Rocky Mountain Section - 64th Annual Meeting (9–11 May 2012)

Paper No. 3
Presentation Time: 8:00 AM-5:30 PM


SMITH, Gary A. and BERMEA, Shannon Belle, Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico, MSC03 2040, Albuquerque, NM 87131,

Five different cohorts in a historical geology course over five years – a total of 149 students – completed an in-class assignment where they drew sketches of plate boundaries with required annotations. Analysis of the sketches revealed that the majority of students lack an explanatory mental model that links the locations of earthquakes, volcanoes, and magma generation to plate-boundary processes, and they also hold a pervasive alternative conception of Earth’s interior structure that does not distinguish between compositional and rheological boundaries. Students who drew sketches that illustrated the most alternative conceptions also scored lower on a beginning-of-the-course administration of the Geoscience Concept Inventory (Libarkin and Anderson, 2005, J. Geosci. Ed., 53(4):394-401), showing that conceptual understanding of plate tectonics correlates with overall conceptual geosciences knowledge obtained during previous course experiences. In addition, students tracking to the historical geology course via an introductory physical geology course showed stronger conceptual understanding of plate tectonics than those choosing an Earth-systems science prerequisite, with those students previously enrolled in both courses illustrating the fewest alternative conceptions. Along with other studies of pervasive student misunderstandings of the fundamental theory of the geosciences, this research shows that instructors should not assume that students bring a ready understanding of plate tectonics to their second semester geology course.