Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Geology/Solid Earth Science Content
Post a Comment »
Authors: Eric Pyle, James Madison University; Andy Darling, Colorado State University; Zo Kreager, Northern Illinois University; and Susan Howes Conrad, Dutchess Community College
Jump Down To: Grand Challenge 1 | Grand Challenge 2 | Grand Challenge 3
"Solid Earth" is a broad concept, representing processes at the surface of the near, as well as the subsurface all the way to the solid inner core. 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. General education students, preservice teachers, and geology majors each require different levels of mastery, yet their learning can be impeded if solid Earth concepts are not mastered to the appropriate depth, or misconceptions are insufficiently challenged. 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.
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?
Beyond student understanding of specific components in isolation, the Earth systems relationships between these concepts are important. There are differential needs between general education students in geoscience classes and geoscience majors. Within these populations, Earth systems thinking can be utilized in a variety of settings, including academic, workforce, and daily living, which underscore geoscience literacy.
From the 1980s forward, the volume of literature on students' pre-instructional concepts in science has grown into a considerable body of research. From 1984 to 2009, Duit (2009) maintained an active, subject/topic referenced bibliography of students' and teachers' concepts in science education. Initially biased towards physics concepts, the database grew to nearly 600 pages, with several thousand entries, including an increasingly large body of Earth science related concept-based manuscripts. A total of 76 references applicable to solid Earth and surface processes are available in this database (https://serc.carleton.edu/admin/private_download.php?file_id=120447 ). Dove (1998) and later Francek (2013) have been largely successful in summarizing the literature from the standpoint of the research that has been done, inductively identifying persistent misconceptions held by students. But this approach has had limited success in identifying particular gaps in the literature, especially in light of changing educational goals for science education as embodied in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).
Identifying such gaps in students' understanding of solid Earth concepts is non-trivial both in scale and importance. Donovan and Bransford (2004) stress that the way in which people best learn science starts with a foundation of students' pre-instructional concepts, both accurate conceptions as well as misconceptions. Once understood, the design of inquiry-based learning experiences can be facilitated, targeting both misconceptions as well as disciplinary ideas in a learning progression. This cycle is complete when students have had the support of instructors in developing metacognitive connections across ideas. Seen in a contemporary context, this cycle parallels the 3-dimensional learning that is an expectation of the Framework.
Solid Earth concepts are both broad and, literally and metaphorically, deep, yet have been treated in a curricular sense as shallow. Adolescent Earth science education has focused on middle grades and/or early high school experiences, where deep understanding is not generally expected, nor are strong connections made to other science content areas. This is nearly the opposite of the vision of the Framework, where the geosciences curriculum in general would be a natural capstone for K-12 students' science education. As a result of this pervasive pattern, undergraduate students enter college with largely distant memories of "Earth science" having some "geology" concepts, but are likely to conflate the two in their decision-making. Without a complete picture of what is known (and unknown) about these students' conceptions and misconceptions in solid Earth concepts, the divide between expert faculty and the majority of students is unlikely to be bridged, as it lacks the very foundational component of Donovan and Bransford's (2004) sequence.
With the increasing volume of research on student solid Earth concepts, there remains the problem of where to begin in order to meet students' preconceptions when designing solid Earth instruction across K-16. In order to cope with the volume of literature, we contend that it should be a priority to start by identifying what we do not yet know about students' solid Earth concepts, performing a gap analysis of what domains are well defined in student conceptual development and misconceptions, against a set of contemporary learning needs. Those learning needs can arguably be based on complex Earth systems as a means through which 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 and 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 curricula fall short. Scherer and her colleagues (2017), as well as Holder and her colleagues (2017) provide a basic framework through which a gap analysis of complex near-surface Earth systems literature might inform practice. It is not a stretch to extend such an approach to finding the "holes" in the literature from the near-surface to the deep subsurface, encompassing the entirety of the solid Earth.
Perform a Gap Analysis of existing solid Earth concepts literature compared with contemporary solid Earth system science to identify misconceptions, describe conceptual progressions, and develop frameworks to evaluate instructional practices.
Grand Challenge 2: What are the most useful ways to disseminate results on solid Earth student concept research to K-16 and informal educators?
Current research contains a wealth of information that needs to be shared with K-16 and informal educators. Further, the continued development of research needs to have a continuing means of bringing those research results to K-16 and informal educators.
In 2006, Geoff Feiss, then Provost of the College of William and Mary, addressed a group of nearly 100 Virginia science teachers seeking to add an Earth science endorsement to their teacher certification. At that time, he commented that the biggest problem with Earth science education was the PCB's – physicists, chemists, and biologist. By this he meant that the strongest and first-heard voices in science education were usually not from Earth scientists. This subtle bias is pervasive, from placing Earth science as an introductory rather than capstone course in pre-college science, to attempts to delist Earth science as a laboratory science credit for high school graduation, and to parental perceptions that Earth science is not accepted for college admissions. This last bias was shown to be incorrect in a recent AGI report (2013). Personal experience with major curricular reform, development, and evaluation initiatives often have shown the Earth science education experts brought to the table last. General science education research journals are only rarely populated with geoscience education research, and many of these journals suffer a "translation" problem such that many innovative and effective strategies do not make it to the classroom.
Despite these biases, a flourishing body of geoscience education research literature that has developed over the last decade and a half. The research is solid, empirical, and stands up well compared to other science education research, but is scarcely known in the broader science education community, either by teachers and instructors in the field, or by other science education researchers. What is needed are mechanisms to put research findings of what works with respect to teaching and learning of solid Earth concepts at the fingertips of K-12 teachers, the higher education faculty that prepare them, and general education faculty not directly involved in GER activities.
This has been attempted in the past by NSTA, which had offered a column titled "Research Matters...to the Science Teacher," with short articles written by science education researchers (mostly from the National Association for Research in Science Teaching). This service is no longer available. These articles were topical reviews of literature that were larger size bites than most instructors or teachers could put directly into practice, nor were they necessarily of direct interest to science teachers. What is needed is a more direct and active approach to sharing GER findings on solid Earth concept teaching and learning with a larger science education audience, especially considering the need to position solid Earth concept in Earth systems science learning.
- Create translations of research for educators to reduce the gap in language barriers, such as providing a second abstract or summary specifically for educators that explains the practical uses of the article. These abstracts can be published directly in conjunction with research articles, or summarized in a "practitioner's annotated bibliography" to be disseminated through practitioner journals (i.e. In the Trenches) or through the NSTA Learning Center. This latter platform reaches a broad audience of science teaching methods instructors, who influence the development of new teachers as well as interface with science content faculty.
- Publish in journals that are reaching a broader audience of educators, such as the International Journal of Science Education, Journal of Research in Science Teaching,and the Journal of Science Teacher Education. Actively seeking collaboration between editors or editorial board members for these journals and those of the Journal of Geoscience Education, guest columns or joint editorials would be of mutual interest to the readers of all these journals. Once initiated, the same groups can develop tutorials for would-be authors across disciplines, focused on the history, trends, audiences, and conventions of each journal.
Grand Challenge 3: How can we incorporate K-16 and informal educators' experiences and observations to sustain the dialogue between practitioners and researchers in solid Earth education?
The working group recognizes parallel importance between practitioners learning from researchers and researchers learning from practitioners with a shared goal of improving learning outcomes in people involved in any project seeking to inform the public on scientific process and findings. Practitioners from across all aspects of education can offer useful experience to improve understanding of learning, share with other practitioners and provide information that can frame research questions (Adler, 1991; Wagner, 1997; Bensimon, 2007). Our model also maintains the importance of practitioners being aware of and responsive to research as a discipline and implementing improvements in thinking and teaching that are derived from evidenced-based research results (see a review; Dagenais et al., 2012). Incorporating informal education and promoting earth science education expansion nationwide are especially relevant to solid-earth science literacy among the general population because of a lack of K-12 earth science teaching practitioners in the U.S., where around 7% of high schools offer such a subject (Lewis and Baker, 2010). An exemplary informal education model is the Trail of Time at the Grand Canyon (Karlstrom et al., 2008; Frus, 2011), which provides dramatic opportunity for park rangers and informed visitors to interact with research-informed display materials and interested visitors. In the Trail of Time example, park rangers are the practitioners who interacted with education researchers and scientists to create an exhibit visited by millions of people each year. Further, the practitioners' influential role in promoting diversity and continuation to higher education must not be overlooked (Bensimon, 2007). Reflective practitioners, approximately defined as those teachers who are trained or choose to think about how their students respond to their teaching (and external influences on learning) to re-think their own teaching to accommodate greater success are a desired product of teacher education (Adler, 1991) and necessary collaborators in fostering progressive dialogue between teachers and researchers.
How much is research used in teaching and why?
Dagenais et al., (2012) provide a review of educational studies that inquire about how educational research is viewed and implemented in international K-12 education via thorough literature review of papers published between 1990 and 2010. Their analysis found that the "use of research-based information is hardly a significant part of the school-practice scenario. If such use occurs, it is mainly conceptual and research-based information is a source of inspiration to accommodate or modify the practitioners' frame of reference.... However, the literature reports a variety of factors that may affect the process of research use" (p. 296). Dagenais et al., (2012) report several factors that, while compiled across education, can be useful for framing our dialogue in solid Earth geoscience. Several positive characteristics of research that contributed to people choosing to use that research generally include: 1) timely access to research, 2) easy to understand and implement 3) connected to school and classroom context and 4) perception that some aspect of research is relevant (p. 297, Dagenais et al., 2012). Positive characteristics of communication between researchers and practitioners include: facilities for collaboration, access to research and data, collegial discussions, collaboration with researchers, and sustained collaboration (p. 297, Dagenais et al., 2012).
Many of the characteristics that allowed application of research results revolve around dialogue. Within the characteristics of positive roles for educational research and communication outlined above, Earth science education research ties closely to school and classroom contexts because the field explicitly studies how students approach particular ideas in Earth Science. Improvement within the research community can be made by enhancing communication of research and access to practitioner friendly content through published teaching materials (e.g., InTeGrate modules, Fortner et al., 2016).
- The dialogue we identify as a Grand Challenge requires people who are earth science literate in the public and teaching community. Thus, more secondary schools should offer Earth science for our changing world. This goal can be approached by discussing curriculum with school boards, discussing candidates' views of earth science before school board elections and approaching principals and teachers with an emphasis on supporting connections between teaching, geoscience ed. research results and school standards.
- Earth-science focused teachers for secondary education should be trained by a greater number of teacher-training programs.
- Professional development and teacher training should incorporate modestly greater discipline-based education research training for teachers' subjects of interest or greatest need so communication pathways between practitioners and researchers can be bridged more easily.
- Encourage practitioner participation in discipline-based education research, especially for local scale research. In solid Earth geoscience, this might include local field trips to outcrops and landscapes that are accessible to area schools where researchers collaborate with practitioners to produce research products relevant to practitioners.
- Increased informal education opportunities have the opportunity to both complement and expand public exposure to Earth sciences, with national and state parks and monuments being especially good locations for informal education development if they are constructed and maintained with education research teams (e.g. Trail of Time at Grand Canyon).
- Develop and advertise moderated online forums or "office hours" that K-16 and informal educators can post questions or directly talk to GER experts.
- Improve access to education research, possibly by supporting publication in open-access journals or by advocating for ways that K-12 and informal educators can gain better access to journal articles if they are not associated with institutional subscriptions.