Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Geology/Solid Earth Science Content

Eric J. Pyle, James Madison University; Andy Darling, Colorado State University; Zo Kreager, Northern Illinois University; and Susan Howes Conrad, Dutchess Community College


"Solid Earth" is a broad concept, representing processes at the surface of the Earth, as well as the subsurface all the way to the solid inner core (Figure 1). Fields of study encompassed in this domain include geomorphology, historical geology, mineralogy, petrology, stratigraphy, structural geology – all topics that are touched upon in introductory coursework, and constitute the core of an undergraduate geology curriculum. Combined with cognate coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, the conceptual load in the Solid Earth curriculum is daunting, to say the least. The vision of the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) places Earth science as a capstone to the secondary science curriculum, which would be a natural springboard to undergraduate geoscience studies. But this vision is far from the current, or even near-future reality, with Earth science often relegated to early in the secondary curriculum if offered at all, and in many cases seen as an option for lower-achieving students. The risks of poor understanding of solid Earth concepts are non-trivial, ranging from the economic costs of commodities and energy to the potentially fatal impact of hazards from mass-wasting, flooding, volcanic activity, and earthquakes.

As a result of this gap between the vision and reality, undergraduate geoscience studies are faced with two main problems: (a) the determination of students' solid Earth misconceptions when they participate in geoscience coursework, including their persistence and the means to address them, and (b) the determination of optimal learning progressions in geoscience instruction to accommodate preparation of geoscience professionals and Earth science teachers, as well as general education students. There is a growing and robust body of literature for misconceptions among undergraduate geoscience students, yet more work needs to be done; and an optimal learning progression for undergraduate geoscience does not yet exist. Many of the methodological approaches to addressing these two problems can be sought and adopted from pre-college education research, thus a dialogue between geoscience content faculty and their education peers, including pre-college teachers, is a necessary component.

Grand Challenges

Grand Challenge 1: What are ways to further develop current, and to discover new, ways of understanding critical concepts for developing Earth Systems thinking on processes from the surface to the core, and links to other Earth system components?

Historically, Earth science education at the secondary level has not instilled a deep understanding of Earth science concepts nor strong connections to other science content areas; this affects students' conceptual understanding in undergraduate geology coursework. If students have misconceptions about fundamental components of the solid Earth, then the complexity of solid Earth systems and their connections to other Earth systems will continually be beyond their grasp, and these misconceptions will become an impediment to further learning.

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 curriculum in the geosciences follows a general pattern that is governed largely by faculty expertise and workforce expectations, but is not necessarily well-informed by students' prior knowledge and naïve ideas. There is little empirical information that supports the notion that a traditional approach to the undergraduate geoscience curricular design meets the needs of majors or non-majors. Learning progressions are an approach to understanding the construction of learning environments, which can provide a structure for what should be learned about a topic and the sequence of topic components of increasing complexity. Geoscience education research can, and should, inform the development of optimal learning progressions.

Citation for this chapter: Pyle, Eric J.; Darling, Andy; Kreager, Zo; and Conrad, Susan Howes (2018). "Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Geology/Solid Earth Science Content". In St. John, K (Ed.) (2018). Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research. National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

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