Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 2:

What is the optimal learning progression (i.e., conceptual scope and sequence) in an undergraduate geology degree program to best support growth in conceptual understanding and career preparation?


The undergraduate science education experience is unique in that it must attend to three different populations of students: (a) students seeking a degree in the geosciences, (b) non-major students satisfying general education requirements, and (c) pre-service teachers of science, including both elementary as well as secondary. Lacking an accrediting body, such as the role that the American Chemical Society (ACS) provides for chemistry, the undergraduate curriculum in the geosciences follows a general pattern that is governed largely by faculty expertise both within individual programs and in conversations at the national level, (e.g., Mosher et al, 2014). Perspectives from potential employers (e.g., meeting outcomes) and/or the requirements for professional registration/licensure (e.g., Professional Geologist) also play a role. However, curriculum design is not necessarily well-informed by students' prior knowledge and naïve ideas. By the same token, there is little empirical information that supports the notion that a traditional approach to geoscience curricular design meets the needs of all, or any of the populations listed above. Detailed curriculum maps, outlining expected knowledge, skills, and dispositions (KSDs) can inform the development of learning progressions, but the maps are, in themselves are a retrospective look at what has happened in students' experiences, not what a span of development towards future goals should look like.

Learning progressions are an approach to understanding the construction of learning environments, such that they are "descriptions of increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking about or understanding a topic" (NRC, 2007). They can provide a map of what should be learned about a topic and the sequence of topic components of increasing complexity. As opposed to a conventional "top-down" approach to curricular design (i.e., "Tyler Rationale"), learning progressions emphasize both "big ideas" that would be top down from a scientist's perspective as well as a "bottom-up" approach, based on students' initial naïve ideas about the topic and following them towards more complicated and detailed understandings of the topic at hand (Gotwals & Alonzo, 2012).

Much of the research with learning progressions is limited to the K-12 realm, but to the extent that they have influence on students' prior knowledge upon entering undergraduate coursework, they are worth examining. Many of the learning progressions that have been empirically developed or documented have been done within the physical and life sciences, with relatively little work done with Earth science learning progressions. The Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council, 2012) offer prototype learning progressions for disciplinary content in K-12 Earth science, as well as for cross-cutting concepts and science & engineering practices. As NGSS becomes more widely employed, it will have an impact on students entering undergraduate programs. Thus, an understanding of pre-college Earth science learning progressions, and how they were developed, provides information for future curricular development in undergraduate programs, developing learning progressions to suit the needs of the student populations an undergraduate program needs to serve. What is currently unavailable are optimized learning progressions for core solid Earth ideas in undergraduate geoscience programs.

But learning progressions also need to go far beyond student understanding of specific components in isolation, and the Earth systems connections between these concepts are just as important as the concepts themselves (Figure 3). Learning solid Earth concepts in depth also requires connections to cognate sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, more so perhaps than in disciplines outside of the geosciences. Through these relationships within and across disciplines, the disparate solid Earth concepts can be tied together in an evolutionary sense (Fichter, Pyle & Whitmeyer, 2010), but also tied to other Earth system components. Assaraf & Orion (2005) defined the requirements for Earth systems thinking, which suggest an upper boundary to students developing Earth systems thinking and providing a template against which many curricula fall short. Thus, another challenge is determining the relative roles that introductory geoscience and cognate science courses play within solid Earth learning progressions.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Identify the best research practices (quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods) for conceptual progressions. The methods and conventions for documenting and developing learning progressions employed by pre-college science education researchers should be examined and adapted for different undergraduate geoscience student audiences;
  2. Engage with education research faculty to develop learning progressions for critical concepts in a manner similar to those used in NGSS. Many learning progressions can be defined by the collaboration of experts in solid Earth concepts, the psychology of learning, and the nature of assessment;
  3. Outline methods of determining the efficacy of curricular innovations grounded in learning progressions for solid Earth concepts. The NRC (2001) suggests including a cognitive component of knowledge and misconceptions, an observational component of student understanding, and an interpretation component of student behaviors and assessment results.

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