Research on Instructional Strategies to Improve Geoscience Learning in Different Settings and with Different Technologies

Steven Semken, Arizona State University; Juk Bhattacharyya, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater; Don Duggan-Haas, Paleontological Research Institution; Amy Pallant, The Concord Consortium; and Jennifer Wiggen, North Carolina State University


Strategies for teaching geoscience have evolved considerably in recent decades, owing to several factors that include (a) advances in teaching practice in STEM as a whole, particularly a trend from passive, instructor-centered pedagogy to use of more active and student-centered methods; (b) better correspondence between reflective teachers of geoscience and researchers in Geo-DBER and Geo-SoTL; (c) continuing rapid advances in instructional technologies, including virtual and online instruction; and (d) deeper interest across the entire geoscience community in improving accessibility, equity, and diversity within what has historically been among the least accessible or diverse branches of science.

Geoscience instruction today is carried out in a range of settings (Figure 1): from the traditional triad of classroom, laboratory, and field to informal or free-choice learning venues such as museums and science centers, and to fully online and immersive virtual environments. Teaching can now be carried out by instructors in-person (face-to-face) with large or small groups of learners; remotely over the web; synchronously during a scheduled class session or webinar; or asynchronously according to students' own schedules. Various situated and richly contextualized teaching modalities, such as place-based, case-based, problem-based, multicultural-multilingual, and experiential instruction have been adopted by geoscience educators.

However, it is a fact that practicing geoscience educators greatly outnumber practicing geoscience education researchers, and that the pace and the excitement of technological and methodological advances in education tend to outstrip the more deliberate progress of relevant educational research and assessment. Further, geoscience education receives less attention and support on a national scale than do biology, chemistry, and physics education. As a result, many recent influential studies such as that by Freeman et al. (2014), which demonstrated the effectiveness of active learning in undergraduate STEM, actually include little or no data from geoscience education. It is not surprising that changes in instructional strategies in geoscience have often come on the basis of instructor experience or preference, or anecdotal knowledge, rather than on a foundation of rigorous research and evaluation.

Our Working Group recognizes that, in order to close these gaps and render future instructional strategies as effective as possible, (a) there must be better coordination among researchers and educators in our own professional community and with those in other STEM disciplines; (b) higher standards of evidence must be applied to research in many cases; and (c) certain barriers at the instructional level to full and effective implementation of best practices must still be overcome. We have identified and enumerated five wholly soluble Grand Challenges that, if addressed by geoscience education researchers in partnership with practitioners, will lead to more effective, accessible, inclusive, relevant, and practical geoscience teaching and learning.

Grand Challenges

Grand Challenge 1: How can research and evaluation keep pace with advances in technological and methodological strategies for geoscience instruction, and with evolving geoscience workforce requirements?

Technological advances in science education, including geoscience education, tend to occur rapidly, and educators may adopt them ahead of any methodical research on their effectiveness or rigorous evaluation of their learning outcomes in different learning environments. In addition, geoscience curriculum and instruction may be poorly aligned with, or unresponsive to, continually evolving geoscience workforce requirements. These issues are interrelated and need more attention from researchers.

Grand Challenge 2: How can undergraduate geoscience instruction benefit from and contribute to effective research-based practices in other domains?

Many research-based instructional and assessment practices in other disciplines and in different settings have been shown to be effective, and merit attention from geoscience educators. However, it is noteworthy that these studies incorporate scant data from teaching and learning in geoscience, and that strategies that have emerged from this research may be little-known and little-used by geoscience educators. Further, the realm of free-choice or informal STEM education daily engages with a far greater number and diversity of learners than does formal education although the two realms tend to operate in isolation from each other.

Grand Challenge 3: What instructional practices and settings are most effective for the greatest range of geoscience learners?

The greater geoscience community does not reflect the demographic diversity of the nation as a whole, although it is progressing in that direction. This progress may be better facilitated by the geoscience-education community with increased use of instructional strategies, context-rich subject matter, and learning settings that leverage greater accessibility, equity, and relevance in engaging and retaining diverse students.

Grand Challenge 4: How do we overcome structural barriers at the level of instructional practice that impede effective teaching and learning of geoscience?

Undergraduate teaching modalities in the geosciences today largely remain bound by the long-established lecture-lab format characteristic of most STEM courses, with the additional aspect of field trips and field camps of longer duration. However, as student demographics change and bring changes in student needs and dispositions, and academic units are increasingly pressed for financial and logistical resources, geoscience educators must overcome habit and institutional inertia in order to render geoscience instruction flexible enough to accommodate and engage future generations of increasingly diverse geoscience students.

Grand Challenge 5: How can we better engage learners as co-discoverers of knowledge and co-creators of new instructional strategies in geoscience?

Instructional strategies that involve direct student participation in scientific discovery or instruction are effective. However, much more work needs to be done in geoscience classrooms to make them truly student-centered with learners becoming co-discoverers of knowledge rather than just passive consumers of instruction. In addition, the idea of engaging students as co-creators of curriculum and instruction in their own courses, another strategy for student-centered active learning that also draws on student interest and creativity, has been proposed in the context of other disciplines but has not been tested in geoscience education.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Mazur, E., 2013. Peer instruction: Pearson New International Edition: A user's manual. Pearson.

Citation for this chapter: Semken, Steven; Bhattacharyya, Juk; Duggan-Haas, Don; Pallant, Amy; and Wiggen, Jennifer (2018). "Research on Instructional Strategies to Improve Geoscience Learning in Different Settings and with Different Technologies". In St. John, K (Ed.) (2018). Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research. National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

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