Research on Instructional Strategies to Improve Geoscience Learning in Different Settings and with Different Technologies (e.g., place-based instruction, teaching large lectures, online instruction)

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

Jump Down To: Grand Challenge 1 | Grand Challenge 2 | Grand Challenge 3 | Grand Challenge 4 | Grand Challenge 5 |


As is true in all areas of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, it is understood that research on learning and teaching informs good instructional practice. Two seminal reports: Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education (Ireton et al., 1996) and Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences (Manduca et al., 2003), laid out agendas for research toward more effective, accessible, inclusive, and relevant geoscience teaching practice. Over the subsequent years, as evidenced in the literature (e.g., Journal of Geoscience Education and In the Trenches) and in the wide dissemination of community-driven professional-development programs and resources such as On the Cutting Edge (all under the aegis of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers), we have seen unprecedented expansion in innovative curriculum and instruction (i.e., practice), in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and in geoscience education research (GER), funded by the National Science Foundation and other agencies. Yet all three of these realms have thrived in relative isolation from one another. Our Working Group has identified six Grand Challenges to meaningful collaboration and consilience among these three realms.

Grand Challenge 1: How can research and evaluation keep pace with, and effectively inform, innovations in strategies for teaching geoscience knowledge, skills, and dispositions?


Technological advances in science education, including geoscience education, tend to outpace research on their effects, as well as the evaluation of their effectiveness (Means et al., 2014; Bull et al., 2017). Geoscience curriculum and instruction are not always responsive to workforce requirements (Mosher, 2015; 2016) for knowledge, skills, and dispositions (which are the attitudes and behaviors that foster effective use of knowledge and skills). Many innovations in geoscience curriculum and instruction have encountered challenges to making significant, lasting, and economical outcomes at scale (Dillenbourg, 2017; Poulin & Straut, 2017).


  • Validate methods for true comparative studies of geoscience learning in virtual or online versus in-person or face-to-face settings, and at different scales.
  • Study faculty instructional design processes (e.g., Reigeluth et al., 2017; Kastens & Krumhansl, 2017; Ertmer et al., 2018), to determine the forms of research designs that will best inform teaching practice.

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


Many research-based instructional and assessment practices in other disciplines (e.g., other natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities) and in different settings (e.g., K-12 education, informal or free-choice education, and internships) are shown to be effective. For example, Freeman et al. (2014) point out that irrespective of class size and course content, students in traditional lecture-based STEM classrooms are 1.5 times more likely to fail than those in classrooms using active learning strategies. Similarly, reflective assessment techniques like two-stage exams (Wieman et al., 2014) and application of growth mindset (e.g., Dweck, 2006; Yeager et al., 2016) are shown to increase student engagement and learning. However, those strategies may be little-known and little-used by geoscience educators (McConnell et al., 2017). Meta-analyses of effective research-based practices in other domains (e.g., Kober, 2015; Lund et al., 2015; Cleveland et al., 2017) would benefit undergraduate geoscience instruction.


  • Conduct more collaborative, cross-disciplinary research with practitioners, especially with researchers in cognitive psychology (e.g., Jaeger et al., 2017; Shipley & Tikoff, 2017), on effective strategies from other disciplines.
  • Study the relative effectiveness of specific strategies at different scales (e.g., McConnell et al., 2017).

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


The greater geoscience community (encompassing practicing geoscientists, geoscience educators, and geoscience students) does not yet reflect the demographic diversity of the nation as a whole, although it is progressing in that direction (e.g., Wilson, 2014a; 2014b; 2017). To facilitate such progress, teaching practices and learning settings that promote accessibility, equity, and diversity in geoscience education merit expanded study that is driven jointly by researchers and by reflective practitioners: research informs good practice while practitioners define meaningful research themes. Undergraduate geoscience education may also benefit from collaboration with researchers and practitioners in the realm of informal or free-choice science education, which already serves a larger and more diverse population of learners (Bell et al., 2009).


  • Apply new evidence-driven approaches (St. John & McNeal, 2017) to conduct meta-analyses of effective instructional strategies, teaching tools, and assessments for a broad range of learners and settings.
  • Identify and address factors that foster or limit participation of underrepresented students in the geosciences (e.g., National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2011; Callahan et al., 2017; McDaris et al., 2017; Wolfe & Riggs, 2017).
  • Test effectiveness of instructional methods focused on engaging underrepresented students, such as place-based and culturally informed geoscience teaching, with larger populations and over longer time periods (e.g., Ward et al., 2014; Semken et al., 2017).
  • Expand research on and research-informed practice of geoscience instruction for students with disabilities (e.g., Carabajal et al., 2017).
  • Promote collaborations among researchers and practitioners in formal and informal (free-choice) science education.

Grand Challenge 4: How do we overcome structural barriers that impede effective teaching and learning of geoscience?


Undergraduate teaching and learning in the geosciences today remain largely bound by the 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, geoscience educators must overcome habit and institutional inertia in order to render geoscience instruction flexible enough to accommodate and engage future generations of geoscience students. Further, structural barriers are not limited to fixed systems of courses, classrooms, and schedules; inaccessible or poorly accessible geoscience education in the field or indoors (e.g., Carabajal et al., 2017) and hostile environments (e.g., St. John et al., 2016) impede learning.


  • Expand and apply research on institutional and faculty-level barriers to effective research-based pedagogy (e.g., Kezar, 2001; Henderson et al., 2011; Brownell & Tanner, 2012).
  • Promote research-based and current professional development programs for geoscience faculty (e.g., Markley et al., 2009).
  • Identify and mitigate factors that impede learning by female students, underrepresented minority students, and students with disabilities.
  • Expand research on accessible geoscience education in classrooms, labs, in the field and community, and online (e.g., Carabajal et al., 2017).
  • Conduct regionally extensive gap analyses of current educational systems.
  • Draw on Lewin's (1947) theory of change to analyze established customs or habits of geoscience faculty that are hindering change, and determine research-based strategies to mitigate them.
  • Draw on research into cultural cognition (e.g., Kahan et al., 2011) , and how it may shape faculty views and influence conflict and consensus within institutions.

Grand Challenge 5: How can we better engage learners as co-creators and colleagues in teaching geoscience?


Research shows that active and student-centered learning methods that involve direct participation by students, such as peer instruction (e.g., Mazur, 2013), service learning, research experiences, and internships, are effective pedagogical strategies. Benefits of faculty-student collaborative research in STEM disciplines have been well documented (e.g., Russell et al., 2007; Bangera & Brownell, 2014; Carpi et al., 2017; National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, 2017a). Recent efforts to replace standard laboratory-base science courses with discovery-based research activities in the curriculum (e.g., National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, 2015) highlight the growing awareness of this factor. Similarly, the importance of service-learning as a way to infuse deep learning in the geosciences is also receiving attention (e.g., National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, 2017b). Students may possess greater technological literacy than instructors in some cases; therefore, engaging them as co-creators of knowledge can help us take fuller advantage of technological advances in classrooms. Greater and more active participation by students can also enhance the validity of formative and summative learning assessment tools. However, as Teasdale et al. (2017) pointed out, much more work needs to be done in geoscience classrooms to make them truly student-centered with learners becoming co-creator of knowledge instead of merely being passive consumers.


  • Expand research on cognitive and affective outcomes of student participation in course-based undergraduate geoscience research.
  • Review and assess different models of service-learning projects used in geoscience instruction.
  • Review and apply behavioral research on why faculty use or do not use evidence-based methods (e.g., Brownell & Tanner, 2012).

Grand Challenge 6: How do we most effectively disseminate and promote relevant research findings and best practices in geoscience education?


Better tested, more effective dissemination techniques are necessary to share findings from GER and Geo-SoTL with, and encourage adoption of best practices by, the greater community of geoscience educators. Research can help the community of geoscience educators make more effective use of in-person (e.g., conferences, colloquia, field trips) and virtual (e.g., social media, webinars, blogs, list serves, websites, virtual reality) methods of dissemination.


  • Apply research on effective mass marketing techniques including advertising and social media (e.g., Newsome, 2006; Goske et al., 2008; Bohon et al., 2013) to reach the broader geoscience community.
  • Include science communication training with professional development opportunities online and at professional conferences such as the GSA and AGU annual meetings.
  • Publish in journals that accept geoscience-education papers and also reach into the broader geoscience community, such as Geosphere and Geological Society of America Bulletin.

Instructional Strategies -- Discussion  

This post was edited by Juhong Liu on Jan, 2018
The chapter of “Research on Instructional Strategies to Improve Geoscience Learning in Different Settings and with Different Technologies (e.g., place-based instruction, teaching large lectures, online instruction)” reflects a comprehensive perspective about innovating instructional strategies for geoscience education. It is very forward-thinking as the authors have proposed the grand challenges from environmental perspectives, and those from instructional innovation, teachers’ professional development, research for evidence, culture, inclusion, and diversity, and utilization of the potential of current research tools for meta-analysis and complex studies.

If there is anything that can enhance the current challenges, those can include:
1) Investigate what has been truly instrumental to the effectiveness in online learning (not merely instruction) [notes: no significant difference between online and face-to-face instruction has been a long-lasting topic in the research in online and distance education (Lim, Kim, Chen, & Ryder, 2008; Moore & Kearsley, 2011; Twigg, 2003). There are also several recent meta-analysis studies about online, face-to-face, and blended learning (Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Baki, 2013; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). In addition, reviews about benefits and limitations in online vs. face-to-face instruction are not rare (Appana, 2008). Therefore, the first sub-category of Grand Challenge 1 may need some more specific definition.]
2) Investigate alternative design of learning activities and assessment strategies, techniques and instruments that are unique to geoscience education, such as virtual field trips and authentic learning (Clary & Wandersee, 2010; Cook, 2006; Herrington, Oliver, & Herrington, 2000; Reeves, 2000)
3) Collaborate with K-12 and workforce partners in longitudinal research about transfer of learning (Kuenzi, 2008; National Research Council, 2013)


Appana, S. (2008). A Review of Benefits and Limitations of Online Learning in the Context of the Student, the Instructor, and the Tenured Faculty. International Journal on ELearning.

Clary, R. M., & Wandersee, J. H. (2010). Virtual Field Exercises in the Online Classroom: Practicing Science Teachers’ Perceptions of Effectiveness, Best Practices, and Implementation. Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(4), 50–58.

Cook, M. P. (2006). Visual representations in science education: The influence of prior knowledge and cognitive load theory on instructional design principles. Science Education, 90(6), 1073–1091.

Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Herrington, E. J. (2000). An Instructional Design Framework for Authentic Learning Environments. Source: Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23–48.

Kuenzi, J. (2008). Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education: Background, Federal Policy, and Legislative Action. Congressional Research Service Reports, 1–18.

Lim, J., Kim, M., Chen, S. S., & Ryder, C. E. (2008). An Empirical Investigation of Student Achievement and Satisfaction in Different Learning Environments. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 35(2), 113–120.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., & Baki, M. (2013). The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Teachers College Record, 115(30303).

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education. Retrieved from

Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (2011). Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning - Michael G. Moore, Greg Kearsley. Cengage Education.

National Research Council. (2013). Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education: A Nation Advancing?

Reeves, T. C. (2000). Alternative Assessment Approaches for Online Learning Environments in Higher Education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 23(1), 101–111.

Twigg, C. A. (2003). Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: New Models for Online Learning.


Share edittextuser=63684 post_id=34713 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=12423

This is a rather specific comment, but I just wanted to get it out there somewhere. I am currently redesigning an introductory field trip course for non-majors at a 2YC in the Los Angeles area. Many of these students have never camped or interacted with nature, and in general they are not pursuing STEM fields. This will not be a show-and-tell field class, but rather students will use equipment to make measurements. I would greatly benefit from continued research that can offer guidance on instructional designs that holistically address the many aspects that they will experience in a field setting. This might fall under Grand Challenge 1 or 4.


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This post was edited by Kristen St. John on Jan, 2018
1. I really like the intro. It sets up the history nicely. One suggestion is to clarify what the three realms are in the statement: “Yet all three of these realms have thrived in relative isolation from one another.” I think you mean curriculum development, SoTL and geo-DBER. This sort of fits with how we pitched recent GER project efforts at the EER in 2015-2016, the GER toolbox, and in the GER theme issue – that GER includes geo-SoTL (which itself includes C&I) and geo-DBER. So maybe what you are saying here is along the same lines? That all of these need to respectively work on concert to make the most progress? Can you elaborate on how the GCs that you propose do that either here in the intro with an example (like how WG7 did in their intro for their theme), or in the rationale for each of the GCs?

2. It didn’t really occur to me that instructional design outpaces research and evaluation – I assumed that I just wasn’t finding/reading the right papers that focused on that research and evaluation, but what you say makes a lot of sense – innovations in design don’t necessarily evolve out of deep research that is cross-checked for different teaching situations or student populations. So I really like how you articulate CG#1 and summarized its rationale with valuable citations. Can you elaborate on the strategies? For example can you tease out short term/small scale examples and long-term/large scale examples? Or at least a statement that work is needed at both ends of the spectrum?

3. Please add reference sections after each GC rather than all just at the end. (see WG1, WG2, WG3…).

4. WG#3 included some suggestions for important researchable questions under each of their Grand Challenges, in addition to their recommended strategies. That wasn’t a requirement in the format, but I think it is very effective. Please look at WG3’s draft chapter and see if you think that is a good way to go to help give more concrete examples of important research directions in instructional strategies.

5. I also really like how GC#2 is stated in a way that can include learning from research from K-12 as well as other STEM disciplines. Well written – concise but gets at the points with good citation. For strategy 1 (Conduct more collaborative, cross-disciplinary research with practitioners…on effective strategies from other disciplines.) can up expand on this to give advice on how to make those connections to do that collaborative, cross-disciplinary research with practitioners? This sounds hard – one needs to connect across disciplines and with practitioners in multiple disciplines right? Would the emerging DBER Alliance help with this? Or are there cross-DBER meetings that geo ed researchers need to attend to make professional connections?

6. Many of the strategies are single sentences, albeit cited. I wonder it if would help the community if these were expanded to explain a bit more? Adding one or two more sentences to those that are trying to say how to incorporate something particular from the references you use?

7. Each GC should have its own set of references rather than all at the end. WG#2 is a good example for this.


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I think that these GC and strategies are clear and well thought out. Thanks for working so hard on them! A few of my thoughts as I was reading that could possibly be used to adjust strategies or add to them:

1. Why do students choose or do not choose the geosciences? How does this vary by population or different student characteristics?
2. How does the fidelity of implementation affect the effectiveness of different strategies?
3. Why do instructors choose to teach with certain strategies?
4. What are effective ways to change the reward structure to promote and reward innovative and effective teaching?
GC#2 Strategy #2 -- I think we'd want to research more than at just different scales, but different settings in general


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I like the organization of the chapter and am particularly interested in GC #3 - Identifying effective methods and environments. It might be good to note that the assessment of place-based methods can help identify changes in conceptual understanding, but will require a suite of assessment tools beyond the GCI (in addition to needing to assess more students over longer periods).

I think you could expand upon the assessment bullet in this list to include assessment of informal/research environments that conduct place-based research as part of a REU or similar research experience outside of the classroom. I am aware of individual REU sites that do this well and engage a diverse student body (see Dalbotten et al. 2014 - New Voices: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Supporting Alternative Perspectives in the Anthropocene; Mack et al, 2012 - Effective practices for creating transformative informal science education programs grounded in Native ways of knowing), but I would be interested in seeing how the place-based content and community-driven research models compare with more traditional research models in other settings in terms of their effect on geoscience learning. Perhaps it would be good to include those references as examples of what has been done well?


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On Grand Challenge 5: Be cautious about assuming students are more tech-savvy than their faculty. They may know Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat far better than any of their elders would ever want to, but nearly all, in my experience, are lost when it comes to putting an equation in Excel (or making a graph in Excel or anything else!) or for using Google Earth as the kind of data-rich GIS resource that it is. For them technology is a "toy" they have played with their whole lives, and they both struggle with and resist the idea that it could ever be a "tool" to do something other than social networking. Teaching them the technologies and getting them past their deeply ingrained misconceptions about their use is unfortunately something we're all going to be stuck with doing.

Also on Challenge 5: There is a vast body of literature and community knowledge as regards undergraduate research across all disciplines, STEM and otherwise, within the growing CUR community. This includes work on effective assessment of undergraduate research as both a professional development and learning strategy, and some of this is the work of CUR-affiliated geoscientists. Leveraging that community, its literature, and its accumulated understanding of faculty-undergraduate student collaborative research, including CURES (per PCAST and the two NRC reports), is something our disciplinary community needs to be doing.

On Grand Challenge 6: If you're going to get effective, evidence-based teaching/learning strategies into the hands of those who do most of the geoscience teaching, it has to go to places where these faculty (and graduate students) are likely to look - and unfortunately that is NOT JGE, or any other STEM education journal, nor is it In The Trenches, or SERC, or EER. What faculty looking for content and strategies for their courses need is translational content, which emphasizes the how-to of making a "best practice" work, and it needs to be at their fingertips, because we know from diffusion of innovation literature that any hurdle, no matter how modest, can very effectively preclude trial and/or adoption. Hands-on experiences with practices or resources in a venue like a professional meeting can get a subset of faculty to try something new, especially if they see their own students there doing it and enjoying it (this is the kind of opportunity Sectional GSA meetings can afford, as so many students attend them). In terms of literature-based dissemination, it really has to be in something equivalent to GSA Today or EOS, which appears in the mailboxes of pretty much every academic in our field (graduate students included). Past content in this vein in EOS and GSA Today has been more descriptive than how-to, so it may involve some discussion with the editorial teams and leadership in these organizations to make this change.


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The GC's are well written and concisely articulated, which is helpful! For GC #6, I might suggest that the strategy to disseminate relevant research practices through professional development should explicitly include graduate students, as they are a particularly important population that have the potential to adopt new practices early in their teaching careers and may face fewer boundaries to adoption if they learn of approaches early as opposed to later in their career. Often graduate students receive very little training or practice in pedagogy, even if they are teaching assistants, so specifically targeting this population could be even more effective for disseminating leading practices.


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Here are two links to articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education that made me think about the role of lectures, teaching technology, and the importance of the connections we make (however we make them) to our students that motivates them to learn. It seems to raise points that get at some assumption we about about the value of lecture vs active learning: and I will share this with both the instructional methods working group and the self-regulated learning/affect working group


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I like the way you framed the topic in your introduction. I wonder if you may want to explicitly name the special issue in JGE on Place-based education and the Semken et al. 2017 review paper.

See below a few comments

Challenge 1: I suggest adding a strategy that specifically addresses the "keeping pace with evaluation/research methodology". I wonder if the field should review advances in evaluation and research advances need to be reviewed regularly to identify new methodologies or findings that can be modified or applied to geosciences. A good example of such innovative research and evaluation technologies are hand sensors and eye tracking that came from other fields but it took a while to adapt in geoscience ed.

Challenge 2: You may consider adding to the research based instructional practices the component of faculty professional development to support implementation of such practices after they have been identified.

Challenge 3: You may want to consider also branching out into K-12 where interest in and foundations for geoscience education are being laid. How can K-12 instruction prepare the future generation of undergraduates to become geoscience undergraduate students and pursuit a career? How can foundational skills be taught across K-12 and college education? Some examples here may be REU programs are now offered also for high school students. Spatial thinking training could be included in K-12 education.

Challenge 4:
"Identify and mitigate factors that impede learning by female students, underrepresented minority students, and students with disabilities." - It seems strange to me to call out female students here - female student are not underrepresented in geoscience undergraduate classes anymore. However they are underrepresented in the academic make-up of departments and high paying geoscience jobs. When you were thinking of factor that impede their learning did you think of spatial thinking skills (note that not for all skills females are weaker than men). I suggest keeping this more generic as "students from groups that are underrepresented" within the geoscience workforce.

Challenge 6: Broadening the adaption and implementation of best practices in teaching may be also tied to tenure and promotion practices. Thus it may require incentivizing adoption through valuing teaching practices in tenure and promotion process more than it currently is.


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