Cooperative learning activities are designed by the course instructor for students to complete in groups using information and materials provided by the instructor (Ventimiglia, 1994). Using a variety of cooperative activities in teaching addresses differences in student learning styles (McCormick and Whittington, 2000; Murano and Knight, 1999a), thereby facilitating student learning. While traditional lectures transfer knowledge, they are less conducive in facilitating higher levels of thinking, such as the application of concepts and analysis and synthesis of information (Bull and Clausen, 2000; Murano and Knight, 1999b). Academic challenges should be constructed to engage students in developing skills in higher-level thinking [application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (McCormick and Whittington, 2000)]. Cooperative learning activities engage students (Murano and Knight, 1999b; Ventimiglia, 1994) by being interesting and giving them responsibility in the teaching and learning process (Caprio, 1993). In addition to higher-level thinking, students develop skills not promoted in traditional lecture formats: productive peer-to-peer interactions (Bull and Clausen, 2000), creativity, effective communication, and time management (Murano and Knight, 1999b). Cooperative learning activities also can encourage student independence and self-directedness (Pennington, 2004). The plant systematics course offered through the Department of Horticulture at The Pennsylvania State University includes several cooperative learning activities to engage students in course topics.
Plant systematics is a second-year/sophomore level, 3-credit, required course for undergraduate students majoring in horticulture and is offered each spring semester. The course includes two weekly lecture sessions (50 min each) and one weekly laboratory session (115 min). The overall objective of the course is for students to explore the biosystematics and taxonomy of plants with a focus on agrophytic families. In 1995, the course was reformatted based on a three-dimensional model: plant identification, systematics, and enhancement/ethnobotany. The plant identification dimension includes nomenclature, culture, and use of horticultural plants emphasizing 14 families. The systematics dimension includes classical, numerical, biochemical, and molecular protocols of systematics. Finally, the horticultural enhancement dimension includes historical uses of plants, relationships between plants and people, evolutionary aspects, and geographic paradigms.
Among the teaching materials and activities developed for the revamped course is a website containing PowerPoint (Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.) presentations that students can use to preview or review lecture topics. Each student delivers a 10-min presentation on the taxonomic characteristics and ethnobotanical information of a plant family and completes three in-class examinations of lecture topics. Cooperative learning activities developed are a learning fair for elementary school students and applied laboratory exercises and examinations.
The need for adequate incentives for student participation in cooperative learning activities has been documented (Henneberry and Beshear, 1995; Murano and Knight, 1999b). While not the only incentive, each activity accounted for a percentage of the overall course grade: 6% for the learning fair, 14% for the applied laboratory exercises, and 11% for the applied laboratory examinations.
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