The Introduction to Physical Geography Course at Western University typically has a laboratory assignment due almost every week.  These assignments focus on particular sets of skills, calculations and concepts that form a solid basis for upper year courses in Physical Geography. As important as these concepts are, they cater towards select types of learners.  I developed a new assignment that allows students to independently apply concepts from class, express creativity, and share their ideas with the class and beyond. The assignment, the “Physical Geography Photo Reflection Portfolio”  requires students to view their own world through the eyes of a geographer (see instructor example).  The assignment rewards creative, critical and plausible descriptions of processes in the photo.  Many students excelled at this task, making remarkable observations, applying geographic processes learned in class, and in many cases, describing geographic phenomena that have likely never before been described.

I shared my initial proposal for the idea at the Winter Conference on Teaching in January 2012, and have since had several conversations and email inquiries about incorporating similar assignments into courses.

The latest iteration of the assignment makes use of the online multimedia sharing tool, VoiceThread. The advantages of this new format are:

  • Students get low-stakes practice with oral presentation skills;
  • Students can express their creativity without getting bogged down in the technical details of multiple different blogging platforms;
  • I can connect with a large number of students (including those who do not speak up in class);
  • Photos are easily shared, annotated, and explained; and
  • Feedback can be given orally by annotating a rubric right within the tool.

Reflections from other professors who have adapted the assignment for their courses:

Dr. James Voogt, on continued use of the Photo Reflection Assignment in Geo1300b: Introduction to Physical Geography.

“It has been a successful assignment in trying to get students to link their everyday observations and experience with the process-type explanations that we hope to instill in the course.  One measure of the success is the very good student performance and engagement on the assignment.  Another is the fact that in most years I get at least one or two students who send me photos after the course to demonstrate physical geography processes/phenomena/events they have experienced and sometimes to ask about.”

Dr. James Voogt, on modifying the Photo Reflection Assignment for Geog 2310a: Weather and Climate at Western University.

The success of the first year assignment prompted me to consider whether it could be adapted to my second year Weather and Climate course.

In this version I have experimented with the idea of linking a photograph – a view from a single (usually ground-based) perspective of some weather or climate phenomena or process – and linking it to both an explanation (like the first year assignment) and to (the new part) relevant weather and climate analysis or forecast imagery… The intent is to try and make a link between what we ‘see’ of the weather or climate from our vantage point, to what is happening at larger spatial scales that are mostly responsible for driving the weather and are depicted on the materials that meteorologists most often use.”

Dr. Erin Fraser, on modifying the photo reflection assignment for her Vertebrate Biology class at Memorial University.

“The overall objective of the photo assignment was for students to apply the theoretical knowledge that they were acquiring in the course to the real world around them. I greatly enjoyed seeing and reading the final products – there were lots of photos of pet dogs, cats, and fish, but also some more unusual photos such as multiple toads in amplexus and a surprisingly up-close shot of a grizzly bear! It was clear that students were often very proud of the photos they had chosen and that these selections often illustrated what they considered to be meaningful encounters with wildlife.”