Developing and Assessing Process Skills in Conservation Biology and Other Integrative Fields

Document Type


Publication Date



Goals and Intended Outcome: The goals are to: 1) create and validate a set of instructional materials designed to develop and assess process skills important in conservation biology and other integrative fields, and 2) pilot developed teaching and assessment materials in diverse classroom settings. We expect to increase our understanding of how to promote data analysis, critical thinking, and oral communication skills in students.

Methods and Strategies: After creation and validation of instructional materials designed to develop and assess critical thinking, data analysis, and oral communication, we are piloting the materials in a diverse group of academic institutions across the US. Each faculty participant implements a set of instructional materials for a particular skill during two separate semesters of the same course.

Evaluation Methods and Results: Our evaluation plan includes formative and summative evaluation activities and the application of diverse tools, both quantitative and qualitative. Project personnel are undertaking ongoing project evaluation with input from project advisers. An evaluation specialist will evaluate the project at mid-point and at its conclusion.

Dissemination: We are working with 18 faculty members from diverse academic institutions across the US, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In the future, we will make instructional units available to a broader audience of faculty members and conservation trainers through the NCEP website (ncep.amnh.org)

Impact: Through this project, faculty members participated collaboratively in the development of teaching and assessment materials. By implementing these materials in their courses, faculty participants are not only learning about their students’ development of process skills, they are also learning about their own teaching practices. In terms of students, this project intends to increase students’ proficiency with process skills important in conservation biology. They will do this through a series of exercises and classroom discussion as well as through self-reflection about the targeted skill.

Challenges: Participating faculty found our original experimental design of teaching and assessing more than one skill at a time to be logistically challenging. We adjusted the design to implement teaching and assessment materials for only one skill at a time. This modification did not change the overall goal of the project. Also, faculty members’ participation on the development and validation of the teaching materials was less that expected. Project personnel spent more time than planned working on these tasks.

Expected Outcomes: In this comparative, multi-year study we will gather new evidence on teaching and assessment approaches that can help develop process skills in undergraduate students. We expect that classroom implementation of the developed teaching and assessment materials will lead to positive gains in students’ proficiency in critical thinking, data analysis and oral communication skills as well as increased discipline-specific content knowledge. We expect the magnitude of student skill gains will be greater in intensive vs. light teaching intervention treatments. Overall, we expect to increase our understanding of how to promote data analysis, critical thinking, and oral communication skills in undergraduate students.

Data Impact: The instructional unit for each skill consists of pre/post student self-assessments, two exercises with rubrics for evaluation of student performance, and pre/post exercise content assessments. We use these tools to measure gains in students’ self-confidence on the skill, in the process skill, and in their knowledge of specific content. We use these tools in two classroom settings: one with an intensive classroom discussion and another with an individual student reflection on the skill. Comparisons between these settings will allow us to determine the effects of teaching intervention on students’ gains in the skill. We will also assess gains in faculty through pre/post questionnaires.

Collection Methods: We are working with 18 faculty members who are implementing one of the instructional units in their courses. Six professors are using the instructional unit that targets critical thinking skills, seven the one for data analysis skills, and five for oral communication skills. Each faculty member will implement these units in two separate semesters, one with an intensive classroom discussion and another with an individual student reflection.

Key Findings: To date we have results from students using instructional units on data analysis with an intensive classroom discussion (DA; N=104), oral communication with individual student reflection (OC; N=84) and critical thinking with both individual student reflection (CT; N=78) and intensive classroom discussion (N=42). For all three skills we find that students improve in skill performance. However, the degree of improvement varied among skills and skill dimensions, suggesting that some dimensions (e.g. drawing conclusions as part of critical thinking) may require interventions of different durations or intensities. In addition, we find changes in students’ confidence in the three skills, but these changes do not consistently mirror changes in skill. Students over- or underestimated their confidence for particular skills and skill dimensions. Finally, we find that students gained content knowledge while using exercises designed to teach topical content as well as develop skills, suggesting that investment in skill development in a class does not affect content learning. Currently, we are completing data collection from institutions that have used both modalities of teaching intervention – intensive classroom discussion and individual student reflection- to determine the effect of intervention level on students’ skill performance, confidence and content knowledge.


Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES) and Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) Conference


Washington, DC