The decline in interest in plants in biological education is an established phenomenon. Compared to animals, plants are under-represented in biology textbooks and other media. Biology teachers often avoid using plant examples in class due to their own lack of knowledge or interest, perpetuating the cycle. With botanical topics often relegated to single modules or lecture sets and limited opportunities for fieldwork, learning of species identification has inevitably suffered.
Species identification is a fundamental requirement for learning and understanding biodiversity, but it also plays a role in fostering concern for its preservation. Plant identification draws people’s attention to the wide variation in plant form, texture, colour, etc., increasing their interest in plants and their appreciation of biodiversity. Given the rapid rate of decline of plant species and consequences for wider ecosystems, there may be a greater need than ever to find ways to promote identification skills not only in the classroom but among the general public.
Most beginners are introduced to plant diversity through identification keys, which develop differentiation skills but not species memorisation. A paper in the Journal of Biological Education proposes that mnemonics, memorable ‘name clues’ linking a species name with morphological characters, are a complementary learning tool for promoting species memorisation.
In the first of two experiments, 64 adults in a group-learning environment were taught species identification using mnemonics, an educational card game and a text-based dichotomous key. In the second experiment, 43 adults in a self-directed learning environment were taught species identification using mnemonics and a pictorial dichotomous key. In both experiments, mnemonics produced the highest retention rates of species identification based on vegetative characters. The educational value of these findings is discussed for vegetative plant identification and broader applications. Participants in this study also enjoyed mnemonics more than a keying-out activity, suggesting that they could help to stimulate interest in botany.