The ‘Nature Table’: assessing species identification skills amongst post-graduate students

Authors: Herbert, R. and hodder

Conference: CELebrate2017: Assessment and Feedback Conference

Dates: 13 June 2017


This assignment was designed to assess species identification skills on the MSc Biodiversity Conservation programme. The acquisition and development of species identification skills is essential for employees in environmental consultancies, agencies and the Research Councils and is a national priority. Students develop identification skills on a chosen group of organisms (e.g. seaweeds, small mammals, beetles) with an expert staff mentor. A formal ‘Learning Contract’ is developed between mentors and students to guide the learning process, preparation for assessment and, crucially, the marking team during assessment. This gave postgraduate students appropriate responsibility for defining the exact terms of their assessment within the bounds of the assignment brief, such as the level of expertise to be gained and number of specimens to be classified. Formative informal feedback is provided by mentors prior to the assessment.

The evidence assessed is open to a broad range of formats to suit the aspirations and skills of the students enabling a bespoke process. Students bring specimens, images, videos and identification keys at a Viva/Expo - also known as ‘The Nature Table’. At the Viva, students are asked questions to test their identification skills, knowledge and understanding of their chosen group according to criteria and with reference to the Learning Contract. Importantly, the setting provides a real-world type format in which expertise in this important skill would need to be communicated by employees in the environmental industry. Students receive immediate 1:1 positive informal feedback by staff at the Viva and formally via the VLE.

Feedback from students revealed that 'gaining confidence', finding and working with a 'mentor' and a 'starting point' was key to success in skill development. The exercise has resulted in a favourable response from employers at interview which has led directly to internships and employment.

Source: Manual