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​​​Plant Disease Notebook assignment offers students a way to customize a course

Anton B.A.M. Baudoin

Dept. of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed​​ Science
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
abaudoin@vt.edu


Baudoin, A.B.A.M. 2004. Plant Disease Notebook assignment offers students a way to customize a course. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI:10.1094/PHI-T-2004-0317-01
Minor update, 2009. Reviewed 2015.

A common student complaint in general plant pathology courses is that some of the material is not relevant to the students' interests and career aspirations. Agronomy students grumble when diseases of vegetables, hollies, and roses are used as examples, even if it is to illustrate general principles; many horticulture students do not like to hear about diseases of cereals or soybeans. Even faculty from other departments occasionally ask if we could teach a course on diseases of turf or diseases of field crops for their students, rather than, or in addition to, a general course. This can dilute our teaching efforts and would still leave out students with interests in areas where enrollment numbers do not justify a separate course.

In response to such complaints and requests, I no longer require that students in my general plant pathology course study information on specific diseases for exams. Instead, they select their own examples, and study (individually or in small groups) disease identification and management for crops important to them, and prepare a "notebook" containing this information. Students are encouraged to use library books, trade magazines, leaflets and pamphlets, as well as internet sources, and to interact with extension personnel and growers. In addition, they are required to find at least five disease samples, bring them to lab, and attempt a diagnosis. Students don't have to stop at five samples - extra samples, or extra effort with the disease notebook, offer a great way to make up for missed labs or other deficiencies. Instru​ctions for students are provided in the course syllabus. Each student's resulting "Disease Notebook," a compilation of printouts, copies, written notes, summaries, lab diagnoses, etc., is evaluated through an oral exam, and is worth one quarter of the grade in a 4-credit course, which also includes two lectures and one laboratory each week.

In order to keep track of progress, provide feedback, and encourage students to not put off this project until the last weeks of the term, there are requirements with due dates at various stages:

Goals Statement. A brief statement of the student's background, interests, and goals, including a preliminary indication of what he or she would like to do for the disease notebook, is due in the second week of the term.

Outline. An outline listing specific crops and diseases, a few references, and a sample disease write-up, is due in the third or fourth week. Sample comments I have made in previous years are posted on the course website to provide advance notice of common deficiencies.

Midterm Check. A "midterm check" is conducted just past the middle of the term. Prior to this, students are required to complete a self-assessment form, and during the session itself (I use a lecture period), each student reviews the notebooks of two other students with (usually) similar crop interests. In addition, a few faculty and/or graduate students with diverse expertise are asked to stop by as resource people and help answer questions or provide advice on such matters as: What are the most common diseases of this crop in this area? What additional sources of information could we explore? Why would growers use, or not use, certain management practices? This interaction, plus seeing what fellow students have done, often stimulates quite a bit of new activity. (Parasitism is legal; synergism is encouraged.)

Final Evaluation. At the end of the term, each student's notebook is individually discussed and evaluated in a 30-minute interview. The types of questions usually asked are made available beforehand. Students are expected to explain major points without reference to their notebook, but are allowed to look up details. I have tried some group exams with students who had worked together as a group, but found it more difficult to discern each member's contribution and level of achievement.

In my seven years of experience with this assignment, most students have responded very positively, and have found the disease notebook a motivating and useful project that allows them to learn specific, customized information, and to become familiar with sources of practical information. In a survey (Fall 2003) of 44 students, 33 rated this exercise a very useful assignment, 9 found it somewhat useful, and 2 not useful. When asked about cooperation, 4 students had cooperated a lot with others, 10 had cooperated occasionally or to a limited extent, and 30 little or not at all. Eighteen students would have liked to have worked more with others than they did, while 26 were satisfied with the amount of cooperation. Fifteen students reported that they had worked on their notebooks throughout the semester, 23 had started early but had done most of the work late in the semester, and 5 had started late in the semester. Students reported having spent fewer than 2 to more than 12 in-class hours on this project (many had spent 4-8 in-class hours, most of it on lab diagnoses), and from 10-15 to over 50 hours outside class, with the largest number reporting 30-40 hours. When asked whether instructor's expectations had been clear, 25 said sufficiently clear, 10 mostly clear, and 5 not clear. Ten students would have liked more precise requirements for this assignment (e.g. minimum number of notebook pages, number of diseases covered), whereas 34 liked the freedom to make such choices themselves.

Some advantages of this assignment:

  • Student motivation is considerably improved when students can select their own material.
  • Students have something concrete to show for the course; some have told me they have taken their notebook to job interviews.
  • Cooperation is possible, and encouraged, but not mandatory. Some students need to be warned that cooperation by just dividing up the work and each compiling part of a notebook is not very effective: you don’t learn much by someone else doing something for you. However, it is very useful if students share the sources they have found most helpful, if they critique each others’ notebook, or if students with contacts (for example, through jobs) share those with others (e.g., through informal field trips). But if one member of a group wants to include a section on, say, water plants, others are not forced to do the same.
  • The work promotes familiarity with books, websites, trade literature, and other information sources, including human sources. Access to good resources has been greatly facilitated by the worldwide web (some starting points are provided via the course website). Valuable resources provided by APS include:
    • Plant Management Network (extension materials)
      This includes the online journal Plant Health Progress. Access to some materials requires a subscription; your institution may have one.
    • APSnet web Feature Articles
    • ​Selected Feature Articles from Plant Disease (available online to students only if institution has an online subscription except for article more than 12 months old)
  • Exposure to oral examination is new to many students, but I tell them it is analogous to a job interview, although they get to propose a grade rather than a starting salary.
  • Students can use and highlight their strengths. Although most of the students who do well in this assignment also do well on written tests, occasionally I will have a student who struggles with other course requirements but does much better with the disease notebook and oral interview.

Drawbacks include:

  • The individual examinations are time consuming. I schedule 30 minutes per student, and have had as many as 90 interviews in the last 2-3 weeks of a semester, in which case I just don't expect to get much else done during that time.
  • The other time-consuming aspect is providing help and counseling. In order to enable students to diagnose self-collected unknown samples in lab, experienced assistance must be available. Many teaching assistants do not have enough experience to handle this well by themselves.

I have found the Disease Notebook to be a flexible assignment. The description provided is based on a junior level, semester-long plant pathology course, but I also use it as a stand-alone graduate course, and-on a much smaller scale-as part of a pest management course for a two-year agriculture degree program, where plant pathology comprises only one-third of the course, but where the same diversity of crop interests exists. Expectations can easily be adjusted for the level and background of the students.

Note added in 2009: this Disease Notebook exercise continues to be a very valuable part of my classes (A. Baudoin)

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