the front to listen, but they had no voice. Were they as divorced from the trees as I had been?

This past summer, after teaching the subject of dendrology for about 4 years, I had the opportunity to join the CIT Active Learning Fellowship. Immediately, I knew that this was my chance to lift the veil of silence in the classroom and allow my students to really meet the trees. To use terminology based in pedagogy, I was ready to move my students through Bloom’s Taxonomy in my course. I was ready to move them from knowledge (e.g., rote memorization) to synthesis and evaluation (e.g., creating unique products from their new knowledge, making decisions that require use of both facts and values).

Before developing my Active Learning activities, I needed to make two major changes to my course.

First, I split it into two courses: ENV 701 Forest Measurements and ENV 731 Dendrology. This split meant that students could take a pure dendrology course that met for 2.5 hours per week, instead of taking a combined forest measurements and dendrology course that met for 8 hours per week.

Second, I expanded the content of ENV 731 Dendrology. The course was no longer simply about identifying trees. The course was now about understanding trees in the context of their taxonomy, biology, natural history, and social history. I developed lectures, readings, and assignments that touched upon sustainability, Piedmont history, symbiotic relationships, and plant family traits. Already, the students were going to be better able to truly see the trees.

After making these changes, I was nearly ready to develop my Active Learning activities. The CIT Fellows Program provided me with the final framework needed from which to develop a dozen in-class Active Learning activities. These Active Learning activities provided a way to develop connections between the students and material that went beyond students simply listening and taking notes, divorced from the trees. Some examples of these activities follow:

Think-Pair-Share. In nearly every class session, I use think-pair-share to allow students to think through material and to hear their voices. On the first day of class, my instructions for a think-pair-share activity looked like this:

Think, Pair, Share: Why learn to identify woody plants?

  • Please pull out a piece of paper and list all the possible answers you can think of to the question, “Why learn to identify woody plants?” Really think hard here; think intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually.
  • Pair up with a partner and share your answers.
  • Share three answers with the class. These answers should be different than others groups from which you have already heard.

Reflection & Sharing. After the CIT Active Learning Fellowship, I also asked students to reflect individually during class and then share those reflection directly with the group. To encourage reflection, I usually develop a simple prompt. I make sure that anticipated responses from the prompt would 1) reinforce material already covered, 2) give me an opportunity to explain new material, or 3) create a sense of wonder and questioning for the students. For example, one of my prompts is “What do you think this tree has seen?” Describe one scene in your notebook. Then we’ll share.

Nicolette Cagle and students examine a small tree.

Observation Activities. I also developed several activities that encourage students to use their own observations to develop questions and hypotheses. These activities all required individual or small group observation, and then a larger group discussion.

One observation activity I developed was meant to help students develop skills to differentiate between leaves. I laid out a bandana, and placed 10 different leaves on it, collected from trees within a pre-determined area. The students were allowed to look at the leaves for about 15 seconds. Then, they needed to find leaves from the same tree species. When we came back together, we used recently introduced terminology to describe the leaves (e.g., simple or compound, serrate or entire, elliptical or obovate).

Another observation activity I developed allowed students to observe elements of the landscape (e.g., tree species, tree age, types of fallen trees, types of herbaceous plants, and presence of old rock walls) to develop a timeline of ecological and human events at the site starting in 1800. In this activity, students worked in small groups and used a worksheet that guided their thinking. Then we came back together at an old cemetery hidden among the fallen cedars and discussed the timelines they developed.

Overall, my experience with the CIT Active Learning Fellowship provided me with a springboard for developing over a dozen new activities and a class culture of connection-building, careful observation, and discussion. The workshop also allowed me to lift “the veil of silence” and come to terms with my own experiences as a dendrology student over 15 years earlier.