Background: In the light of the ongoing loss of species the knowledge about and the ability to identify species becomes increasingly important for effective monitoring and conservation measures. Learning about identifying biodiversity is a central task for future biologists and biology teachers and universities play an important role in educating future experts and multipliers. It builds one basis for conservation literacy.
Methods: We analyzed undergraduate students' prior knowledge on plant species, identification and their knowledge gain from introductory plant identification courses at eight German universities. Using the Visual Classification Method-a combination of a presentation and standardized questionnaires-we evaluated the learning success of more than 500 students regarding (a) 'declarative species knowledge' of plant species names and (b) 'taxonomic concept knowledge', which is seen as knowledge on a higher level of complexity. From comparison of paired pre- and post-tests we calculated the individual knowledge gain. Using Linear Mixed Effects Models (LMMs) we analyzed effects of knowledge levels, learner-specific resources and learning environment on the knowledge gain.
Results: We found that university course instructors have to start teaching at an almost zero level with respect to undergraduates' prior knowledge: on average 2.6 of 32 common plant species were known. Overall, the introductory courses resulted in a significant but weak knowledge gain. We detected a higher knowledge gain in 'taxonomic concept knowledge' than in 'declarative species knowledge'. We showed that the learning success was influenced by learner-specific resources, such as prior knowledge or aspects of motivation towards the subject matter, and by learning environment such as teaching methodology.
Discussion: We discuss didactical demands and aspects of teaching methodologies that could facilitate learning the complex task of plant identification in university courses. Plant identification should be taught and supervised by experienced, highly motivated course instructors with profound expertise and outstanding didactical skills. In order to qualify future generations of biologists, biology teachers, or conservationists universities should aim at and encourage high-quality teaching.
Keywords: Biodiversity education; Conservation literacy; Expert knowledge; Higher education; Multiplier training.