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

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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 ( ). 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 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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).


  1. 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.
  2. Earth-science focused teachers for secondary education should be trained by a greater number of teacher-training programs.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. Develop and advertise moderated online forums or "office hours" that K-16 and informal educators can post questions or directly talk to GER experts.
  7. 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.

Conceptual Understating - Solid Earth -- Discussion  

A few suggested additions:

GC#1: Add to strategies:
- engage with College of Ed faculty to develop learning progressions for critical geoscience concepts in the NGSS
- engage with geoscientists/textbook authors to identify where oversimplification is misrepresenting the actual earth processes (ex. melting processes, forces involved with plate motion, faults vs. plate boundaries)

Also add references:
Cheek, K. A. (2010). Commentary: A summary and analysis of twenty-seven years of geoscience conceptions research. Journal of Geoscience Education, 58(3), 122-134.

King, C. J. H. (2010). An analysis of misconceptions in science textbooks: Earth science in England and Wales. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5), 565-601.

GC#2: As a teacher, I found NSTA did not serve my needs for earth science-related content. If that's true for me, as someone with a geology degree, how can we expect it to be sufficient for those teaching out of area. I think there needs to be some very specific ideas in the strategies section for how to make stronger linkages with NSTA. Is there a deal struck between NAGT to allow NSTA members access to In the Trenches (only!) or is there a way to get NESTA better involved? One idea might be to write a commentary for JGE that outlines each of the major journals/venues that teachers visit for science teaching ideas, what length / type of article they look for, and the review process (i.e. peer reviewed = potentially better target for pre-tenure GER faculty, etc. vs editorially reviewed, but broader audience). This GC is so vital to getting our hard community's resources into the hands of teachers who want the information/ideas.

GC #3
It seems there should be a strategy here to engage in learning progressions-style research. My understanding is that is answers this GC quiet well because it involves gathering data with K-12 students within the context of teacher intuition about student conceptions of the content. Design-based learning research approaches are useful here, too.
References to add:
Duschl, R., Maeng, S., & Sezen, A. (2011). Learning progressions and teaching sequences: A review and analysis. Studies in Science Education, 47(2), 123-182.
Barab, S., & Squire, K. (2004). Design-based research: Putting a stake in the ground. The journal of the learning sciences, 13(1), 1-14.


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1.GC#1 is a mouthful. I think the idea is important but needs rephrasing. Perhaps: What are best ways to further develop student understanding of critical concepts for developing Earth Systems thinking on processes from the surface to the core, and links to other Earth system components?

2.Rationale for GC#1: This is a comment for both WG1 and WG2 and I will put it in both places: What is the GER community’s perspective on the Earth Science Literacy Principles? Are these useful grounding? I use these when I teach an undergraduate Earth Science for Teachers course and I see that David McConnell and David Steer use them in past and current editions of their Earth Science textbook –The Good Earth. So can/should GER questions be grounded in these as well?

3.Rationale for GC#1: Here you emphasize the Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), but not the ESLPs so I wonder its role in education and for researchers. The Framework for K-12 Sci Ed and the NGSS focus on K-12 and this Grand Challenges project is centered on research on undergraduate teaching and learning so can that be better developed? I am not saying to remove the Framework for K-12 and NGSS – but to make the connections to undergraduate education clear – and maybe this is on recommended longitudinal studies that address preparation for college courses and college majors? Or in some other way?

4. Strategies for GC#1: There must be more than one strategy to address this GC. For example. It seems like much of the rationale was on system thinking at the K-12 or intro undergraduate level. However in the intro to the whole Theme it mentions that “fields of study encompassed in this domain include geomorphology, historical geology, mineralogy, petrology, stratigraphy, structural geology”. Therefore I’d really like to see strategies on system thinking within and among these major’s courses that come AFTER the intro Earth science/geology/Earth systems course.


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A few more thoughts:
5.Strategies for GC#2 are not so much about research on how to best do dissemination, but are about doing the dissemination itself. Is there a research aspect to this too? And what is the role of workshops and research on workshops (professional development) do you think for the goal of GC#2?

6.General comment: Overall this is very K-12 focused (even if K-16 is used). I see those longitudinal connections important as we try to develop/refine the best undergraduate geoscience teaching and learning experience we can, BUT I don’t see a lot here about research on upper level undergrad course teaching and learning. I think this is needed. And we can go beyond that too to balance the focus on pre-college connections, what about extending to the connection between college and the next step - research on how we should be preparing geoscience majors for grad school or professions. Does the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Education help here? I think it would.


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This post was edited by Kristen St. John on Jan, 2018
Last set of comments from me :)
7.GC#3: I think this is the most interesting of the challenges proposed and one that has not received as much attention in the past in our community. Like the other GCs here thought it has a K-12 emphasis. I think what you are saying is that we have a lot to learn from what K-12 education research (e.g., the Dagenais et al., 2012 paper you describe is a great example) has already done (both the effective and the not so effective). Can that be stated more directly? And the recommended strategies have many interesting points. Can you clarify how these help in the process of DOING GER at the undergraduate level (vs doing dissemination or implementation)?

8. One other possible resource for GC#3: Kastens and krumhansl have a commentary in the Nov 2017 JGE issue on: Identifying Curriculum Design Patterns as a Strategy for Focusing Geoscience Education Research: A Proof of Concept Based on Teaching and Learning With Geoscience Data. I think this is an example of how researchers can learn from practitioners to identify important research questions and move forward with new strategies for addressing them.

9.The 2017 Research and Practice Forum at the EER is another example of the value of bringing researchers and educators together to find common ground and for GERs to listen to the practitioners.

10. WG3 included examples research questions that support each of their grand challenges. These were then followed by their recommended strategies. I think this was really effective. Maybe this is an approach each working group should use?

11. Last comment: Big summary comment is to shorten the K-12 discussion and focus on strategies that can help researcher progress (and less on implimentation). Because WG1 and WG2 are both looking at conceptual understanding research but just for different subdisciplines in geosci it would be great if these two chapters had some unity in message and approach, if appropriate. THANKS FOR YOUR HARD WORK ON THIS!


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Perhaps this might be a way to simplify the phrasing of the GC: What are ways to learn students'
understanding of critical concepts for developing Earth Systems thinking?

I would add that we need to learn WHY there are common misconceptions -- are there underlying ways
that people think about things that lead to misconceptions? If that's the case, then we need to
address these underlying factors to truly address understanding. I've done a little research on
that, and I feel a bit guilty self-promoting, but pasted below is a reference to an example study
(Kortz and Murray, 2009).

Also, I think it would be useful to prioritize, in a broad sense, which misconceptions are more
important to address. Some that are listed on some of the cited lists are fairly trivial, and they
likely won't cause a deeply problematic understanding of how the world works. In comparison, other
misconceptions (for example, something like "The Earth doesn't change") would lead to a deeply
flawed understanding of Earth and the processes that act on it. All students will leave classes
with misconceptions, but some are more of a problem than others.

Do we also want to mention misconceptions of students beyond introductory college-level courses?
Is that beyond the scope of this Grand Challenge? However, geoscience majors and practicing
geologists still have misconceptions (e.g. Clark et al., 2011).

Barriers to college students learning how rocks form. K.M. Kortz and D.P. Murray, Journal of
Geoscience Education, v. 57, p. 300-315, 2009.
Alternative conceptions of plate tectonics held by non-science undergraduates. S.K. Clark, J.
Libarkin, K.M. Kortz, S. Jordan, Journal of Geoscience Education, v 59, p. 251-262, 2011.


I think some of the problems and strategies here likely (and should) be similar to those in the
Instructional Strategy research priority.

The first three sentences in the last paragraph about the previous column by NSTA can likely be
deleted, since it's not a column that is offered anymore, and it's not quite what the authors are
recommending is done.

Strategy #2 -- I would add (or create a new strategy) to publish in general geology research
publications as well (such as AGU and GSA publications) to get at higher-ed faculty in addition to
K-12 faculty.


Could there be more examples and descriptions of this in higher ed? This seems very K-12 focused.

Again, I think there's likely some overlap between this GC and ones in the Instructional Strategy
research priority.

Strategy #4 -- I would add scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) in addition to DBER.


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I take a somewhat different approach to misconceptions. They are catalogued and noted by many, but the gap that I see is in understanding *how* those misconceptions arose and how we might help student get past them into more normative models. It isn't enough (and it doesn't work) to simply tell students what the right conception should be, because mental models are strong and resistant to deconstruction. Some previous reviewers have headed into this direction as well - noting the link to instructional practices. I also see a tendency in higher ed to dismiss the K-12 efforts rather than using them as stepping stones for richer thinking, and so I echo Kristen in calling for more focus on the undergraduate level. I think we have an opportunity to see the key content linked explicitly to rigorously tested instructional practices, and to deep thinking/research about student learning.

Thank you!


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GC#1: I echo the previous comments about the title of this challenge. A further suggestion, albeit a slight variation on Karen Kortz’s, is “How can we best identify students' understanding of critical concepts for developing Earth Systems thinking?”

GC #2: It’s not clear whether the Framework relates to GER globally, or specifically in the US. I assume the former, but it’s not explicit. I raise this because, as an international GER scholar working within a different education system, I seldom see transferability to broader international contexts considered in published GER papers and this is frustrating. This could be addressed somewhat by addressing strategy 2 and broadening the range of journals in which GER is published beyond JGE. In fact, the only journal mentioned with a truly international editorial board, and by implication readership, is the International Journal of Science Education. The ambitions of this Framework are fantastic, but it needs to look outward internationally.

General comment: Again, I echo previous comments that the focus here seems very much on K-12. Tanya Furman raises a very important point about the tendency to dismiss efforts at pre-HE educational levels. In my experience students often arrive at university with misconceptions that have been introduced at school level in an attempt to simplify complex concepts, and we then have an almighty task to work out how best to deconstruct, and then reconstruct, their mental models. Focusing on both K-12 AND upper undergraduate levels might be more helpful in unravelling the complex pathway that students follow to conceptual understanding.


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Originally Posted by Nicole LaDue

A few suggested additions:

GC#1: Add to strategies:
- engage with College of Ed faculty to develop learning progressions for critical geoscience concepts in the NGSS
- engage with geoscientists/textbook authors to identify where oversimplification is misrepresenting the actual earth processes (ex. melting processes, forces involved with plate motion, faults vs. plate boundaries)

GC #3
It seems there should be a strategy here to engage in learning progressions-style research. My understanding is that is answers this GC quiet well because it involves gathering data with K-12 students within the context of teacher intuition about student conceptions of the content. Design-based learning research approaches are useful here, too.

I strongly agree with Nicole about learning progressions research. There are not very many concepts in Earth sciences where this has been taken up. Scott McDonald had a presentation at GSA a few years ago: Understanding students' ideas about plate tectonics: A learning progressions approach (, and he might be a good person to engage in this conversation.


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I question the rationale behind separating conceptual understanding into solid earth/geology and ocean/atmosphere/climate. To me, this separation reinforces an artificial boundary that prevents meaningful understanding of the interactions between these systems. Many Earth science concepts cross this boundary, and that often means they get short shrift in the classroom: critical zone, soils, interactions between climate and tectonics. If systems thinking and an understanding of the Earth system (and subsystems) is a goal, then I would consider a different way of parsing it, rather than solid Earth and fluid envelopes - or not separating the two at all.

Some possibilities for alternative divisions include:
- Short-term processes/interactions (rivers and flooding, earthquakes, etc.) and long-term processes/interactions (plate motion, sea-level rise, etc.)
- Focus on topics that involve all spheres but impact humans somehow: resources (energy resources, minerals, groundwater), hazards, etc.

Another key perspective to consider here is student background, culture, and environment. We all sense that students who live in Florida probably have very different prior conceptions of hurricanes and earthquakes than students in California. How does the environment in which students live influence their conceptual understanding, and how persistent is this influence?

I will post this in the other working group as well.


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