Is your plant ID accurate?

IN LATE 2012 IFFA and the NRM Providers Network carried out an online survey on plant identification skills intended for people working in ecological restoration (ER). The first analysis (on ‘demographics and the importance of plant skills in the respondents’ professional life) highlighted that plant skills are indeed crucial, with an overall rating of 9.3 out of 10. See Indigenotes May 2013 p5. 

This article starts to explore ‘How do you ensure your plant identification is accurate?’ by analysing the results of two of the questions from the survey. 

The first question: ‘Which strategies have been most important in helping you acquire your plant ID skills? Select the 3 most important to you’ was followed by a similarly worded question about maintaining plant ID skills. Seven options were offered: Formal study/courses (Courses), Colleagues and other work associates (Colleagues), Spending leisure time in plant-related pursuits (Leisure), Participation in field naturalist group activities/Volunteering (Activities), Developing observation skills (Observation), Reference: books/CDs/Web-based (References), Knowledgeable mentor/s in private life (Mentor). ‘Other (please specify)’ was also available. 

Analysis of answers provides insights into learning strategies. It may also constitute a guide for people entering the industry or simply interested in learning about plants. 

Acquisition and maintenance of plant identification skills 

The questions were answered by 82 and 72 people respectively, spread across all employers and work type, as well as number of years of experience. 

The instruction ‘Select the 3 most important to you’ proved challenging. Many selected more. This seems to indicate that many of the strategies proposed are valid and probably complement each other. Some used the ‘Other’ option to add that ‘more than three’ or ‘all of the options’ were important. 

Do they require the same skills? 

The lower answer rate for the second question possibly indicates that there is no difference between the acquisition and the maintenance of skills. Indeed, others concur: of those who answered both questions with three choices, 27% provided the same three answers; 46% changed one answer only. 

The people who changed two or all of their choices (25% and 2%) provided potentially useful nuances. 

The analysis of aggregated data below offers some insights. 

Are there other strategies? 

A few participants used the ‘other’ option to introduce strategies based on ‘teaching and training others’. Collaborative learning is a well-recognised and successful method and, from personal experience, you sure learn from answering others’ questions! 

Another suggested group of strategies could be labelled ‘practice’, with answers like ‘working in the field’, ‘handweeding and spraying’, ‘database’ and ‘flora surveys’. 

Analysis method 

The answers that selected three options only were analysed by ranking the aggregated answers (in percentage of answers provided) to the first question (Acquisition). The results to the second question (Maintenance) were then added in that same order and the following graph was produced. 

To benefit from the information provided by the people who selected more than three choices, a similar graph was also built to check if it produced a very different scene. Thankfully, the trends were parallel but somewhat subdued by the recourse to more than three choices. 

What are the top strategies? 

All seven options were selected by at least 20% for ‘Acquisition’, confirming the value of all the strategies. 

However, ‘Acquisition’ has a ‘winning trio’ made of ‘References’ (69%), ‘Courses’ (69%) and ‘Colleagues’ (66%). 

‘Leisure’ (34%) and ‘Activities’ (29%) form a second group, both outside the workplace. 

‘Mentors’ and ‘Observation’ achieve 22% and 20% respectively. 

The results for the second question, ‘Maintenance’, keep ‘References’ (74%) and ‘Colleagues’ (59%) in the top three, but replace ‘Courses’ (now 14%) with ‘Leisure’ (climbing to 48%) in third place. ‘Activities’ and ‘Mentors’ drop slightly (22% and 19%) while ‘Observation’ (last previously) reaches the 4th place with 38%. 

Need for Advanced courses? 

The most striking difference between the distributions for ‘Acquisition’ and ‘Maintenance’ is the drop of ‘Courses’ from its second place to last. 

This suggests that either a) there are not courses or formal professional development opportunities available or perhaps accessible beyond beginners skills acquisition or b) such courses are not needed or wanted. 

Does this industry need specific plant skills courses at more advanced level? (Survey respondents did indicate plant skills were essential) What would such course’s contents be? Should ‘refresher’ or ‘catch up with the latest plant news’ be a requirement in this industry? Express your views on IFFA’s web forum at http://www.iffa.org.au/PlantIDSkills.

Self-directed learning 

This free-fall in the answer ‘Maintenance’ for the ‘Courses’ option can be contrasted with increases for ‘References’, ‘Leisure’ and ‘Observation’. These three could be grouped under a ‘self-directed learning’ label. While ‘References’ keep their primacy, even increasing, the rises of ‘Leisure’ and even more pronounced ‘Observation’ may be a sign of putting to good use the skills learnt previously. The rise of ‘Observation’ is consistent with findings about so-called ‘Plant Blindness’ postulating that one can train one’s brain to notice plants, consciously (read the reference to find out how) or unconsciously through exposure and practice.