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Hear this! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education


Prof. Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences, writes about a podcast assignment he and his TA designed for a large undergraduate ecology class.

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrollment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

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