In this study, Nordic student teachers’ views on the most efficient methods, materials and strategies to teach and learn species and species identification, as well as the most important characteristics they used in the identification of plant and animal species, were analyzed. Regarding the student teachers’ answers about their (1–3) most efficient methods out of the 18 alternatives, only answers containing the correct number of ticked alternatives (1–3) were accepted (n = 204). The remaining student teachers (n = 220) had not followed the instruction and ticked 4–11 alternatives instead of 1–3. Every single alternative was ticked by at least some of the student teachers, a fact that shows how wide the range of efficient methods is and how differently methods can appeal to different individuals. The explanations given by the student teachers also reveal how difficult it is to rank methods using efficiency as a criterion. Moreover, several of the student teachers had clearly misunderstood what a given method was about, and that the question concerned only methods specifically for teaching and learning species and species identification. Answers about the most efficient materials and the most important sources (e.g., field trip and fieldwork) overlapped in the student teachers’ answers, and these are therefore described here together. Some of the selected quotations included several aspects, while others focused on only one aspect.
5.1. Student Teachers’ Views on the Most Efficient Teaching and Learning Methods
‘Outdoor experiential learning’ was ticked by a clear majority of the student teachers (64.7%) as one of the most efficient teaching and learning methods for species and species identification out of the 18 alternatives (see Figure 1
). The following most frequently ticked alternatives were ‘outdoor project work’ (29.9%), ‘indoor experiential learning (28.9%), ‘outdoor teacher-centered education’ (26%), and ‘indoor teacher-centered education’ (19.1%). Outdoor methods were always more preferred than the corresponding indoor methods, except for the ‘traditional group work’, which was preferred indoors by 9.8% and outdoors by 6.4% of the student teachers. In contrast, ‘group inquiry’ outdoors was ticked by a somewhat large number of student teachers than indoors (11.3% and 9.3%, respectively). Student-centered methods were more emphasized than teacher-centered, although the teacher’s role as an instructor, a knowledge base or a supervisor was pointed out also in other than teacher-centered methods. Learning together and having expert groups through ‘cooperative learning’ outdoors were ticked by 13.7% and indoors by 11.8% of the student teachers. Methods ticked as efficient by at least one of ten student teachers were: ’experimental learning’ outdoors (12.3%) and indoors (10.3%), as well as ‘indoor project work’ (12.3%), while for example ‘problem-based learning’ outdoors and indoors were ticked only by a few student teachers (5.4% and 1.5%, respectively). The alternative ‘others’ (indoors 7.4% and outdoors 4.9%) included learning by using various sources of information, independent learning, making observations and drawings, taking photos, collecting plant species for a herbarium, learning through games, participating in excursions and fieldwork.
Do the student teachers’ opinions about the most efficient method also reflect their results in the species identification test? The only significant difference between any two groups was between student teachers who emphasized outdoor project work and those who did not [t(123) = 2.364, p = 0.020]. Student teachers who emphasized both outdoor experiential learning and outdoor project work as their most efficient methods, also received significantly better results than the others, but the effect size was small [F(1, 202) = 5.445, p = 0.021, = 0.026]. Furthermore, student teachers who emphasized outdoor methods received better results when identifying plant species than those who preferred indoor methods (χ2 = 4.916, df 1, p = 0.027). These results are, however, only indicative, because the student teachers ticked and explained their alternatives from three different perspectives instead of one, i.e., how they themselves have learnt species.
There was also a relationship between different levels of interest in nature and the student teachers’ opinions about their most efficient teaching and learning methods. Student teachers who had a high or very high level of interest in nature had a slightly more positive opinion about outdoor experiential learning and outdoor project work than the other student teachers (χ2 = 8.263, df 2, p = 0.016). More specifically, student teachers who had a very high level of interest preferred outdoor project work (χ2 = 6.823, df 2, p = 0.033) more often and outdoor teacher-centered learning less often (χ2 = 6.060, df 2, p = 0.048) than the others. Student teachers who were not interested in nature preferred outdoor experiential learning as their most efficient method (χ2 = 7.453, df 2, p = 0.024) more often than the others.
There were also differences in the student teachers’ opinions about the efficient methods regarding their residency, gender and age. Student teachers who had lived in urban areas preferred indoor methods significantly more often than outdoor methods (χ2 = 10.674, df 1, p = 0.001), whereas those who had lived in rural areas preferred outdoor methods (χ2 =7.087, df 1, p = 0.008). More specifically, the urban student teachers preferred indoor cooperative learning more often than the rural ones (χ2 = 5.693, df 1, p = 0.015), whereas the rural ones preferred outdoor group inquiry significantly more often than the urban ones (χ2 =17.474, df 1, p = 0.000). Outdoor methods were preferred more often by women than by men (χ2 = 8.897, df 1, p = 0003), whereas age did not result in any significant differences, except that student teachers in age group 25–35 preferred outdoor experiential learning more often than the others (χ2 = 6.818, df 2, p = 0.033).
Student Teachers’ Explanations
The student teachers were asked to explain why they think these methods are their 1–3 most efficient when teaching and learning species and species identification. They explained their views from three different perspectives: how they themselves have learnt (or not learnt), how they themselves would like to teach or what they (without any personal experience) considered could be the most efficient methods.
‘Outdoor experiential learning’ was explained by the student teachers as the best way to learn through concrete experiences and the use of several senses for observations. Additionally, outdoor environment was described as an authentic, real environment, which enables people’s hands-on activities and promotes their long-term memory. Most of them expressed the efficiency of outdoor experiential learning in the same way as in the following examples: “Concrete observations, which are based on experiences and several senses, leave a permanent memory, long-term memory” (1030) or “Experiential learning make it easier to learn and remember different species, because through it you get directly into the core of the matter. When you use vision, hearing and at least smell, you learn in several different ways”(1069). The student teachers also pointed out that experiential learning gives more value and meaning to the studied issues because of personal experiences. Some of the student teachers underlined the role of teachers also in outdoor learning: “The best way of learning species is in the terrain, where both teacher and students find different plants, animals, insects, because then it is easier to identify the species. Together we see and explore and identify various species”(3033).
‘Outdoor project work’ was often mentioned together with outdoor experiential learning. The efficiency of these was explained through active participation and contact with nature, but also by teacher guidance: “A learner can participate on their own, experience and make observations under guidance. Real contact with nature creates a personal relationship with it and stays in your memory” (1183) and “The presence of a teacher as an expert is good in project work”(1218). The efficiency of project work depended on “learning-by-doing” (2038), and “thrash out something when you yourself look for information and you also remember it better than when a teacher just tells you something”(2012).
‘Teacher-centered’ learning outdoors or indoors as the most efficient method rested on encouraging teachers as experts with solid subject knowledge and supervising skills: “At least I learn the best, when the teacher guides my attention to the most important characteristics” (1136) or “Under the teacher’s guidance we immediately learn the correct names and learn to focus on the right things regarding species identification”(1198). Teacher-centered could also be the only method the student teacher had experience of, or, as an older student teacher expressed it: “When I was at school, teacher-centered was by far the most dominating teaching method. About the others we probably had not heard at that time”(1182).
‘Cooperative learning’ outdoors or indoors was highlighted as one of the student teachers’ most efficient methods, due to the opportunity to experience learning issues together with their peers and also the demand of a high level of their own knowledge in order to be able to teach it further to others in the group. Some of them expressed it in following ways: “Having cooperative learning outdoors means that we are close to nature, experience things together with people your age. The responsibility to teach the others improves your own learning” (1141) and “I think learning species works the best through practical experience and when you have to take it in so well that you can teach it to others” (1156) and “Demonstrations of species by learners are performed using their own, more easily understandable terminology”(1140).
‘Experimental learning’ outdoors and indoors were chosen as one of the most efficient teaching and learning methods because of the opportunity to practice and study things more in depth: “Experiments and experiences are good methods, because then you really investigate in depth” (1192) or “I myself learn the best by doing and studying things” (1139) or “To study living plants is very important instead of only pictures. To be in nature strengthens learning”(1200). The importance of ‘group inquiry’ was pointed out both before and after experiments, but also as an efficient method in itself: “In the classroom you can start exploring things by discussing together about the ways in which you can identify different species” (1076) and “In group inquiry both the teacher and the learners participate in the discussion and thereby gather more facts for identification of species”(1108), as well as, “you can ask students about their observations on organisms and after that the teacher can complete the observations—in-depth learning and all important things will be taken into account”(1075). ‘Traditional group work’ was motivated by: “You can use several learners’ knowledge”(1083), but it also got negative comments: “Regarding group work I felt that time was splurged to everything irrelevant”(1182). The few student teachers who ticked ‘problem-based learning’ outdoors or indoors as one of their most efficient methods defined it precisely as a method that enabled in-depth learning.
5.2. Student Teachers’ Views on the Most Efficient Materials and Sources for Teaching and Learning
As a natural consequence of the fact that outdoor methods were emphasized as efficient teaching and learning methods for species identification, living organisms were pointed out as an important source. A clear majority, about 85% of the student teachers, ticked living plants as one of their most efficient teaching materials for teaching and learning species and species identification, followed by living animals (57%) (see Figure 2
). The third and fourth most emphasized materials were photos and drawings (41.8%) and stuffed animals (34.8%). CD/DVD was ticked by 23.4%, the Internet by 21% and books by 19.1% of the student teachers. Furthermore, 8.7% of the student teachers considered dried plants to be important for teaching and learning species and species identification. Magazines were the least ticked, only by 1.4% of student teachers. The alternative ‘others’ (4.5%) included e.g., films (not ticked as DVD), TV-nature programs, computer games and programs, and a combination of all given alternatives.
When all emphasized materials were compared with the results in the identification test, only the use of living plants resulted in significantly better results. Student teachers who emphasized living plants as their most efficient material received significantly better results in identification of plant species than those who did not [t(81) = 2.603, p = 0.011]. The women ticked living plants significantly more often than the men (χ2 = 16.069, df 1, p = 0.000).
When the student teachers were asked to tick their 1–3 most important sources for information of species out of the seven alternatives, more than half of them ticked ‘school’ (66.5%), ‘media’ (64.4%) and ‘family’ (56.5%), while ‘university’ was ranked by 45.1% of them (see Figure 3
). About a quarter of them (24.2%) had ‘hobbies’ as a source, connected to plant and animal consciousness. Several student teachers considered obtaining information also from their friends (16.9%) and other sources (16.9%). The category ‘others’ included mostly books and films of different kinds.
Student teachers who had ticked ‘school’ or ‘university’ as one of their three most important sources (n = 256), were further asked to specify the most important source out of the four alternatives. ‘Field trips and fieldwork’ were ranked as the most important source by 40.6%, ‘learning materials’ by 34.4%, ‘teachers’ by 14.5% and ‘species identification in the classroom’ by 10.5% of the student teachers. Significant differences were found when comparing student teachers’ sources used for species identification with their results from the identification test [F(3, 169) = 6.942, p = 0.000]. More specifically, student teachers who ticked ‘field trips and fieldwork’ as the most important source received significantly better results than those who ticked ‘teachers’ (p = 0.000). Additionally, student teachers who ticked ‘learning materials’ as their most important source received significantly better results than those who ‘ticked teachers’ (p = 0.010).
In the same way, student teachers who had ticked ‘media’ as one of their three most important sources (n = 215), were further asked to specify their most important source out of the five alternatives. ‘Internet’ was ranked by 47.9% and ‘television’ by 42.3% of them, while both ‘nature journals’ and ‘newspapers’ were ranked by 4.7%. ‘Other journals’ were ranked by 0.5% of the student teachers. No significant difference was found between the used source and the test results, but the men ticked the Internet significantly more often than the women (χ2 = 12.707, df 1, p = 0.000).
Student Teachers’ Explanations
The student teachers explained that living plants and living animals are their most efficient materials for species identification mostly through observations in a real habitat. This often coincided with their answers about their most important sources (field trips and fieldwork) and their most efficient learning and teaching methods (outdoor experiential learning). Furthermore, they pointed out the opportunity to use many different senses outdoors, which motivates learning and increases one’s interest in species. Field trips and fieldwork are efficient sources, “because then you are in the plants’ and animals’ own habitat and everything can be experienced and studied through several senses” (1106) and because “you can experience plants or animals for real; this motivates learning”(1021), “this is [in other words] how you gain practical knowledge, which is kept in mind the best”(1007), and this knowledge can be used later in corresponding environments: “you remember them [species] better when you see a similar environment again”(1054). One of the student teachers answered the question about the most important source for species identification in this way: “I would like to answer ‘fieldwork’, but we have used it very seldom as a working method, so my own knowledge is based on different kinds of pictures, which I have then combined with what I’ve seen in nature”(1040).
The student teachers also stated that good learning materials (especially books, textbooks, teacher-produced materials and nature documents in media) support learning through their clear pictures (photos and drawings), clearly-labeled characteristics, sounds, and good descriptions of species. One of the student teachers, one among many others with a similar opinion, explained: “Learning material is a broad concept for me including textbooks and the material produced by the teacher; the pictures and information in these are good sources of information”(1078), while another also pointed out “the opportunity to expand their knowledge also in their leisure time”(1030). “Through books and pictures or looking at species [during excursions or fieldwork]—that’s the way I learn the best”(3058).
Some student teachers considered dried plants to be useful, because “collecting plants as homework and the use of dried plant collections was really educational and memorable”(1062). The use of stuffed or other kind of dead animals was efficient, because “they are easy to use during species identification in the classroom”(2008). High quality nature documents and teaching programs on DVD and the Internet (which was an alternative both in materials and sources), or on TV are good sources according to several student teachers, because “moving pictures and presentations of habitats help to perceive the big picture”(1145). In addition, nature programs are “visually stimulating, esthetic and dramatic”(1025). The student teachers also use nature journals or the Internet to find “a lot of information about different species and their systematics” (3014) or to obtain “articles which go deeper into issues about species and their habitat” (2008). In addition to that “The internet is easy to use”(1009), several of them had a very high trust in the Internet as their best source: “you can find everything there”(1010), “…and so quickly”(2088), or “when I want to find knowledge e.g., for a species identification test, the internet is in my mind the best and most multifaceted source”(1079).
Teachers as important sources were described by some student teachers as “[people] who inform and choose the material”(2115), “are creative and use concrete material” (2071)and “have good professional knowledge, especially subject knowledge, and are therefore able to inspire and motivate, and stimulate curiosity”(3063). The teacher’s role as a supervisor was also emphasized in all outdoor education, and for species identification in the classroom: “Species identification in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher offers opportunities to point out the most important characteristics of species. I also prefer listening to the teacher speaking rather than reading about the same thing in a book by myself”(1075).
Student teachers who ticked peers as their most important source of information at the same time emphasized traditional group work or cooperative learning both in the classroom and outdoors. One of them explained it in the following way: “It’s nice to work in a group, to share my own and the other group members’ observations and experiences; it’s educative and helps me to remember things better” (1182).
5.3. Student Teachers’ Preferences for Characteristics When Identifying Species
Because the student teachers ranked living plants and animals, but also pictures and drawings, as their most important sources for identifying species, they were also asked how they usually identify organisms, what characteristics they observe and what strategies they use, by ticking their (1–3) most important characteristics in photos and in nature. Regarding plants in photos, the student teachers ticked ‘color’ (84.9%) and ‘flowers’ (81.6%), followed by ‘leaves’ (81.6%) and ‘forms’ (52.5%). The corresponding strategies in nature were almost in the same order: ‘flowers’ (72.5%), ‘color’ (70.6%), ‘leaves’ (52.5%) and ‘forms’ (40.9%), but their frequencies were more spread out, because there were more alternatives to tick when identifying plants in nature (smell, touch, movement and taste) than in photos. In addition, the plants’ habitat was used as a strategy more often in nature (26.1%) than in photos (10.9%). As other alternatives, the student teachers had stems or the actual season in nature when the observation was made.
The most important characteristics when identifying animals in photos were ‘form’ (88.7%) and ‘color’ (86.4%), followed by ‘size’ (61.9% and ‘habitat’ (24.9%). Animals in nature were observed by ‘form’ (74.6%), ‘size’ (71.8%), ‘color’ (68.7%) and ‘habitat’ (27.1%), but also characteristics which were possible only in nature, such as ‘sound’ (32.7%), ‘movement’ (21.9%) and ‘touch’ (1.4%). As other alternatives, the student teachers had special patterns (e.g., in wings or fur), tracks, feces and different body parts.
Significantly better results in the species identification test were found among those student teachers who used flowers in photos (χ2 = 10.076, df 2, p = 0.006) or in nature (χ2 = 20.511, df 2, p = 0.000) as the most important characteristics of plants. Additionally, student teachers who used leaves of plants as a characteristics to identify them in nature, received significantly better results in the test than the others (χ2 = 6.352, df 2, p = 0.000). No significant test results were found regarding the other characteristics of plants, while only student teacher who emphasized movement of animals in nature received slightly better results than the others (χ2 = 6.125, df 2, p = 0.047). No significant gender differences were found regarding the student teachers’ most important characteristics or strategies.