Using Natural History Interpretation as an Authentic Assessment Tool: Natural History Interpretation Is an Exemplary Authentic Assessment Tool for the Interdisciplinary College Science Classroom, Requiring Real-World Application of Observation, Presentation, and Collaboration Skills

By Wittmer, Carrie; Johnson, Brian | Journal of College Science Teaching, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Using Natural History Interpretation as an Authentic Assessment Tool: Natural History Interpretation Is an Exemplary Authentic Assessment Tool for the Interdisciplinary College Science Classroom, Requiring Real-World Application of Observation, Presentation, and Collaboration Skills


Wittmer, Carrie, Johnson, Brian, Journal of College Science Teaching


On a desert trail heading to a palm oasis in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, four environmental studies college students begin a presentation about hummingbirds--their behavior, habits, and connections to the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. The students describe niches the hummingbirds occupy and how the hummingbirds are a metaphor for greater ecological connections. The audience members, a professor and 16 other students, are led down the trail as the interpretive walk continues. Curious hikers pause and listen, wondering who these people are and why they know so much about the desert.

The 45-minute hummingbird presentation was the end-of-semester evaluation for a field course on the natural history and ecology of the Sonoran Desert offered by the Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI) at Lesley University. The 20 students in the class were environmental studies freshmen and sophomores with one previous semester of ecology coursework. Although this example took place in an interdisciplinary, outdoor field program, natural his tory interpretation can be used as an authentic assessment tool for a variety of environmental studies, biology laboratory, natural history, and environmental science courses. The interdisciplinary nature of the activity evaluates course learning and challenges students to apply their learning using presentation, collaboration, and observation skills.

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What is natural history interpretation?

Beck and Cable (1998) define interpretation as "an informational and inspirational process designed to enhance understanding, appreciation, and protection of our cultural and natural legacy ... Personal interpretation refers to programs in the form of talks, demonstrations ..., living history, storytelling, nature walks, and tours." The fundamental quality of natural history interpretation is that it is more than the transmission of information; rather, it is the translation of a landscape or ecosystem. Interpreters assume that their audience is unfamiliar with the language of the landscape, and their job is to be a translator for that audience. For the purpose of using interpretation as an authentic assessment tool in college science courses, natural history interpretation is a walk or presentation that takes place outside, and its subject matter is related to the immediate environment. Additionally, in the spirit of interpretation, the presenters must not only provide information about the landscape or ecosystem, but also use that landscape to inspire and educate the audience toward deeper "meanings and relationships" (Tilden 1957).

In the case of this semester-long course on the natural history and ecology of the Sonoran Desert, the natural history presentations effectively illustrated student advancement. The interpretive-walk assignment required students to address course topics such as characteristics of the Sonoran Desert climate (rainfall, latitude, altitudinal zonation); behavioral and morphological adaptations in plants and animals to the desert environment; and the importance of riparian areas to the desert ecosystem. In addition to assessing student knowledge and ability to apply these concepts to an actual ecosystem, the instructor evaluated students' observation, presentation, and collaboration skills. The presentations were worth 30% of each student's final grade and served as an all-encompassing "final exam."

Natural history interpretation and authentic assessment

Natural history interpretation offers college science instructors an educationally challenging alternative or complement to traditional evaluation methods, such as multiple-choice testing. Because it asks students to draw connections among varied concepts and apply them to a real-life setting, natural history interpretation shows students that course content has relevance outside of the college classroom. These are some of the qualities that make natural history interpretation an example of authentic assessment, a trend being increasingly promoted at all levels of educational institutions. …

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