Research on Cognitive Domain in Geoscience Learning: Temporal and Spatial Reasoning

Katherine Ryker, University of South Carolina and Allison J. Jaeger, Temple University. With contributions from: Scott Brande, University of Alabama at Birmingham; Mariana Guereque, The University of Texas at El Paso; Julie Libarkin, Michigan State University; and Thomas F. Shipley, Temple University.


The geosciences are characterized by their particular application of and reliance on temporal and spatial reasoning. Geoscientists must be able to apply their knowledge across a variety of scales. In the words of Arthur Conan Doyle in his book A Study in Scarlet, "From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it." Geoscientists should be able to look at, say, physical and chemical differences in ocean surface waters (Figure 1) or in sedimentary layers from a core of the seafloor and infer changes in patterns (spatial) over time (temporal). The ability to engage with this kind of task represents a great shift in thinking from where most students begin their studies, be that in K-12 or college. In order to understand how people's ability to spatial and temporal reasoning changes over time requires us to identify what skills are essential, how to properly assess those skills, and then to explore the impacts of different targeted interventions in geoscience contexts.

While more is known about how people reason spatially as compared with temporally, there are still significant gaps in our understanding of spatial reasoning in the geosciences. We believe that there are opportunities to build on lessons learned from previous investigations of spatial thinking (e.g. the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, or SILC), including how a community can investigate a specific line of reasoning. There is also a need to build on established research from other domains, from anthropology to cognitive science to physics.

We identified three Grand Challenges to better understand the need for and growth of spatial and temporal reasoning in geoscience education. These include identifying what reasonings or skills are essential to the geosciences (both broadly and within subdisciplines), and the intertwined challenge of how to assess those reasonings and use those results to improve on what students are learning from their geoscience experiences.

Grand Challenges

Grand Challenge 1: What skills and tasks are essential to the different specialties within the geosciences? What spatial and temporal reasoning skills map onto these specific tasks?

To ensure that our work is relevant to the broader geoscience community, we need to target our research to the primary specialties within the community (e.g., perhaps as defined by AGU's sections or GSA's divisions). Because these specialties can vary greatly in terms of their scale, scope, and methods, it is necessary to identify the primary defining skills and tasks in each area. Once the essential tasks and skills of these specialties are identified, the types of spatial and temporal reasoning in each need to be "mapped" so we can understand if and how these fields differ.

Grand Challenge 2: Do current measures of spatial and temporal reasoning accurately assess the skills required in the various geoscience specialties? If not, what other types of assessments need to be developed?

With an understanding of the essential tasks required in each of the primary specialties in the geosciences, we can then proceed to empirically test whether these tasks actually recruit the spatial and temporal reasoning skills that were "mapped" in GC 1. That is, if we think locating fossils requires penetrative thinking, disembedding, mental rotation, and transformation, does performance on these measures predict success in fossil locations and identification? Are there any domain-specific geoscience tasks or skills that do not seem to align with an existing spatial or temporal reasoning measure? If not, can we design a more appropriate measure?

Grand Challenge 3: How can geoscience education foster the spatial and temporal reasoning skills that are required in each specialty?

With an understanding of the essential types of spatial and temporal reasoning for each geoscience specialty, and an understanding of how to measure them, we can then proceed to develop and assess instructional methods that support these specific skills. Specific instructional manipulations can be conducted with the intention of assessing how these interventions support content learning, but also how they support the development of spatial and temporal reasoning. If two different specialties require the same variety of spatial or temporal reasoning, can the same style of instructional intervention be used in both context?

Citation for this chapter: Ryker, Katherine; Jaeger, Allison J.; Brande, Scott; Guereque, Mariana; Libarkin, Julie; and Shipley, Thomas F. (2018). "Research on Cognitive Domain in Geoscience Learning: Temporal and Spatial Reasoning". In St. John, K (Ed.) (2018). Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research. National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

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