2009 Portland GSA Annual Meeting (18-21 October 2009)

Paper No. 9
Presentation Time: 10:15 AM


KING, Helen L., Higher Education Consultant, 8419 Porter Lan, Alexandria, VA 22308, helen@helenkingconsultancy.co.uk

Three universities in the UK, USA and Canada participated in a pilot research project to identify conceptual barriers to student learning of Geoscience. A grounded theory approach was adopted to allow hypotheses to emerge from the data.

An online survey with open-ended questions was completed by self-selected faculty and students. 20 follow-up interviews were also conducted. The aim of the project was to test the methodology and identify broad categories of difficult concepts and challenging ways of thinking in Geoscience, with a view to conducting a larger study that will allow quantitative comparison between e.g. non-majors and majors and across different learning and teaching cultures.

Many Geoscience topics were mentioned as being difficult, however, the reasons for the difficulties fell into six broad categories: spatial literacy; abstract thinking; geological time; issues with math, physics or chemistry; terminology / memorisation; or the concepts were hard to grasp. Faculty were more likely to mention the first three categories whereas students tended to note the latter two. From this finding it is hypothesised that there is a relationship between individual’s mental models or personal constructs of Geoscience and the aspects of the discipline that they perceive as difficult: faculty have a master’s view of the nature of Geoscience and expect cognitive aspects such as spatial literacy and abstract thinking to be difficult. Introductory students have a naive view which tends to see difficulties lying in memorisation of terminology and ‘facts’.

Further questions revealed that students’ interest in Geoscience was stimulated by things they can see and touch, which relate to the world around them, their daily lives and past experiences. Also, the preferred learning and teaching strategy for dealing with difficulties was time: repetition, practice and study. An implication for teaching, therefore, is the issue of supporting students to better understand the nature of Geoscience and to begin to develop the geoscientific agility of mind in a time-constrained class whilst emphasising the relevance of the science.

Despite the numerous stumbling blocks, the vast majority of the student respondents agreed that learning Geoscience has had a positive, transformative effect on the way they view the world around them.