Learning outcomes are aligned with assessments which in turn are aligned with Teaching and Learning Activities

By the end of my 3rd year environmental change course, students are expected to demonstrate that they can orally communicate environmental change research to specialist and non-specialist audiences. To assess this learning outcome, students deliver research presentations at a mini-conference that they organize themselves. I have been so pleased with the presentations themselves and at the opportunity for community building that I thought it was worth sharing the experience.

My assessment planning (simplified below) is guided by principles of constructive alignment to ensure that students learn the skills they need to succeed at demonstrating their achievement of the outcome.

Learning Outcome Communicate environmental change research to non-specialist audiences in oral form
Assessment Present research on a chosen environmental change question to peers and special guests.

Ask clarifying or extending questions when presented with research outside of their own specialty.

Teaching and Learning Activities Explain figures and graphs to peers in small groups during each class.

In small groups, skim, interpret and explain research paper cases to peers.

Discuss research questions and approach with instructor.

Students practice asking questions to refine research topics.

The assignment is scaffolded so students get a chance for feedback and refinement before their presentations.  Students draft research questions, create an annotated bibliography, and write an abstract before delivering their presentation.  They receive instructor and/or peer feedback at each stage in the process.  Getting students to help each-other refine their research questions always makes for a lively discussion.


My objective as the instructor is to encourage my students to engage with environmental change research at an upper year undergraduate level. They develop a specific research question, synthesize the current state of knowledge relating to their research question, and focus on principles of effective science communication. To increase buy-in for the event, I encourage students to take ownership of their own presentation, and the entire event.

Each year, in addition to populating the sessions, the students work together to create the conference.  They decide what needs to be done and undertake tasks including:

  • (lovingly) name the conference
  • create a logo (see below)
  • organize the talks into sessions
  • schedule the talks
  • create an abstract book
  • moderate the sessions
  • invite and introducing special guests (invited environmental change researchers from across campus)
  • provide snacks (can you enjoy a conference that’s devoid of food?)

Environment Associates Research & Testing Horizons (2014)

Abstract cover and logo for the Conference Regarding Anthropogenic Processes

Conference Regarding Anthropogenic Processes


I have not collected student feedback about the conference specifically, and although I have some comments on my course evaluations that specifically mention the conference, my reflections thus far are based on my own intuition and observations.

Preparing the conference is not a lot of work split between 20 students, and yet from my observations the effect was impressive.  The session moderators took their speaker introductions and question period moderation duties seriously.  The questions were thoughtful and seemed genuine, often needing to be cut off to start the next presentation.  This is in contrast to some presentations I have attended in which the student questions seem a bit forced.

I wondered if students would feel more pressure in contributing to a conference, but if they did they certainly rose to the occasion.  I was blown away by the pride students have taken in their own conference presentations and the careful attention paid to the presentations of their classmates.  Students exceeded my expectations and seemed to hold high expectations of each other for the success of the conference.  Students responded confidently when our special guests (environmental change scientists from the university) asked tough questions, and some students wanted to chat more with our guests afterward.

I told students that they would not be tested on their ability to relay information from their classmates presentations, but that they may wish to draw upon the research of their colleagues to help answer questions.   I observed that many students listened intently, while others wrote notes in the margins of the printed abstract book.

Next time we host CRAP

Areas I’d like to improve upon

  • When discussing and practicingeffective communication, focus not only on presentation skills but also on handling audience questions
  • Encourage students to invite more special guests of their choosing to increase the authenticity of the event
  • Avoid breaking the coffee carafe (my only contribution to the food into a million pieces 10 minutes before the conference starts
  • Collect informal feedback on the conference feedback right after the conference

Find out more

Feel free to view and adapt the assignment and the current marking guide.

[google-drive-embed url=”https://docs.google.com/uc?id=0B2rAvuB8GLxEaGt5Um11TmRCNVE&export=download” title=”Research Presentation Rubric Template.pdf” icon=”https://ssl.gstatic.com/docs/doclist/images/icon_12_pdf_list.png” style=”download”]

[google-drive-embed url=”https://docs.google.com/uc?id=0B2rAvuB8GLxEaks4MVpOMW1Jd00&export=download” title=”Research Project Assignment Sheet.pdf” icon=”https://ssl.gstatic.com/docs/doclist/images/icon_12_pdf_list.png” style=”download”]