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Tomtits and robins were the focus of the first question in the 2016 Schol Bio paper. Specifically, Chatham Island tomtits and robins, which are found only on the Chathams. While at one point they were common and widespread on the islands, the tomtit is classified as nationally endangered, while the black robin is nationally critical & at very high risk of extinction.

The question paper provides two pages of resource materials (maps, photos, and text), and asks students to

Analyse the information provided in the resource materialA and integrate it with your biological knowledge to discuss

  • the reasons why the black robin has a higher risk of extinction than the Chatham Island tomtitB
  • the impact of human intervention on the survival AND evolution of the black robin population.

Compared to the more generalist tomtits, black robins are quite specialised in their habitat and diet. The robins prefer mature forest, with a closed canopy and open understory, while tomits live in mature forest but also venture into shrublands and tussock. This means that the tomtits' options in terms of food and nest sites are less limited. The fact that the robins' poweres of dispersal are limited, so they can't move to suitable habitat on other islands, doesn't help.

One of the fun things about encountering robins in bush on the mainland is that they are ground feeders - you can scuff up some of the leaf litter, step back, and watch them come down to peck through it in search of the invertebrates that they prey on. Tomtits feed at multiple levels in the forest, taking fruit & leaves as well as invertebrate animals. Their more specialised diet means the robins are more at risk following loss of habitat - or a dry year that makes their prey harder to come by. Their ground-feeding habit also means that they're more exposed to predation, something that is also the case for their nesting habits: robins prefer cavities in trees, while tomtit nests are generally quite well concealed (not that this would stop a hungry rat, possum, or mustelid from seeking them out). 

It also takes longer for black robins to replace any losses to predation, let alone grow their population. This is because, compared to tomtits, they have a lower reproductive rate: normally the robins produce one (sometimes two) clutches of 1-4 eggs a year, while tomtits may rear up to three lots of offspring a year, with 3-4 eggs per clutch. (The fact that robins can produce that extra clutch, if the first doesn't survive, was crucial to the efforts to save them when their effective population size was down to a single breeding pair.) The result is that the robins are at greater risk of extinction. 

The fact that the robin population got so low (down to 5 birds in total, with that single breeding pair) means that they went through a severe bottleneck event. As a result of this, and of the subsequent unavoidable inbreeding, there is very little genetic diversity in their population, even though there are now around 250 birds on two islands. This means that the population may not have sufficient variation to allow at least some individuals to survive any significant environmental change. The discovery of birds with deformed beaks, poor bone development, or a distinct lack of feathers has been attributed to that high level of inbreeding.

As the resource information (& a couple of the links above) makes clear, human intervention was the only thing that brought the robins back from the brink and ensured their survival to date. Thus, inducing double clutching, by taking the first clutch and placing the eggs with surrogate parents (first warblers & then, when that wasn't successful because the warblers couldn't provide the right food, tomtits) saw a marked increase in population size. (However, this did come with the risk that the robin chicks would imprint on the wrong parents, something that did actually happen.) Translocating the robins to other islands not only provided suitable habitat and food for the growing population, it also meant that their eggs weren't 'all in one basket': if a predator or disease knocked out the birds on one island, the other could still survive. 

However, conservation workers were pretty much developing their techniques with the robins as they went along, and their interventions did have an impact on the birds' gene pool. I've already mentioned the impact of inbreeding, which can result in increased odds of harmful alleles being expressed. Back in 1984, when someone noticed that a robin had laid her egg on the rim of the nest rather than in the bowl, nudging the egg back into the nest seemed the right thing to do. Unfortunately, by 1989 over 50% of the females were laying rim eggs - the DoC team had inadvertently selected for a dominant, harmful, allele (you can read the original paper here). That is, human action had countered natural selection: normally the egg would have fallen from the nest, or at the least would not have been incubated. Once researchers identified the problem, egg nudging stopped, with the result that natural selection kicked in and the frequency of the allele dropped markedly: now only 9% of females lay eggs on the nest's rim. 

Translocation and fostering could also affect the population's gene pool, and thus its evolution. If there are different selection pressures on the different islands, this could change allele frequencies in the gene pool. And, as previously mentioned, using another species as surrogate parents - while essential at the time - can lead to robins imprinting on the wrong parents and hybridising with them, something that's been confirmed by analysis of microsatellite DNA.

But if it weren't for the dedication and hard work of scientists and conservation workers, the black robin (and many other NZ species) would already have gone the way of the dodo.


A I wrote about this in my previous post

B Remember, this question asked students to compare the two species. So a good answer would make that comparison explicit; you shouldn't focus on the robin alone.


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A Frequently-Asked Question at scholarship biology preparation days is, "what do I have to do to write a scholarship-standard essay?" There are a number of ways to answer this one.

Early in the year, I'd start by advising you to read widely in biology, as a way of developing both breadth and depth in your knowledge. There are a lot of resources out there: popular science books; New Scientist and Scientific American articles; science blogs (including New Zealand's own Sciblogs, which has great writing and an excellent range of content; science pages on Facebook (and also the FB Scholarship Biology page)... That, combined with the material that your teachers cover in class, should provide a strong base of knowledge to integrate with the material provided in the exam paper itself.

But at last week's prep day in Palmerston North, while I mentioned those resources, I focused more on how to approach the actual exam paper, and how to plan for and write a well-structured essay. First up, three key steps:

Read the material in the question book, and read it carefully and critically. For each question, what is the examiner expecting you to do? There's usually a reasonable amount of resource material provided: which parts are directly relevant to addressing each part of the question itself?

Plan your answers - there's space in the answer book for this, and you can always ask for extra paper if you need it. Planning is crucial as it helps ensure that your essay will be well-structured, coherent, and clear; it should flow logically, and contain the relevant information from your own knowledge, well-integrated with the resource material. Every year the examiner's report emphasises the importance of spending time planning. (Yes, you have only an hour for each question - but that doesn't mean that you should skim-read the paper & skimp on the planning. Far from it!)

Write your essays - and make sure to do so legibly. In their 2016 report the examiner commented specifically on the need for answers to be legible, even going so far as to remind students of the need to write on the lines in their answer book. And do keep half an eye on the time - once the 60 minutes for that first essay is up, move on to the next one. Start it on a new page. You can always return to the first one if you've got a little spare time at the end of the paper, but if you spend 90 minutes on the first essay you'll never get that time back for the others. 

And secondly - remember to explain your statements. If you have a look at the assessment schedule for a schol bio exam (from the NZQA website), you'll see that for each question it's broken down into 'evidence' & 'justification'. In addition, there's a 'judgement statement' for each question that sets out clearly what a student would need to do to produce a response that's at the level of Scholarship or Outstanding Scholarship. Basically, someone who wrote down a list of points from the resource material and their own knowledge, but failed to explain their relevance, would not be working at the required standard. Remember, the examiner is looking for a comprehensive discussion ...a well-planned discussion which is fully integrated and coherent.

So, as part of your revision - practice your writing! Use a question from a previous year's paper: the contexts are new every year, but at this point in the year you'll have covered the expected content from the year 13 curriculum, & planning and then writing a response to your chosen question is a really good way for you to revise that content as you integrate it with the resource material in the paper. 

And all the best for your exams!

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Like probably everyone reading this, I have always thought that spiders are carnivorous, sucking the precious bodily fluidsA from their prey. I mean, those fangs!

And I was wrong, for it seems that some spiders eat some plant material alongside their liquid meals - and some are almost fully vegetarian. A just-published paper (Painting, Nicholson, Bulbert, Norma-Rashid & LI, 2017) notes that while most of these spiders take nectar from flowers, there's even one - with the delightful name of Bagheera kiplingiB - where much of its diet comprises the nutrient-rich leaf tips of acacia trees (more on that later).

The nectar-eating spiders don't rely exclusively on sweet treats; the sugar they obtain supplements their main diet. Apparently the sugar-sipping habit incurs a certain amount of risk. This is because 'extrafloral' nectaries (eg at the bases of leaves, or on the leaves themselves) are used and guarded by ants. This behaviour itself is an interesting one, as it's an example of a mutualistic relationship between the ants and the plants. The ants obtain nutrients, and their aggressive behaviour towards other animals can reduce damage by herbivores. Painting and her colleagues comment that other invertebrates - such as spiders - typically feed from these nectaries only when the ants are absent, but found evidence that 

the jumping spider Orsima ichneumon guards extrafloral nectaries through active confrontation with ants and by depositing silk barriers to inhibit their competitors.

The researchers were intending to investigate the hypothesis that the flamboyant little spiders are ant mimics, an hypothesis which - given the bright colours of this species and the generally uniform dark colours of ants - sounds a little unusual. Their plan was derailed by a landslide that meant they couldn't get to their field station, but that didn't stop them making roadside observations instead.

Figure 1

Figure 1: a male Orsima ichneumon showing off his medley of colours. From Painting et al., 2017

The team spotted a female O.ichneumon feeding from a nectary on a leaf, a behaviour that didn't take them totally by surprise as other scientists had already reported such behaviour in spiders. What was unexpected was the fact that she then laid down patches of silk around each nectary, after feeding there. Nor was this behaviour isolated to a single individual. And what's more, the researchers also observed the spiders chasing smaller ants away from their feeding spots, and avoiding larger ones. As a result they formed the hypothesis that the silk deposits - made at some energy cost to the spider - act as a deterrent to the ants, although they note that this suggestion has yet to be tested, along with the idea that the silk might be a form of spider GPS, identifying the location of food sources. But why hang around on plants where there are aggressive ants to contend with, rather than go somewhere else with more insect prey & fewer ants? Painting el al. suggest that moving around between plants may increase the risk of predation, whereas staying put might afford some passive protection due to the ants guarding 'their' plants. Plus, the energy pay-off from nectar feeding may outweigh the costs of making the silk & chasing away the smaller ants.

Now, on to Bagheera! I was sent a delightful link about this little jumping spider as a result of tweeting my surprise that vegetarian spiders are even a thing :) B.kiplingi lives on a Central American species of Acacia that's also defended by ants, and which produces structures called Beltian bodies for ant consumption. The spider gives adult ants a miss (although it eats their larvae - and plant nectar), but it eats a lot of the Beltian bodies: in the original paper Meehan, Olson, Reudink, Kyser & Curry (2009) note that these plant structures make up 60-91% of the spiders' diets. This is strange, to say the least, as they turn out to be very high in fibre and low in fat.

Fig. 2 Evidence of herbivory in the jumping spider Bagheera kiplingi. (A) Adult female consumes a Beltian body harvested from the tip of an ant-acacia leaflet. (Photo: M.Milton.) (B) B. kiplingi diet estimated from field observations. Beltian bodies contributed more to the spider's diet than did other food sources, especially in Mexico (sample sizes refer to numbers of food items observed). From Meehan, Olson, Reudink, Kyser & Curry (2009)

Meehan & his colleagues noted that the spiders live almost exclusively on acacias guarded by ants, living mostly on older leaves where ant patrols are less frequent, and avoiding ants when they're encountered. That they can survive on a high-fibre diet suggests that their gut physiology is quite different from that of their carnivorous relatives; either that, or they've acquired some gut commensals that do the job for them. The fact that they've cut out the 'middle man' (the ant larvae) to consume plant material directly may allow more spiders to live on a single plant than would be the case if they were still carnivorous.

Meehan et al. conclude by noting how the spider's unusual change in diet was dependent on the ant-Acacia relationship:

The host-specific natural history of B.kiplingi demonstrates that commodities modified for trade in a pairwise mutualism can, in turn, shape the ecology and evolutionary trajectory of other organisms that intercept these resources. Here, one species within an ancient lineage of carnivorous arthropods - the spiders - has achieved herbivory by exploiting plant goods exchanged for animal services. While the advanced sensory-cognitive functions of salticids may have preadapted B.kiplingi for harvesting Beltian bodies, this spider's unprecedented trophic shift was contingent upon the seemingly unrelated coevolution between an ant and a plant.


A Sorry, couldn't resist a Dr Strangelove reference :)

B how could you not love a cute little creature with a name like this?


CJ Meehan, EJ Olson, MW Reudink, TK Kyser & RL Curry (2009) Herbivory in a spider through exploitation of an ant-plant mutualism. Current Biology 19(19) R892-893. doi:

CJ Painting, CC Nicholson, MW Bulbert, Y Norma-Rashid, & D Li (2017) Nectary feeding and guarding behaviour by a tropical jumping spider, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15(8). DOI: 10.1002/fee.1538

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On Sunday, the Stuff website carried a story about a particular brand of essential oils that may as well have been marked 'advertorial'. This is because most of the article comprises positive commentary from those involved in selling the products - you have to scroll well down the screen to find a photo & brief comment from the Medical Director of the Cancer Society of New Zealand, and other than that, any remotely skeptical content comes at the end of the article. 

Now, while the US-based company concerned, DoTERRA, doesn't make any specific health claimsA, the same can't be said for those quoted in the stuff article. It's claimed or implied that the oils are effective against asthma, chronic fatigue, auto-immune disease, colitis, Crohn's disease, bee-stings, depression - and cancer.

Scott said she wasn't allowed to say Copaiba oil was a potential cancer cure but "it absolutely is. It needs studying because it is scientific. Using them with a combination of other oils is just so incredibly powerful." She claimed the research backing up her beliefs was "phenomenal".

I have to disagree. The DoTERRA website includes a Bibliography section. It certainly contains a long list of referencesB, many in mainstream science journals, and many others published in what one might call '' journals. I looked at the abstracts for a random sample of titles & found that they were largely reports of chemical assays (common in bioprospecting for potential pharmaceutical drugs) and in vitro tests using cell lines from mice or from human cancer cell lineages. Some included tests in rats or mice; and while some papers do appear to describe clinical trials of essential oils; it's notable that none of them were clinical trials in an oncology context. Thus, 'phenomenal' is not the word I'd have chosen. 

The whole "it cures cancer" claim from that particular marketer is actually a very sizable red flag (along with the lack of evidence). Cancer is not a single disease, but a large number of separate disorders, each with their own underlying genomic changes. It's thus highly improbable that a single substance (in this case, a particular essential oil) would be curative against a range of cancers. 

Even where testing appears to show some measure of success in an in vitro context, this is not a guarantee of in vivo success. Lots of things kill cells in vitro: essential oils (which can be quite cytotoxic), heat, cold, diluting the growth media, bleach... Which is where actual clinical testing comes in.

At which point, I'll get in ahead of the inevitable comment that 'Big Pharma can't patent natural cures because there's no money in it', by pointing out that the home company had an annual revenue of US$1.2 billion in 2016. I'm fairly sure that could help pay for a properly double-blinded clinical trial (or two) that tested an essential oil against the current gold-standard treatment for a given cancer. How about it, guys?


A Having said that, the 'research' section on their website does include statements implying health benefits, while also incorporating the standard disclaimer: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease."

B In a post over at Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall includes a list of questions that should be kept in mind with reading studies like these; it's worth reading. And it's a pity that the Stuff journalist didn't ask any of those questions before writing their story. 

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"Kerikeri award entry turns possums into burning issue", proclaims a headline in the Northern Advocate. 

The story is about an entry in the WWF-NZ's Conservation Awards for 2017; I hope the judges have a good grasp of science & scientific method. From the article: 

The entry from Kerikeri promotes a new take on an old-world biodynamic method of ridding fields of rodents and other furry pests.

It is called peppering, and involves burning the pelts and carcasses of said pests until they're little more than ash, grinding it finely, mixing it with water and "spray painting"; the substance back on the affected land.

Apparently this version of the 'traditional' practice is 

new in the sense that so far it has not been applied because it lacked 'scientific background'.

And it still lacks that background; using a drone to disperse possum ash doesn't make the practice any more scientific.

This is something I first wrote about back in 2010. As I said then, there's no plausible mechanism by which 'possum peppering' might work (vague appeals to 'energy forces' don't count). The anecdotal claim cited in the Northern Advocate, that the stuff is 'effective', is presented in the article without evidence. However, science has already tested that claim:  back in 1992 Eason & Hickling summarised their controlled experiments thusly: 

Bio-dynamic control involves burning pest tissue or organs and spreading the ash on areas to be protected. In New Zealand, bio-dynamic methods have been suggested for repelling possums where they damage forests or spread disease. We assessed the repellent effects of five bio-dynamic tinctures. First we tested these materials on possums in pens and noted their effects on foraging behaviour, food consumption, and body weight. Then we monitored bait consumption from treated and untreated feeder stations in the field. Although an orthodox herbivore repellent significantly deterred possums, we detected no behavioural or repellent effects of the biodynamic tinctures in any of our trials. We are unable to recommend these tinctures for possum control.

The saddest part is that the native forests in Northland are already collapsing under a combination of pressure from introduced pests such as possums & chronic shortage of funds for conservation operations in the region, and opposition to the use of 1080 isn't helping things. Suggesting pseudoscientific woo as an alternative is hindering rather than helping those doing their best to ensure the survival of these forests and the native species dependent on them.

Eason, CT & Hickling, GJ (1992) Evaluation of a bio-dynamic technique for possum pest control. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 16(2): 141-144

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Facebook certainly leads me to read papers that I normally wouldn't.

For whatever reason, a post about deodorants popped up on my feed, from the Wendyl's Green Goddess page. In the blurb for a sale of products was the following:

Conventional products contain aluminium ingredients which have been linked to cancer. Do your skin and body a favour and switch to a 100% natural, aluminium-free deodorant optionA.

It sounds like a rather nice product, but the claim that the aluminium compounds found in conventional antiperspirants are linked to cancer caught my eye. After all, aluminium is pretty much everywhere in the environment in various forms, & has been for billions of years; we've evolved with it there. So I asked for a citation to support the claim. Rather to my surprise (because often, when I ask, I don't get), a reference was provided

I thought it a little odd that this paper - claiming a link between aluminium, antiperspirants, and breast cancer - was published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry and not in a journal focused on oncology. Greater bloggers than I have noted that this journal does seem to have a thing for papers that make various claims about the purported links between aluminium and various health concerns. (I encourage reading the post at that link; it is both entertaining and highly informative.)

Back to that citation. It states that there is "a disproportionately high incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast", which the author sees as evidence in support of his aluminium hypothesis. He also notes that aluminium is absorbed across the skin in mice in experimental situations, but provides no evidence that this happens in the underarm/breast area in humans. Sounds scary, though.

However, an even greater blogger (a research scientist who is also a surgeon specialising in breast cancer, and who goes by the 'nym of OracB) has examined this paper and found it ... wanting. He's written extensive commentaries on the subject on his blog, but I did a quick summary on the original FB post: basically, the claim that more breast cancers originate in the region of the breast closest to the armpit is wrong. The incidence is slightly over 50%, but that's down to anatomy - there is more actual breast tissue in that quadrant than in the others. Once that's allowed for, there are no more cancers in that breast region than in any other part of the breast. Unfortunately this hasn't stopped various scaremongering sites from running with the story, as discussed here by Orac.

To my amusement, on the very same pubmed page as that first citation is a link to a systematic review (one of many) that found no relationship between aluminium & breast cancer:

The expert group's conclusion coincides with those of the French, European and American health authorities. After analysis of the available literature on the subject, no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research.

tl;dr: there is no evidence to support any causal link for the claims that antiperspirants cause breast cancer. Perhaps such products should be sold on the basis of their merits, rather than ill-founded fears.

A There is some irony in the fact that the aluminium-free product is sold in ... aluminium containers.

B Orac's identity is pretty much an open secret among those who follow his blog.


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Today I was on leave and, the weather being bad, thought I'd do a bit of catching up on the news. And so it was that I found, on the Stuff FB page, an item about the (lack of) funding for cutting edge cancer drugs. So far, so innocuous (although also somewhat sad) - until I read the comments. 

For there, I came across someone (who later turned out to be not alone in her views) who feels that 

maternity spending is too high, time to pull the purse strings in and start putting some of that money into [funding for cancer drugs]. Ladies do not bleat on that you need it, 1950, 1960, 1970 gee less money, babies still lived. 

I thought this was a bit heartless, and pointed out that neonatal mortality rates were 4 times higher in 1964 than in 2010; it's a safe guess that increased funding for maternity & post-natal care contributed to that.

At this point you might be thinking, why did she bother? You've probably guessed that this is not going to end well. This is true, and for people like this individual (let's call her Black) it's highly unlikely that reason and evidence is going to change minds. But there are always the fence-sitters, the undecideds, and that's who you hope to reach in discussions like this. Plus, issues such as funding for maternity care vs funding for eg cancer treatment are not as binary as Black would have them; it should not be either/or, and it should not be decided on the basis of people thinking, well, I never needed that stuff so why should it be funded for others. (And I sincerely hope we don't ever go down the route that some politicians in the US have followed in their arguments around who pays for health care, and how much...)

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This is a cross-post from my other blog over at Talking Teaching

I type much more quickly than I write (some would argue, also more legibly). But when I'm taking notes in meetings, I do it with a (very old-fashioned) fountain pen & notebook. The reason is that this makes me filter what I'm writing, so that only the relevant points make it onto paper.  And this is why I'm actually somewhat chary of requiring, or expecting, students to take lecture notes on laptops, despite the push in many quarters for 'bring your own device' (BYOD) to classes in the expectation that students will do just that.

Yes, there are some good things about using laptops in class (see here, for example - it's a commercial site but I ignored the little pop-ups wanting to sell me things). They allow for faster note-taking, & if students are using google docs for that, then they can access their notes anywhere - they can also collaborate on the notes, which offers some exciting possibilities for peer-assisted learning. Laptops & other devices can also increase engagement eg via using them to complete in-class quizzes & polls.

However, they also allow for people to feel that they are multi-tasking - tweeting (as many academics do at conferences these days), chatting on messenger, posting on Facebook. Unfortunately that means that their attention's divided and their focus on learning is diminished. It could be - and has been - argued that that's the educator's fault; that we should offer such engaging classes that no-one's interested in goofing off, and indeed I think there is some truth in that. After all, if what the lecturer says is pretty much identical to what's in the slides they posted on line, many students may not see much incentive to pay attention, because "I can always read the notes or watch the recordings later". (Only, many never do :( )

What's more, the off-task use can be distracting to other students as well as the individual users:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content (Sana, Weston & Cepeda, 2012)


Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance (Fried, 2006)


Results show a significant negative correlation between in-class phone use and final grades... These findings are consistent with research (Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009) suggesting students cannot multitask nearly as effectively as they think they can (Duncan, Hoekstra & Wilcox, 2012).

Laptops & tablets also allow for very rapid note-taking - and yes, I'm saying that like it's a bad thing. But if you're typing so quickly that you can take down what's being said verbatim, then you're probably not processing the information, and that has a negative effect on learning and mastery of the material further down the track. This was investigated by Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014), who found that even when students were completely on task i.e. using their devices only for note-taking, their engagement and understanding was poorer than those taking notes longhand. (That's in addition to other negative impacts they identify: students off-task, poorer academic performance, and even being "actually less satisfied with their education than their peers who do not use laptops in class.")

Mueller & Oppenheimer cite earlier work that identified two possible, positive, impacts of longhand note-taking: the material is processed as the notes are made, which improves both learning (makes it more likely that deep, rather than shallow, learning will occur) and retention of concepts; and the information can be reviewed later (of course, that's also possible with digital notes).  Processing usually involves paraphrases &/or summaries - which is what my meeting notes generally look like - but can also involve tools such as concept mapping, and there's a lot of research showing that students involved in this sort of activity do better on tests of conceptual understanding and the ability to integrate information.

So, since it's those higher-order skills that we hope to develop in our students, perhaps we need to tread carefully around the BYOD idea. Or at the very least, discuss all these issues with students at the start of the semester!


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Recent Comments

  • Alison Campbell: Thanks, Ed. Totally agree - it's just a matter of read more
  • Ed Darrell: Plague? Antibiotics, plus we know the vector and how to read more
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