Thursday, January 14, 2016

How to learn Ichthyology and make it stick! By Don Orth

Help students learn, help students get good grades, or get good student evaluations?  I would think that the same learning activities would result in all three results.  But then, I would be wrong!  I start every semester with advice for students on how to learn; this semester it’s how to learn Ichthyology and make it stick.   If interested, watch the How to Become an Ichthyologist video.
Unfortunate dominant learning strategy.   Source
All college students are very capable at the "cram, pass, and forget" learning strategy. Unfortunately, for them, every semester is another in a long series of fill, dump, and reload activities.  One of the first principles I explain to students is the "forgetting curve," first described by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885.   If we do not have to retrieve what we just heard or read, most of what we heard or read will be quickly forgotten.   Therefore, I provide students of Ichthyology a number of reading prompts to accompany all assigned readings.  Read, recall, write it down, and summarize what it means in your own words.  It helps to relate a new reading with what you already know or explain it to somebody else in your own words.  Highlighting, cramming, and re-reading a passage do NOT work.  If you take the time to read and respond to reading prompts, you will retain information longer. 

Peter Brown and his colleagues explained a number of key principles of learning in the book, Make it Stick.  The book is a treasure for teachers and learners.  Authors emphasize the importance of activities that incorporate retrieval practice, generation, and elaboration.   One of the concepts I found most attractive was the notion of creating “desirable difficulties” in the classroom.   I will often provide the student a difficult quandary to read before reading a new chapter.  Students will not directly find the answer to the quandary in the reading alone.  Rather they will have to wrestle with thinking about the new problem and rely on other knowledge. Life is a comprehensive exam!

I am a big supporter of “Students quizzing students.”  Here the student is free to project their sketches, specimens, or dissected specimens under the document camera as they quiz their peers. Here students must use new terminology and concepts and generate non-trivial questions that quiz others.   In the Lab Notebooks, students struggle with deciding what information to include and what to write. This activity is the first stage of learning: acquisition of information and encoding it for later recall.  This is one of the desirable difficulties that encourage recall and connections with prior knowledge.   There is nothing simple about learning anatomy or how to efficiently identify closely related fishes.   Learning is plain and simply hard work, but the struggles increase intellectual abilities.

Students of Ichthyology, when they don’t challenge themselves with quizzes generated by other students, inevitably overestimate their preparedness for exams.  This is the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning 1999). The Ichthyology student who diligently makes flashcards and uses them to practice recall will soon master the flashcards, but be unable to pass an authentic exam.  That is why I encourage students to quiz one another and be prepared for a true unknown in the practical exam of real life.    

Students of Ichthyology must realize the practical meaning of variance among individuals.  I use a class Flickr site to archive, tag, and annotate photographs.   Not every specimen will look just like the illustration in the field guide     Use of Flickr permits students to examine numerous specimens from the same species, genus or family.  I also encourage students to draw what they see in lab; it forces them to slow down and pay attention to what they are seeing.   I believe that drawing encodes visual features, which are easier to remember than words. “And learning to draw, without doubt, causes new connections in the brain that can be useful over a lifetime for general thinking. Learning to see in a different way requires that you use your brain different” (p. 3, Edwards 2012).

At the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy is “creation.”  In Ichthyology class, my students create a digital story and an essay.  The digital story assignment encourages deeper reflection on their struggles to learn Ichthyology.  The essay is on a fascinating fish topic, such as “Punishment in cleaner fish,” Why are some fishes gonochoristic?” or “Is there a “love hormone” in fish?”  This learning activity develops their inquiry skills and challenges them to “make it interesting to others.”  Becoming an Ichthyologist may not be the career goal of each and every student, but learning to become a better student of the fishes develops numerous skills transferable in their future endeavors.


Edwards, B.  2012.   Drawings on the right side of the brain.  Tarcher/Penguin, NY. 283 pp.

Brown, P.C., H.L. Roediger, III, and M.A. McDaniel. 2014.  Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press, Harvard University Press.  Cambridge, MA  313 pp.

Kruger, J. and D. Dunning. 1999.  Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77:1121-1134.

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