Long term student engagement with iNaturalist (what students do after the class is over)

I have posted a few times in the educator section of the forums because I use iNaturalist in my classroom. In fact, I use iNaturalist as a centerpiece for the course tying assignments and projects to the course using iNat. I have been using it since the fall of 2016 and while I have changed my approach a few times, the overwhelming feedback from students has been very positive.

One of the things I had not considered until recently was the impact of the use of iNaturalist on students after they left my course. Fortunately, I still have all of my student data and their usernames here in iNaturalist and I began to explore how many students were still using iNaturalist (as measured by adding observations) after the course was over. I was surprised at the results.

I took the pool of students from each semester and I looked at what percentage of students were still adding observations (at least 1) 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, etc… after the end of the course. In the case of my 2016 Fall class I have 5 years worth of data while my 2021 fall and spring classes only have 1 year of data. Below is a graph of the results.

In the first year after the course was over an average of 31.5% of students were still adding observations to iNaturalist with 21.5% participation 2 years later, 18.6% participating 3 years later and 13.2% still adding observations 4 years after they are no longer required to do so. I do have one data point for 5 years (17.6%).

I’m doing a more thorough analysis of student engagement as measured by this activity but I thought I would share it here because I haven’t seen this kind of information before. As a teacher I sometimes walk away from a semester thinking that I didn’t have as big an impact as I wanted and can get discouraged if it has been a tough semester but this data tells me that students are still getting it and being affected by this kind of engagement.

Another interesting takeaway is that in 2021 I offered my courses completely online and yet the student participation (the stars on the graph) seems initially to be similar to the participation of students in earlier face-to-face semesters.

I am working on a publication with this information as a measure of student engagement in the classroom and will make sure to share it when it is completed.


This is fantastic! You are definitely a great teacher to have such a lasting response from students.
I am curious about the age/grade level of the students and if they progressed to identifications.


I should have mentioned that these are college students (freshman-sophomore). Only a few have progessed to identifications.


Curtis, this is phenomenal!!! Seriously – great work.

I wish I had more than just anecdotal observation with the students that continue to use iNaturalist. I just know that it makes me inordinately happy when I see a student that goes all in with it!

Huge thanks for all of your dedication.


I’m glad to hear there is someone interested in this. I follow all my students on iNaturalist, and I’m always pleased to see a student posting observations after the class is over. I don’t give myself “credit” for the students who were already iNaturalist users prior to the course, but I am always glad to see these users continue to use iNaturalist as well. One of the many projects I imagine doing in my free time is comparing rates of post-class iNaturalist engagement across the many course-based iNaturalist projects. There is plenty of information to be obtained from the projects alone, but even more if you were to dig into the course structure and grading policies. Are some ways of using iNaturalist in a course better than others?

I’ll be interested to see your final publication.


Very interesting! I’ve used iNat for two classes in college and seen some continuing activity, but not as much as you, so congrats! Five years out is really cool. Nice sample sizes as well.

One comparison that would be interesting is to randomly sample new users who started using iNat during a similar time period and see what their usage patterns are like with whatever metrics you are using and compare them as a “control” group. You could test if your students differ in iNat longevity from the “average” that way.

I will also be interested in reading the final paper!


I’ll just echo the others, and say that this encouraging. I don’t want to see the practice of amateur Naturalists being the purview of old farts like me.
A couple of questions - Where did this take place (a country would do)? Would there be any benefit to hooking students up with possible mentors? I’m always willing to help anyone with general Noctuid moth identifications. I’m in Canada, but also have some generalist knowledge, and in the US many of the species are similar.


One set of data that I am currently looking at is the results of engagement from other faculty here at Austin Community College. I introduced iNaturalist to them but each of them uses it slightly different in the classroom setting. This will allow me to assess if there are better ways to include it than others. Some early data shows that even when it was offered differently students were still engaging in iNaturalist after the class.

It might also be worth finding some classes where iNaturalist is used haphazardly and see if that makes a difference.


I agree that it would be interesting to identify a control group but one of the immediate problems I can foresee is that my students are initially required to join iNat and this may represent some problems with comparison to other types of users.


I am doing this at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas. I definitely think hooking students up with mentors would be a great idea but that will also require identifying such mentors and I’m glad you mentioned that you would be happy to help with noctuid IDs because one of the different ways I am using iNaturalist this semester is to incorporate biodiversity research using blacklights to attract moths (and other insects). I have some groups that will be focusing on the noctuids.


I agree that this wouldn’t be a true “control” per se, but I do think it would be a valid comparison - as long as interpretations don’t overstep, I don’t see an issue.

I think the comparison is particularly interesting because students are required to join - this is a sort of “benevolent coercion.” We often do this with students - have them engage with group work (even when they don’t want to) because there’s a good empirical basis for it improving learning. We might expect a group of average iNatters to be more self-selected based on their own interest. However, if people who are (politely) forced to use iNat initially show similar levels of long term engagement, I think that is a pretty powerful piece of evidence in favor the benefits iNat could have in encouraging engagement with nature, etc.


This is really interesting! This is one of the only examples I’ve seen where the prof can measure the engagement of their students after the class has finished. It would be cool to vary your teaching methods in ways that were not specific to inat use so that the results are more generalizable as well. Would it be possible to break your class up into a control and treatment group?

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This is so cool!


Awww I love this

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Thanks for sharing this information Curtis. I often wonder about iNat user retention.


Thanks for doing this! Please keep us posted going forward.

Tagging @klodonnell who also works with undergrads.


Thanks, @anneclewis for the tag!

@cmeckerman - I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences with iNat in the classroom! I’m interested in seeing how student engagement on iNaturalist changes over time.

Last year, Colleen Hitchcock (@hitchco), Jon Sullivan (@jon_sullivan), and I used our different undergrad courses as three case studies for using iNat in the classroom. One of the things we looked at was the number of observations made post-course as a way to think about changes in student bioliteracy. Turns out, many of our students made observations after our courses, but most of those students made only a small number of observations. Then there were a few (43) very engaged students who made over 100 observations post-course. You can find more info on that and our case studies here:

Hitchcock, C., Sullivan, J. and O’Donnell, K., 2021. Cultivating Bioliteracy, Biodiscovery, Data Literacy, and Ecological Monitoring in Undergraduate Courses with iNaturalist. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice , 6(1), p.26. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.439


Very cool data! I also have students (sophomore-senior) use iNat in my general ecology class. What is the nature of the class you have them use it in?

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Very interesting! I look forward to seeing the paper, and am also happy see the paper mentioned by @klodonnell. I’m on the fourth year of coordinating a public citizen science project using iNat, and I’ve been interested in quantifying continued iNat engagement among project members after joining our project. Our project is focused on butterflies, and I’d also like to assess how many other taxa users started observing - answering whether we facilitated connections with nature more broadly. We plan to run for five years and so I’ve been waiting to run all the numbers. But my hunch is that we’ll find something similar to the paper cited by @klodonnell - a small number will continue as highly engaged users, while many will continue as occasional users.


I just managed to read the paper.
Will recommend it to anyone involved in teaching and student engagement. Even if they just read the introduction and conclusion - these are very well written!

(And yes - I noticed the easter egg - almost started laughing loud in a jam-packed train :face_with_monocle: :joy:)