A catchy music video with more 27,000 views on Twitter. Tinder-style profiles of birds and their mating habits. Comic strips, sculptures and paintings.

These are just some of the results from “not-test” assignments in classes taught by Daniel Baldassarre of the biological sciences faculty.

He recalled seeing something of this nature on Twitter, a platform he uses as natively as birds use wings, and adapted it. Baldassarre noted this is his third year for these projects and “I have never encountered a student who had any objections to this assignment,” he said. “It’s a new thing for most students, obviously, but they figure it out really quickly.”

Baldassare gives three “not-test” assignments in his “Animal Behavior” and “Ornithology” classes, one for each approximate third of the material, that ask them to create something from that section’s lecture material. These projects add up to about a third of the overall grade in courses that also include a large lab component, field-work and hands-on activities, essays, group work, discussions and presentations. While Baldassarre said he doesn’t give closed-book tests, most of the other evaluation methods still exist.

“I just ask them to convey the material in a fun, creative, non-traditional way,” Baldassarre said. “It’s a total blank slate –- they can do just about anything. They can do pieces of artwork, writings or interview a researcher in the field and make a podcast, for example.”

Song takes flight

Senior zoology major Alyssa Kleppinger made a video where she performed “Creeper,” a song she adapted to “Creep” by Radiohead, which became somewhat of an online hit.

But it wasn’t even the first song she wrote for one of Baldassarre’s classes, as she previously recorded a piece about jumping spiders for the “Animal Behavior” class. But her song for the ‘Ornithology” class –- on breeding, feeding and behavior of the brown creeper –- took things to another level.

“In the lab we learned about all the birds in the New York region and we had gone over the brown creeper and one day I had the original song in my head and I thought, ‘I could make “Creep” into “Creeper,”’ … as a musician, I always have songs in my head,” Kleppenger explained. 

When Baldassarre posted it onto his Twitter account, the positive reaction was almost immediate, with flocks of retweets, likes and comments praising the work. 

“It was exciting at first, then it was a bit intimidating because I felt like I had a new fanbase to keep up with,” Kleppinger said. “This whole community was interested in something I recorded at around 11 at night. The really neat part was when Dr. B’s mom commented on it.”

“Alyssa is a fanatic singer and songwriter,” Baldassarre said. “It was really cool to see how much people liked it.”

She has since followed it up with "Phainopepla" to the tune of "Mamma Mia" by ABBA, to similar acclaim.

Sometimes it can be a challenge for students who come in not thinking of themselves as creatives because it is such a different type of assignment, but Baldassarre provides plenty of prompts and examples from previous classes, and students consult with him before their assignments take wing. Even if they don’t aim for something as creative as Kleppinger’s instant classic, “I think almost anybody can scribble some poetry, create an infographic or make a presentation,” he said.

John Custodio, a senior journalism major and biology minor, took “Animal Behavior” previously and is taking “Ornithology” this semester. His assignments have included creating examples of Tinder profiles for birds to describe their mating habits and using a tattoo of a blue heron he has as a diagram to show specific types of feathers.

“It’s a creative way of asking us to explain or ‘reteach’ him, where we can be anywhere from general to hyper-specific,” Custodio noted.

The Tinder examples provided a “fun and funny” way to break down the material in a relatable way, Custodio said. “I made a template and transferred over specific information on the mating systems of birds.”

Artistic impressions

“I was able to create four paintings depicting the similarities between four types of animals that displayed two different types of mimicry,” said Asufi Edwards, a junior zoology major in the college’s Honors Program. “This one was my favorite because I was able to incorporate something that I enjoy doing, painting, into a test assignment and it's not something I get to do much as a zoology major.”

Edwards also worked on “little in-depth sculptures of bird feather structures to show the interactions between different components of a bird's various types of feathers for my current ‘Ornithology’ class,” Edwards said. “I like to incorporate art into my work when I get the chance. It was especially fun because I got to work with clay, which is something I have never done before, but being able to come up with clever ways to get my ideas across is fulfilling to me.”

Emily Logsdon’s “not-test” assignments often lean toward comic strips, with a favorite being a series describing foraging adaptations for various birds.

“The information in the comic strips came from class material blended with out-of-class research,” Logsdon said. “Given the creative freedom of the assignment, I took an artistic approach to display my comprehension of class content. I believe the use of a comic strip was a fun and easy way to interact with class material.”

Logsdon has also created watercolor paintings for these assignments. “I did a series of paintings based on the four mating systems: monogamy, polygyny, polyandry and polygynandry,” Logsdon said. “I found a species for each mating system, displayed the behaviors in a painting, and included a written explanation.”

Diving deep

Students said that when they first hear about the not-test assignments, they are excited with the option but sometimes a bit nervous initially –- although Baldassare guides them along the way.

“It requires a bit of thinking to try and come up with an idea to base the assignment on,” Edwards said. “From the day we start the first lecture I am already trying to come up with concepts and ideas I can use in my assignment or ways to present my thinking. I won't lie, it is a bit of a task to try and figure out what fun way I can use to articulate my thoughts effectively and show my understanding of our lecture material but it is always rewarding to see my final outcome.” 

“Standard exams are typically based on how well you can memorize information,” Logsdon said. “Not how well you display your proficiency.”

Kleppenger thought she gets a lot out of this kind of assignment in terms of learning and creative exploration.

“It’s exciting because once you get into this, you realize how much fun it is,” Kleppinger said. “There’s always something to spark your imagination, and you’re thinking about it from every lecture. It definitely encourages you to dive deeper into a topic than if you’re just cramming for a test.”

“I am always learning something new while doing these assignments, mostly because they require us to look outside of and build upon our lecture material,” Edwards said. “I have had to read through multiple journal articles to find sources for my work and I have been opened to a whole new world of information. … Making sculptures of feathers allowed me to better visualize what makes bird feathers so uniquely different from one another and how it's done.”

Logsdon agreed that doing the additional research provided a deeper pool of knowledge. 

“For example, one fun fact I learned while completing my comic series for food adaptations was that red-necked grebes eat their feathers,” the senior zoology major recalled. “It’s hypothesized they do this to protect their digestive system. If I weren't doing my own research, I would not have learned about the unique and interesting features of specific bird species. Also, all the research I completed for the not-tests made me better at analyzing and compiling quality information.”

“The longer period of time gave me more time to think about what I was saying,” Custodio noted. “It also takes the stress off of learning and regurgitating a large amount of information. Instead, I can learn from the lectures, digest and think about it, and figure out how to present it using my own ideas. It makes me learn the material much better.”

Custodio added that other faculty have adopted it, including another biological sciences faculty member in Maria Sagot using it in the “Animal Ecology” class he also is taking.

Because he regularly promotes students’ assignments on Twitter, “I get emails almost every week from people looking for something different to do who discovered this,” Baldassarre said. “Sending this out into the larger academic world, I think, has been a good thing.”

And for those interested in trying something similar in a measured way, Baldassarre suggested making it an option with traditional assignments. “Maybe you assign them a midterm or this assignment, and let them decide what they’re more comfortable with,” Baldassarre said. “That could be a nice middle ground.”