Grand Challenge 3:

How can geoscience education foster the spatial and temporal reasoning skills that are required in each sub-specialty?


Once an understanding of the essential types of spatial and temporal reasoning for each geoscience specialty, and an understanding of how to measure them, is established we can then proceed to developing and assessing instructional methods for supporting these skills. Targeted instructional manipulations should be investigated with the intention of assessing if and how these interventions support content learning and the development of spatial and temporal reasoning skills. A further question within this Grand Challenge is to consider whether the same instructional interventions can be used across content areas that recruit the same (or similar) spatial and temporal reasoning skills.

Some work in the Geoscience Education community has begun to investigate these questions. For example, research has demonstrated benefits for instruction that utilizes predictive sketching (Gagnier et al., 2017; Ormand et al., 2017), student produced gestural aids (Atit, Gagnier, & Shipley, 2015; Kastens, Agrawal, & Liben, 2008), embodiment and modeling (Hall-Wallace & McAuliffe, 2002; Kastens & Krumhansl, 2017; Plummer, Bower, & Liben, 2016; Woods et al., 2016), and various forms of active learning strategies (Cheek, LaDue, & Shipley, 2017; McConnell et al., 2017; Sit & Brudzinski, 2017). While the Geoscience Education community has made strides in developing and testing methods for supporting content learning and spatial and temporal reasoning, other DBER areas have laid significantly greater groundwork (e.g. Wu & Shah, 2004; Stieff, Hegarty, & Dixon, 2010; Stieff & Uttal, 2015; Augusto, 2005; Montanegro 1992,1996). Of broader relevance, Freeman et al. (2014) conducted a meta-analysis including 225 studies that compared student performance in STEM courses taught in a lecture format versus an active learning format. Encouragingly, this analysis demonstrated a strong positive effect for active learning formats, however only two of the studies included in his review were conducted in geoscience classrooms (compared to 33 biology, 31 physics, 29 math, 22 chemistry, 19 English, 14 psychology, 8 computational science). Though this was a meta-analysis of papers on active learning, there is likely a very similar need for controlled studies of temporal and spatial reasoning in the geosciences. The geoscience education community should use the research conducted in other fields to inform their own future research and should also be sure to conduct research that provides strong and reliable evidence (St. John & McNeal, 2017).

Finally, it is critical that the community make an effort to identify tasks or learning goals that are transferable and context-independent so they can be applied more widely throughout the discipline. This may extend to applying temporal and spatial skills learned within a geoscience context to other disciplines, especially as most students in introductory geoscience courses are non-majors. It is an assumption that the skills taught in those classes will be of broader applicability and therefore value to the students, but additional work is needed to support that hypothesis.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Apply theories of attention and learning that have come out of cognitive science to more theoretically inform the instructional techniques we develop (e.g., selective attention, inhibition, cognitive capacities, principles of multimedia learning, student engagement, to name a few). For example, apply theories of selective attention to better understand why students "miss" key pieces of data during field mapping exercises.
  2. Following work out of physics, identify explicit models that novices and experts rely on when completing various reasoning tasks. Use this to identify where novice reasoning goes awry and where future investigations/instructional interventions should be focused. For example, have students complete sorting tasks (e.g., in order of size or amount of time) to better understand what information they use and/or consider relevant (see example from Tinigin, Petcovic, & LaDue, 2017). This could then be compared to the information experts use to complete the same sorting task. Some specific spatial and temporal misconceptions can be found outlined by Francek (2013), Ishikawa & Kastens (2005), Kusnick (2002), and Gautier, Deutsch, & Rebich (2006).
  3. Study transferability from general, content-agnostic skills to discipline-specific skills and possibly vice-versa. Does training in a content-agnostic skill influence the development of a discipline-specific skill in any way?
  4. Develop studies that provide strong evidence and begin to elucidate why certain techniques are effective. What are the underlying cognitive mechanisms at play?
  5. An additional long term research strategy is to generate learning progressions for critical cross-cutting spatial and temporal skills. For example, how does a typical individual's ability to access temporal depth (Bluedorn, 2002) develop from the time they are a freshman to when they graduate? What are the specific learning strategies that support the development of temporal depth?

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