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Ecology and Evolution. 2022;12:e8659.
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1 | INTRODUCTIO N
We are living interesting times. The COVID- 19 pandemic is repre-
senting a huge challenge for learning and teaching, not only by limit-
ing our mobility (Flaxman et al., 2020), but also by reducing available
resources for education and disrupting the normal functioning of
educational institutions (Daniel, 2020). This is particularly evident
in disciplines with a strong empirical component, such as ecology.
Traditionally, ecology is learnt discussing key concepts in the class-
room and acquiring practical skills in the field and the lab. In such
Revised:3F ebruar y2022
Accepted :7Februa ry2022
ACADEMIC PRACTICE IN ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION
Undergraduates' perceptions on emergency remote learning in
ecology in the post- pandemic era
Emilio Pagani- Núñez | Mingxiao Yan | Yixuan Hong | Yu Zeng | Sihao Chen |
Peng Zhao | Yi Zou
Thisisanop enaccessar ticleunderthetermsoftheCreativeCommonsAttributionLicense,whic hpermitsu se,distributionandreproduct ioninanymedium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
©2022TheAuthors.Eco logy and Evolut ionpublishedbyJohnWiley&SonsLtd.
Department of Health and Environmental
University, Suzhou, China
Emilio Pagani- Núñez, Department of
Health and Environmental Sciences, Xi’an
Road, Suzhou Industrial Park, Suzhou,
Jiangsu Province, 215123, China.
funded this study
The COVID- 19 pandemic has strongly disrupted academic activities, particularly in
disciplines with a strong empirical component among other reasons by limiting our
mobility. It is thus essential to assess emergency remote teaching plans by surveying
learners’ opinions and perceptions during these unusual circumstances. To achieve
this aim, we conducted a survey during the spring semester of 2021 in an environ-
mental science program to ascertain learners’ perceptions on online and onsite learn-
ing activities in ecology- based modules. We were particularly interested not only in
comparing the performance of these two types of activities but also in understand-
ing the role played by learners’ perceptions about nature in shaping this pattern.
Environmental science programs are rather heterogeneous from a conceptual point
of view and, thus, learners may also be more diverse than in traditional ecology pro-
grams, which may affect their interest for ecology- based modules. We assessed con-
nectedness to nature by computing the reduced version of the Nature Relatedness
Scale. Here, we found that online activities systematically obtained significantly lower
scores than onsite activities regardless of the wording employed, and that altruistic
behaviors were prevalent among learners. Interestingly, scores for both onsite and
online activities were strongly influenced by learners’ connectedness to nature, as
learners with a stronger connection to nature gave higher scores to both types of ac-
tivities. Our results suggest that an effort to improve the efficacy of remote learning
activities should be the focus of research about teaching methodologies in predomi-
nantly empirical scientific disciplines.
ecology, online learning, questionnaire, remote learning, teaching methods
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PAGANI - NÚÑEZ Et Al .
disciplines, a conflict between concept- based lecturing and empir-
ical skill acquisitionis often apparent (Caulton,1970; Openshaw &
Whittle, 1993). It is necessary to reflect on our practice to ascer-
tain to what extent these two curricular aspects, that is, concepts
and skills, and the means to deliver them, are connected efficiently
in teaching curriculums. The need to develop contingency remote
teaching plans has elicited careful consideration of suitable online
teaching tools foremergencycontex ts(Adedoyin &Soykan,2020;
Bozkurt et al., 2020; Hodges et al., 2020; Rapanta, 2020). This might
be seen as an opportunity not only for ecological research (Rutz
et al., 2020), but to review these approaches to learning in ecology
and other disciplines with a strong empirical component (Bacon &
In his seminal work, Gibbs emphasized the importance of “learn-
ing by doing” (Gibbs, 1988). A way to connect more efficiently
concepts and skills would be to determine how students perceive
online versus onsite learning, empirical versus normative learning
activities, and transcending these disconnected frameworks (Henry,
2009). Alternative asse ssments, which have been object of thor-
ough reflection since long ago (Brown et al., 1994), turn into a cen-
tral element in the current context. Normative teaching frameworks
emphasize activities linked to marking, in which each activity con-
ducted in class is object of evaluation by teachers. Conversely, em-
pirical activities, such as active learning projects (Gahl et al., 2020),
can be disregarded as less efficient in motivating students into ac-
quiring new knowledge without having to pass an exam. Fortunately,
in the current critical context, developing innovative online teaching
and learning approaches, and using any available technologies, has
become a key priority (Gahl et al., 2020; Geange et al., 2020; Houtz
et al., 2020; Richter et al., 2020; Van Haeften et al., 2020).
In this project, we surveyed learners’ perceptions on online and
onsite teaching, assessed the efficacy of these two approaches in
connecting concepts and skills, an d determined how the se patterns
were influenced by connectedness to nature. Moreover, empirical
activities often rely on collaborative or cooperative learning ap-
proaches, which may be perceived as unproductive or superfluous
by learners. We thus assessed learners’ willingness to collect data
that would be later shared with their classmates and potentially
usedfort heirco ur sew ork.A ddi tiona lly,ina dis cipli nes uchase col-
ogy, perceptions on nature may mediate students’ responses to
these diverse learning frameworks. The Nature Relatedness Scale
(NRS) is a standard questionnaire aiming to quantify connected-
ness to nature (Nisbet et al., 2009). By incorporating the NRS into
assessment of learning and teaching approaches, it is possible to
determine how receptive learners are to online or onsite and to
empirical or normative learning strategies according to their de-
gree of connectedness to nature. Moreover, connectedness to
nature is often interpreted as a measure of altruistic behaviors
(Mayer & Frantz, 2004), which may be a key feature of innovative
learning approaches and, thus, we were particularly interested in
assessing the relationships between these two behaviors. We used
the shortened version of the questionnaire designed by Nisbet and
Here, by enquiring students about their learning experience with
onsite learning and whether the linkage between practical activities
and concepts was sufficiently clear. More specifically, we aimed
toanswerthefollowing researchquestions: (1)Are online and on-
site learning activities well connected to key concepts in ecology?
(2) What is the perception of undergraduates on online and onsite
learning activities? (3) How undergraduates perceived empirical and
altruistic learning activities? (4) Was connectedness to nature (NRS)
an optimal predictor of these perceptions?
2 | METHODS
2.1 | Study area and cohort
In this study, we conducted a survey among 49 undergraduate stu-
dents between 19 and 23 years old enrolled in the Environmental
(Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, PR China) during the second semester of
the academic year 2020– 2021. Undergraduates were enrolled in dif-
ferentecologymodules,namelyyear-2AquaticFieldSkills(N = 22),
year-3AquaticandUrbanEcology(N = 16) and year- 4 Ecology in a
Changing World (N =11). All un dergrad uates but one f rom South
Korea were Chinese nationals. We obtained ethics approval from
Development Unit (EDU) and informed consent from the undergrad-
uates before conductingthesurvey.AcrossMarchandearlyApril,
undergrads were engaged in different types of online and onsite
activities, such as terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity monitoring,
checking nest boxes, and observing recordings of animal behavior.
They also experienced a f ully online learn ing mode during the s econd
semester of the previous academic year, so that all undergraduates
were able to express informed opinions about both types of learn-
ing approaches. Most of these field activities were instrumental for
undergraduates to complete their coursework, yet other activities
represented an altruistic contribution to the class— any undergradu-
ate was able to make use of the collected data.
2.2 | The questionnaire
We conducted a survey on three main thematic areas: perceptions
on online versus onsite teaching, the connection between con-
cepts and practical activities of these two types of activities, and
2015). There was some overlap between these questions’ themes.
We enquired undergraduates about to what extent they enjoyed
and, additionally, to what extent these activities seemed connected
to concepts and theories (Q01– Q02 and Q11– Q14). Furthermore,
we asked undergraduates on their perceptions on normative and
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PAGANI- NÚÑE Z Et Al.
non- normative activities, namely about altruistic and non- altruistic
data collection (Q15– Q16). These questions were presented in pairs
responses. Finally, we included the shortened version of the NRS
questionnaire (NR- 6) (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2013), which consists of six
questions (NR- 6), to assess how connectedness to nature interacted
with perceptions on learning approaches and altruistic behaviors
(Q03– Q08). We relied on the NRS questionnaire because we were
enquiring young adults performing a high intensity program (Salazar
et al., 2020).
2.3 | Statistical analysis
All analy ses were conduc ted in R software ( R Core Team, 2021).
First, we assessed the internal consistency of the questionnaire
bycomputing Cronbach'salphausingthe packageltm (Rizopoulos,
2006). Since several questions enquired learners about similar con-
cepts, Cronbach'salphascore was areliableapproach toassessits
consistency (Tavakol & Dennick, 2011). The questionnaire obtained
of the test were relatively consistent.
Second, we compared the scores between the different pairs of
questions (Q01 vs. Q02, Q09 vs. Q10, Q11 vs. Q12, Q13 vs. Q14,
ing pair wise t- tests , a standard rep eated- measu res approach, so e ach
pair of answers is compared for each interviewee. We computed the
average for questions about online and onsite learning separately
and performed a pairwise t- test to see if any patterns were consis-
tent when considering all the questions together. Connectedness to
nature (NRS) was calculated as the average of the NR- 6 questions for
each interviewee on the assumption that higher scores would imply
stronger connectedness to nature and vice versa.
Third, we co mputed a linea r mixed-effec ts (LME) m odel fitte d
with restricted maximum likelihood using the average from ques-
tions about online learning as dependent variable and the average
from the NR- 6 questionnaire as independent variable. We repeated
this procedure alternatively using the average from questions about
onsite learning and the scores of questions Q15 and Q16 about al-
truistic behaviors as dependent variables. We included module (i.e.,
the package nlme(Pinheiroetal.,2007).
3 | RESULTS
In all pairs of questions, undergraduates gave higher scores to onsite
than to online learning (Table 1, Figures 1 and 2). More specifically,
undergraduates consistently gave higher scores to the idea that
ecology has a strong empirical component rather than being a disci-
pline that can simply be learnt through textbooks (Table 1, Figures
1a and 2a) and to the idea that onsite activities were more enjoy-
able than online activities (Table 1, Figures 1b and 2b). Similarly,
undergraduates were more in agreement with the idea that they
had learnt more practical skills during onsite than online activities
(Table 1, Figures 1c and 2c), and to the idea that onsite activities
were better linked to the topics covered in the modules than online
activities (Table 1, Figures 1d and 2d).
Furthermore, undergraduates were keen to share collected data
with other undergraduates (Table 1, Figures 1e and 2e) and showed
higher agreement with the idea that they would like to spend more
time cond ucting onsite ac tivities ra ther than onlin e activities ( Table 1 ,
Figures 1f and 2f). They also were more in agreement with the idea
that ecology is mainly about understanding the world around us than
questions about onsite learning obtained higher scores on average
than questions about online learning (Table 1, Figures 1h and 2h).
Finally, undergraduates’ NR- 6 average scores correlated pos-
itively with average scores of questions about onsite learning
(β ± SE = 0.30 ± 0.13, t3,45 = 2.24, p = .03), and with average scores
of questions about online learning (β ± SE = 0.85 ± 0.12, t3,45 =7.09,
p < .01) (Figure 3a). Conversely, for questions regarding altruistic be-
haviors, we did not record significant relationships between NR- 6 and
these questions’ scores (altruistic: β ± SE = 0.21 ± 0.19, t3,45 = 1.11,
p =.27;non-altruistic:β ± SE =−0.32± 0.22, t3,45 =−1.43, p = .16)
4 | DISCUSSION
The current pandemic has strongly disrupted academic activi-
ties (Bacon & Peacock, 2021), particularly in developing countries
to deal with this situation. However, crises might also represent op-
portunities to improve our educational systems. For instance, out
teaching practice can be improved by assessing to what extent dif-
ferent types of onsite and online learning activities are efficiently
TABLE 1 Resultsfrompairwiset-testsassessingdif ferencesin
the scores given by individual learners to pair of questions about
their perceptions on online and onsite learning (N = 49). Q01, Q09,
Q02, Q10, Q12, Q14, and Q18 enquired learners about onsite
activities. Yet, in an attempt to avoid stereotyped responses, Q19
was about onsite and Q20 about online learning. Q15 and Q16
characterized altruistic behaviors. Online and onsite categories
t- va lue p
Q01 vs. Q02 6.47 <.01
Q09 vs. Q10 11.09 <.01
Q11 vs. Q12 7. 94 <.01
Q13 vs. Q14 4.13 <.01
Q15 vs. Q16 9. 05 <.01
Q17vs.Q18 8.32 <.01
Q19 vs. Q20 −5. 51 <.01
Online vs. onsite −10 .2 2 <.01
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PAGANI - NÚÑEZ Et Al .
FIGURE 1 Differencesinquestionnaire
scores between pairs of related questions
learners about online activities, while
Q02, Q10, Q12, Q14, and Q18 enquired
learners about onsite activities. Q19
was about onsite and Q20 about online
learning. Q15 and Q16 characterized
altruistic behaviors. Online and onsite
categories represent the averages of
each type of questions. Thick horizontals
represent average scores, thin lines
and vertical lines represent standard
deviations, while red lines connect
answers of each interviewee
FIGURE 2 Histogramsshowing
score distribution for each pair of
a question list). Q01, Q09, Q11, Q13,
activities, while Q02, Q10, Q12, Q14,
and Q18 enquired learners about onsite
activities. Q19 was about onsite and
Q20 about online learning. Q15 and Q16
characterized altruistic behaviors. Online
and onsite categories represent the
averages of each type of questions. Yellow
color characterized questions about online
learning and blue color characterized
questions about onsite learning. Vertical
lines represent questions’ averages
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PAGANI- NÚÑE Z Et Al.
connected to key concepts and theories, and to assess the effi-
cacy of these activities as learning and teaching tools (Gibbs, 1988;
Hmelo, 1998; O’Mahony et al., 2012). In this study, we found sup-
port to the idea that undergraduates positively valued the key em-
pirical component of ecology, yet this also represented a challenge
in circumstances in which emergency remote learning must be im-
plemented. Overall, undergraduates gave significantly lower scores
to online than onsite activities. This may simply be a signal of the
expectable frustration produced by the COVID- 19 pandemic on
learners (Dilmaç, 2020), which may also be linked to a strong aware-
2010). Yet, it may also be connected to a deeper issue with online
learning and teaching approaches in strongly empirical disciplines,
such as ecology. Moreover, undergraduates seemed keen to share
collected data with their peers, favoring the establishment of an
open learning environment based on collective efforts, which is in-
creasingly deemed as an efficient teaching and learning approach
(Ruiz- Gallardo & Reavey, 2019).
Interestingly, NR- 6 scores were a good predictor of under-
grads’ perceptions about both onsite and online learning activities.
Previous studies have shown that nature connectedness is a good
predictor of positive attitudes toward scientific issues and out-
dooractivities(Barrable&Lakin, 2020;H.-H. Wanget al.,2020).
However, in our study, students scoring higher in the NR- 6 scale
gave higher scores to questions about both online and onsite
learning, in spite that these questions were to some extent op-
posed to each other. This result suggests that undergraduates
assessed their learning experience mainly based on their interest
on the subject, rather than on the quality of the activity itself.
Still, other studies have shown positive attitudes toward online
learning, which underscores a high diversity of responses to the
current pandemic(Khan etal.,2020). Acknowledgingthatunder-
graduates may have different perceptions on study subjects in
different regions and circumstances could help to enhance their
Finally, NR- 6 was disconnected from undergraduates’ percep-
tions on altruistic behaviors. We recorded very positive attitudes of
undergraduates toward data sharing, yet this seemed to be linked
to personal perceptions and behaviors rather than to the degree of
edness to nature and altruistic behaviors has been found in several
studies(Barrera-Hernándezetal.,2020;Leeet al., 2015;Mayer&
Frantz, 2004). Therefore, our results merit further investigation as
it would be interesting to determine why this relationship is absent
in our sample. National, cross- cultural, differences in connectedness
to nature and altruistic behaviors have previously been reported
(Dornhoff et al., 2019; Johnson et al., 1989). In the particular case
of China, where suppression of COVID- 19 has been successful (Zou
et al., 2020), and a country in which the collective component of
social organization is considered very important (Chen, 2000; Wang
et al., 2002), undergraduates may be particularly keen to share re-
sources regardless of their perceptions on nature.
To conclude, we found that connectedness to nature was a good
predictor of positive attitudes to learning in ecology, regardless of
the form in which learning and teaching was developed. Yet, we
must acknowledge certain limitations of our approach. For instance,
our analysis is based on self- reported data from interviewees, which
may be object to biases that are difficult to minimize. Moreover, we
could have used additional nature connectedness metrics (Restall
& Conrad, 2015), sample size was somewhat limited, and the social
background of our interviewees was rather homogenous. Still, our
results suggest that undergrads showing a stronger connection to
nature were more positive about both empirical and online learning
activities. Thus, promoting positive attitudes toward nature in edu-
cational programs such as ecology or environmental sciences could
be a way to enhance students’ learning experience. In response to
our first research question, onsite activities were better connected
than online activities to key concepts in ecology. In response to our
second research question, undergraduates had more positive atti-
tudes toward onsite than online activities. Regarding our third ques-
tion, undergraduates had very positive attitudes toward data sharing
regardless of their degree of connectedness to nature, which may
facilitate the development of collaborative research projects with
FIGURE 3 (a)Significantlinearrelationships(solidlines)
between average NR- 6 scores per interviewee and the average for
questions about online learning (empty yellow circles) and onsite
learning (blue crosses). The shaded gray area represents 95%
confidence intervals. (b) Non- significant linear relationships (dashed
lines) between average NR- 6 scores per interviewee and the results
for questions Q15 (empty red circles) and Q16 (dark blue crosses)
characterizing the degree of altruism (or lack of it, respectively) of
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PAGANI - NÚÑEZ Et Al .
a low risk of eliciting conflicts among peers. Finally, regarding the
fourth research question, nature connectedness was an optimal tool
to assess willingness to study ecology independently of the teaching
methods employed, and it was a poor predictor of undergraduates’
We are very gr ateful to the mem bers of the Educ ational Develop ment
are also very grateful to an anonymous reviewer who provided con-
structive comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.
Emilio Pagani- Núñez: Conceptualization (lead); Data curation
(equal); Formal analysis (equal); Methodology (equal); Writing –
original draft (lead). Mingxiao Yan: Conceptualization (equal); Data
curation (equal); Formal analysis (equal); Writing – review & edit-
ing (equal). Yixuan Hong: Conceptualization (equal); Data cura-
tion (equal); Formal analysis (equal); Writing – review & editing
(equal). Yu Zeng: Conceptualization (equal); Data curation (equal);
Formal analysis (equal); Writing – review & editing (equal). Sihao
Chen: Conceptualization (equal); Data curation (equal); Formal
analysis (equal); Writing – review & editing (equal). Peng Zhao:
Conceptualization (equal); Data curation (equal); Formal analysis
(equal); Writing – review & editing (equal). Yi Zou: Conceptualization
(equal); Data curation (equal); Formal analysis (equal); Writing – re-
view & editing (equal).
DATA AVAIL ABILI TY STATEMENT
Questionnaire data: Pagani- Núñez, Emilio et al. (2022), Undergraduates’
perceptions on emergency remote learning in ecology in the post-
pandemic era, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.jh9w0
Emilio Pagani- Núñez https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8839-4005
Yi Zou https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7082-9258
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How to cite this article: Pagani- Núñez, E., Yan, M., Hong, Y.,
perceptions on emergency remote learning in ecology in the
post- pandemic era. Ecology and Evolution, 12, e8659. https ://
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PAGANI - NÚÑEZ Et Al .
Note that the questionnaire was anonymized and thus only the question list is attached here
disagree Disagree Neutral Agree
1. To learn ecological concepts, it is necessary to experience nature
2. Ecology can be learnt using books and computers
3. My ideal vacation spot would be a remote, wilderness area
4. I always think about how my actions affect the environment
5. My connection to nature and the environment is a part of my spirituality
6. I take notice of wildlife wherever I am
8. I feel very connected to all living things and the earth
9. Onsite fieldwork was the most enjoyable activities of the module
10. Online activities were the most enjoyable part of the module
11. I learnt new practical skills with onsite fieldwork
12. I learnt new practical skills with online activities
13. Onsite field activities are well linked to the topics covered in the module
14. Online activities are well linked to the topics covered in the module
15. I enjoyed collecting data that will be used by my peers
16. I would prefer collecting my own data and not sharing it
18. I would like to spend more time conducting online activities
19. Ecology is mostly about statistics and big data
20. Ecology is mostly about understanding the world around us