Best practices for instructors using iNat participation for extra credit

Hi all, we’ll be doing a university-wide BioBlitz this spring and as part of the team organizing the event I’d like to come up with a document outlining “best practices” for our instructors who want to use this as an extra credit opportunity for their classes to encourage students to get involved. I’m looking for some input from the community - sort of a wish list - what should be in such a document.

This is a little different from a course activity built into a curriculum targeting particular learning objectives etc. I think it’s going to be mostly a “get out and observe nature and I’ll give you a few points of extra credit” during the last two weeks of the semester right before finals. Some instructors will not have prior iNat experience themselves and may not even have an account. They will need guidance on how to introduce it to their students and what to tell them.

We did this last fall and learned that the #1 issue is cultivated plants being observed. We did try to get the word out that only wild organisms will count and I even created videos explaining the difference, but ultimately found that a lot of students did not pay attention to that and only took note when their observations were excluded from the project and presumably disqualified from receiving the extra credit their instructors had promised them. So I think one thing we need to work on is explaining this better to both instructors and students.

Other things we saw: Lots of observations where multiple pictures of the same individual were uploaded as individual obs rather than combined into one (common). A few with pictures of multiple organisms combined into one obs (less common). We probably need to include some how-to instructions for these things, targeting the phone apps (most participants used their phones).

There also appeared to be confusion over what constitutes an observation vs. an identification and which one counts for the BioBlitz (most instances of extra credit that I’m aware of were based on observation numbers, identifications probably should not count to avoid encouraging uninformed IDs).

Anything else that you feel should be noted?


Be sure to inform your students to use their OWN images when observing. Every once in a while I’ll come across some observation on iNaturalist whose image has been flagged for copyright violation.


Maybe tell the instructors that it’s their job to check all the student submissions and click “cultivated/casual” if necessary and also add basic IDs (plant, animal) if necessary. I see the occasional class project on iNat where it looks like the students added lots of random, flawed or poorly labeled observations and then no one else ever did anything with them, leaving that for iNat volunteers to try to clean up.


I appreciate your candor in describing how your people intend to use the project, but it almost seems designed to attract flippant, do-the-minimum submissions no matter how careful your directions are. I would feel better about it if someone would point out cases where students got turned on to nature and iNat from this kind of extra-credit task. Does it ever happen? Or is it just going to generate junk for identifiers to deal with?


I agree. I’m a college instructor and have used iNat for assignments. I feel like an extra credit assignment like this will attract a lot of low quality, last minute submissions from students. In my experience, students, even those doing a structured, lab-based assignment for a “regular” grade, need an in-person training session to use iNaturalist effectively out of the gate, avoid common issues, and make decent quality observations. Tutorial videos are good to back this up in-person demo. I also lead outreach projects training teachers to use iNat, and having instructors who have used iNat previously and are at least good, basic users is key to success. I would be very wary of running an iNat project as described above.

I concur with all the potential issues outlined in the original post as well as from other posters. Issues I have seen in personal experience as an instructor and as an identifier on iNat:

  • Lots of cultivated organisms
  • Instructors who don’t monitor their class’ submissions and perform triage
  • Students all taking pics of the same individual organism (not against rules, just annoying)
  • Observations with no initial identification
  • Copyright violations/pics copied from online (especially as deadlines approach)
  • Students IDing without expertise/agreeing to other students’ observations incorrectly - essentially just agreeing to CV IDs.
  • Low quality observations that generally can’t get more than a broad ID (trees in the distance, field of grass, etc.)
  • Last minute emails about tech issues and not being able to submit
  • Use of screenshots leading to incorrect time/date/location
  • Lack of followup from students to correct issues (as opposed to other new users who are more likely to respond to comments/DMs)

Basically, just all of the usual errors that new users make but compounded by pressure to submit as opposed to most new users who are acting out of inherent interest.

I have seen some discussion about whether students continue to use iNat or not on previous posts (can’t find them now). I remember at least one person had good results, though I think they used iNat in a pretty structured way. I have tracked some of my projects and had a low proportion of students continue using the app (<5%) though I have done full labs with it.


Just checking, but you have read both the teacher’s guide and bioblitz guide, right?’s+guide

I also agree with the other comments that any time there is a grade involved, things tend to get messy, fast. I’d personally recommend to only use iNaturalist in a context that does not involve a grade as otherwise there is inevitably cases of copyright infringement, or lower quality observations when there is a grade on the line.


This is I think is the critical difference. If the motivation is curiosity and desire to learn, iNaturalist is a dream resource. If it isn’t, everybody’s time is wasted. If instructors don’t have the time to help motivate the curiosity and interest, it’s not going to work.


I’m also a college instructor who has used iNat for projects, and worked with/mentored others doing so. I agree 100% with everything cthawley has said. The proposed setup creates a strong incentive for all of the bad outcomes described, including the fact that in my experience, the students most interested in (and most in need of) “extra credit” are often those least able/willing to follow guidelines/instructions, most willing to cut corners and submit overall sloppy work, etc.


The group I followed had zoom lectures explaining what to do and what not to do, teach them step by step of what they will meet with, explain what is not iNat’s focus, then you must monitor every mistake they do and have another meeting on those mistakes and again how to avoid them, students should be like your own children that you teach for the excellence. Otherwise it becomes a burden on the community.


Problems we noticed with a local high school that was doing iNat activities without much guidance were photos of rocks, garbage, and their classmates with joke identifications like “rat” or “slug.” While I understand the impulse to identify rocks and document human impacts, iNat is not the right place for that. I think it also helps to remind people that there are no truly private observations on iNaturalist, all observations are available for everyone to see and only location can be made private.

Our division developed a video for an OHV grant that you can view here:
It is Nevada-centric but if you find it helpful, feel free to share.


Advice for educators using iNat in the classroom

I’m not an educator, but here are some things that came to my mind (I see some of these things have already been mentioned, but nonetheless):

Speaking to educators in general, not to you specifically:

  • All educators should first read the guide: iNat’s Guide for Teachers

  • Please tell students that they are not permitted to delete an observation because they have incorrectly IDed an organism.

  • Why? — This is not how iNat works, and a misuse of IDers time. Instead, explain to the students that they must choose between (1) keeping, (2) withdrawing or (3) changing their ID to agree, if a disagreeing ID has been added to their observation. They should be instructed to research and compare, before deciding whether or not to make a change to their ID (Is the IDer correct? —Research differences between species/IDs). Because many students are required to add a note describing things like an organism’s appearance, habitat or diet, it’s important that they know how to edit an observation to change their note, if they wish to change their ID.
  • Please discourage students from IDing each other’s observations, with the exception of students who have experience/knowledge of a taxon.

  • Why? — We have many amazing, young IDers in our iNat community; I’m so thankful for them, and have learned a lot from some of them. However, when students without experience (with the various observed taxa) decide to ID their classmates’ observations, it often leads to incorrectly IDed observations that are very hard to overturn.
  • Please teach students the difference between wild and captive organisms, and encourage them to mainly add wild organisms.

  • Please monitor students’ observations regularly (via a project that the teacher/educator has created). Dates and locations should be accurate. Location accuracy should be as precise as possible —not an unnecessarily large number of meters. Photos should be ones they’ve taken themselves, of organisms they’ve observed firsthand. Students should be required to keep up with their observations (not just add and done); valid and relevant requests or questions from IDers should be addressed by the student observer. If an educator notices a student mainly adding data that is not beneficial, please speak with them privately.

Speaking to educators in general, not to you specifically:
—To accomplish these things, an educator, in general, would have to be quite familiar with how iNat works, before sharing it with their classroom. Of course, any educator who has the interest or motivation can learn. In fact, we’re all still learning, continually, and thankfully there are many wonderful people in the community who are quite eager to help.


It might help if credit was given based on the effort shown, rather than an arbitrary thing like “number of observations made”. For example, a student who makes 3 observations of wild organisms, with clear photos of each, should probably get more credit than a student who makes 10 blurry observations of various plants in the school flowerbed, and someone who makes 3 observations that they had to specifically hunt down (rather than things they found incidentally) might get a bit of an extra bonus for effort. Plus, someone who observes 5 different species of insect should probably get more credit than someone who observes 5 different individuals of the same species of all-over-the-sidewalk pillbug.

Heck, you might even consider only allowing observations of animals and fungi to count. That would remove the issue with cultivated plants, and, if a student gains some genuine interest and starts making observations (plants or no plants) for reasons other than credit, all the better! Obviously we want to encourage people to pay attention to all sorts of nature, but someone who’s just not interested isn’t likely to become interested after photographing a weed they found on the sidewalk.


Animals - my dog, my cat … let’s just take the wild mushrooms?

Part of learning to use iNat would be plants. Especially since the query comes from a botany prof.


I agree the only true solution to the cultivated plant problem is to tell the students not to photograph plants at all. I’ve tried explaining what cultivated means to students and they are not able to understand. It’s one thing if the class is observing on a field trip to a natural natural area, but if they’re just on the campus or permitted to use any location, they will always photograph cultivated plants.

The only other thing that even sort of works is to have two people (such as the teacher plus the event organizer) go through every observation and mark the cultivated ones cultivated. You need two people doing this because the student will try to counter-vote. Of course even with two people screening, the students might also push a false wild status by voting on each other’s observations or creating sock puppet accounts (I have seen both happen.)


This worries me the most.


Given that the students are unlikely to respond to comments once they have their credit. Maybe entice identifiers to clear the fresh backlog promptly - perhaps resolve issues while the student or teacher might still respond.

.That’s a very good idea to avoid plants!

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I’m glad you asked, as I frequently encounter issues from misinstructed students in tandem with instructors that don’t seem to be very in touch with the site. Just off the top of my head, these are the guidelines I always wish people would follow:

  • Don’t blindly agree with other students’ IDs – this interferes with the identification process, creating incorrect data and wasting people’s time in the future who have to fix the errors.

    Don’t require students to get Research Grade observations, nor encourage it; this can make students agree with each other spontaneously without any regard to accuracy. They should specifically avoid making IDs for other students unless they actually possess the needed knowledge.

  • Be careful when selecting computer vision suggestions – it’s not always right, so if the suggestion doesn’t make sense, don’t pick it. Always err on the side of a higher taxon (e.g. “Insects” or “Birds”) if you’re unsure.

    In fact, for this one, I’d suggest that students almost entirely do the latter as most of them are unlikely to withdraw their IDs later down the line when potentially corrected, which again creates an unnecessary hassle for identifiers. Especially for taxa like insects, many people also just plain don’t know as much as they might think they do and will be more prone to misidentifying (selecting “Ants” for velvet ants, mixing up grubs, etc.). If they do choose to use CV, it should be out of personal reasoning, not simply the computer telling them it thinks so (more of a personal etiquette I have).

  • Try to take clear photos in good lighting.

    As has been aforementioned, using iNat for points can encourage students to make low-quality content, so try to mitigate this. If it’s not too much work, maybe even ask students to have their submissions checked before uploading to ensure there’s something of substance – e.g. not a blurry brick wall with a black smudge that could arguably be an arthropod. This is really more than I’d expect though, and is likely unnecessary. Perhaps provide them with some resources on how to take good phone photos?

  • Upload your own content, and if joke submissions are made, make sure they are set to Casual – this is real citizen science data, it should be respected. All given data should also be accurate (i.e. location/time/cultivation status).

    Sometimes students are just confused and think that the site is meant for sharing anything you want identified, so make sure they know it’s only for their own content.

Lastly, I think it’s important that you can be contacted easily via iNat messaging, email, etc. Just leave a note in the description of the project explaining how you can be contacted, so if any issues arise you can be informed. I guess this could also be done for instructors, but by the sounds of it not all of them will really be involved? I’d urge them to get involved so they can interact with students more.

As for the cultivated plants issue, it can definitely be hard to explain. It really depends on the region – e.g. a city will be tricky to find wild plants in (especially for someone who is inexperienced), but a rural neighborhood with a forest won’t be. From the sounds of it I agree that leaving out plants might be the only safe option.


Learning to fully use INat would include plants, yes, but if the goal is just to get as many students as possible to have a few decent observations, with as few “someone didn’t listen very well” problems as possible, leaving plants out for that specific goal might be the best plan. Hopefully students will develop an interest in using INat properly, and if they do, they can then observe whatever they like.

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I actually came to inaturalist from having to use it for a college assignment. What I had to do was provide evidence for my identification (ie the algorithm says it’s an oak tree, but then to get credit I would have to identify the species of oak tree on my own and explain my reasoning in the identification description). This made sure I was actually paying some attention to what I was photographing and forced me to learn more about what was living in my area. Also for it to count, we had to identify it to species, we couldn’t just take a picture of moss and be like “it’s moss” we would have to identify it to species and provide our own reasoning for why it was that species in addition to what the algorithm said.

Also the assignment was set up that we had to make like 5 observations each week for several weeks, which prevented me from doing everything last minute and encouraged me to focus on different stuff overtime, instead of just taking pictures of the first 20 things I saw the day before the due date.

Can’t speak to how my classmates did or if their inaturalist observations came out good, but I did pretty well on the assignment and it definitely did get me more interested in the wildlife around me, which is why I’ve continued to use (aka been addicted to) inaturalist since finishing college. Looking back on it, some of my first inaturalist observations that were from that class definitely weren’t the best in terms of image quality or getting the features needed for identification, but I did to pretty well at avoiding cultivated plants and stuff like that.