HOW WELL DO COLLEGE STUDENTS WITH LITTLE TO NO GEOSCIENCE EXPERIENCE IDENTIFY AND UNDERSTAND THE FORMATION OF LANDSCAPES?
Students had difficulties identifying landforms and determining their time of formation. Commonly known landscapes (volcanoes and mountains) were correctly identified by the majority of students, but most landforms were identified by fewer than half of students. Our participants frequently gave responses that indicated they were not looking at the correct feature (e.g. mountain instead of a U-shaped valley). Students were best at determining the formation time for landforms with the shortest formation timespans. They systematically underestimated the formation timespans of rivers, overestimated the formation times of lava flows, volcanoes, and mud cracks, and equally over- and underestimated the formation times of mountains.
Student explanations of the formation of landforms revealed alternative conceptions, with processes involving plates shifting, earthquakes, water, people, and glaciers/Ice Age each used to explain the formation of a large majority of landforms. Although some of these processes were correct explanations, many were not (e.g. valley formed when plates shifted apart).
There were similarities between the responses of our pre-introductory level students and Jolley’s advanced level students. Both groups of students gave similar incorrect responses when identifying landforms and both tended to respond with formation times that were consistently too short or too long for the same landforms. These similarities indicate that: 1. Alternative conceptions about landforms are widespread, and 2. Students hold on to alternative conceptions about landforms even after instruction. Our results indicate that instructors need to direct introductory students’ attention to the desired feature on an image and purposefully address misconceptions of landforms in order to improve students’ understanding.