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Preparing an Effective Geoscience Lesson: Strategies from an Early Career Geoscience Faculty Workshop

RACHEL BEANE (rbeane@bowdoin.edu) is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME. HEATHER MACDONALD (rhmacd@wm.edu) is Chancellor Professor of Geology at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA. Both authors are NAGT Neil A Miner awardees.

Focus your attention for a moment on a recent class lesson you prepared and taught. First, think back to the steps you took to prepare. Next, consider what you and the students did during the class. Reflect on the ways in which the lesson design contributed to students' learning, and on any changes you're considering for the next time you teach the lesson. Then, think about whether this most recent class was typical or atypical in the ways you prepared and taught.

Lesson Design
We tend to invest much time and thought into preparing for our geoscience classes. As educators with multiple demands on our time, we probably could benefit from learning ways to prepare more efficiently. And, students definitely would benefit from us designing lessons that effectively and equitably furthered their learning. One approach is to design lessons that clearly communicate learning objectives, incorporate student preparation and prior knowledge, convey content in manageable portions, and provide opportunities for active learning, reflection, and assessment.

This approach to lesson design builds on insights from the scholarship on teaching and learning. This scholarship has validated the importance of creating active learning and reflection opportunities to allow students to practice the material they are learning through student participation, peer-to-peer interactions, and guided reflections (e.g. McConnell et al., 2017). These student-centered active learning approaches also promote inclusive environments for learning that encourage many students to participate (Tanner, 2013), increase student performance (Dang et al., 2018, Freeman et al., 2014; Yuretich et al., 2001), and reduce achievement gaps (Haak et al., 2011; Roberts et al., 2018). Furthermore, an increased structure that is clearly communicated and connected to overall course goals contributes to increased student learning and performance (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Haak et al., 2011).



Cynthia Hall guides a session on lesson planning at the 2018 Workshop for Early Career Geoscience faculty. As participants write on big pieces of paper, a slide on "How will you assess learning?" is projected in the background. [Photo by Carol Ormand]








A lesson preparation approach developed for the biological sciences is the 5 E's learning cycle model that sequences a lesson to flow through five stages: 1) engagement, 2) exploration, 3) explanation, 4) elaboration, and 5) evaluation (Bybee et al., 2006; Tanner, 2010). A complementary approach that we developed for a session at the On the Cutting Edge/ NAGT Workshops for Early Career Geoscience Faculty starts with the lesson framework, considers student activities, assessment, and reflection, and concludes with the lesson plan. Guiding questions are included for each step.

Lesson Framework

  • Why is the topic important to the students or for society?
  • What are the learning goals for the lesson and how do they relate to the course goals?
  • What graph, figure, equation, or example is key for this lesson?
  • What prior knowledge is needed for this lesson.

Student Activity

  • What will the students do during class to further their learning?
  • How will they interact with their peers and with you?


  • How will you and the students be able to determine if they have met the learning goals?

Student Reflection

  • What opportunities will students have during the class to reflect on their learning?

Lesson Plan

  • Organize the lesson such that is has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Decide how you will ask students to prepare based on the content or practice students they need to obtain before class.
  • Decide what you need to prepare. Slides? Handouts? Other materials?
  • Review the lesson to make sure that it flows, that it fits the time allotted, and that you have scaffolded the learning in ways that will support the application of more advanced skills and concepts.


Reviewing a Prepared Lesson
The Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) was developed as a way to evaluate instruction in science and mathematics classes and provide feedback to faculty (Lawson et al., 2002; Sawada et al., 2002). The RTOP has five categories of questions related to 1) lesson design and implementation, 2) the instructor's knowledge, 3) what students do, 4) student-student interactions, and 5) student-teacher relationships (Classroom Observation Project). In evaluating observations of geoscience classes, Teasdale et al. (2017) noted that the student-centered classes distinguish themselves in that "students engaged in class activities with one another," there were "activities in which instructors assess student learning and adjust lessons accordingly," or there were "opportunities for students to answer and pose questions that determine the focus of the lesson." We were inspired by the RTOP questions to write questions that would allow educators to review and revise their lesson plans before trying them. Eight questions for lesson review follow:

  • Is the framework clear to students? If not, then consider starting the lesson with the learning outcomes, a question of the day, an outline, or a concept map (see also Lang, 2016a for further suggestions).
  • Does the lesson use or assess students' prior knowledge? Consider using what students were asked to do in preparation for the class, students' life experiences, previous lessons, or a ConceptTest.
  • Is there an activity that allows students to explore or investigate (i.e. be a geoscientist)? At one or more points during the class, consider asking students to predict, hypothesize, assess, represent data, or interpret data.
  • Will students interact with each other about course content? If not, or if they always interact in the same way every class, consider incorporating a think-pair-share, gallery tour, jigsaw, case study, or discussion (see also McConnell et al., 2016 for further suggestions).
  • Will you have an opportunity to listen to students? Listening to students may take the often-used form of posing a question and hearing responses, or may include other ways of "listening" such as reading student responses to a discussion thread, looking at students' small-group work on the board, listening to group discussions, or reviewing graphs and sketches (see also Tanner, 2013 for further suggestions)
  • Are students asked to reflect on their learning? Consider asking students to write a minute paper, respond to a "how do you know" question, complete a knowledge survey, or construct a Concept Map (see also Lang, 2016b for further suggestions).
  • Does the lesson incorporate aspects that students have noted contribute to their learning and avoid aspects that students have noted impede their learning? You may learn of these through conversations, mid-course questionnaires, student evaluations and other forms of feedback.


In addition to the ideas shared above, these NAGT web pages have additional tips and strategies for preparing lessons and furthering students learning.



We thank those who have shared their ideas on lesson design and led lesson design sessions at NAGT workshops and thank Carol Ormand for developing web resources in support of class planning. The NAGT On the Cutting Edge project supported the development of the lesson design sessions and the Classroom Observation Project through NSF grants 1022844 and 1022910. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.


Bybee, R.W., Taylor, J.A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Powell, J.C., Westbrook, A., and N. Landes, 2006, The BSCS 5E instructional model: origins and effectiveness (accessed January 2020). 

Classroom Observation Project: Understanding and Improving Our Teaching, 2017 (accessed January 2020)

Dang, N.V., Chiang, J.C., Brown, H.M., and McDonald, K.K., 2018, Curricular activities that promote metacognitive skills impact lower-performing students in an introductory biology course: Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, v. 19, p. 1-9. 

Eddy, S.L., and Hogan, K.E., 2014, Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?: CBE-Life Sciences Education, v. 13, p. 453-468. 

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

Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., and Freeman, S., 2011, Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology: Science, v. 332, p. 1213-1216. 

Lang, J., 2016a, Small changes in teaching: The first 5 minutes of class (accessed January 2020). 

Lang, J., 2016b, Small changes in teaching: The last 5 minutes of class (accessed January 2020). 

Lawson, A.E., Benford, R., Bloom, I., Carlson, M.P., Falconer, K.F., Hestenes, D.O., Jundson, E., Piburn, M.D., Sawada, D., Turley, J., and Wyckoff, S., 2002, Evaluating college science and mathematics instruction: A reform effort that improves teaching skills: Journal of College Science Teaching, v. 31, p. 388-393. 

McConnell, D.A., Chapman, L., Czajka, C.D., Jones, J.P., Ryker, K.D., and Wiggen, J., 2017, Instructional utility and learning efficacy of common active learning strategies: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 65, p. 604-625. 

Roberts, J.A., Olcott, A.N., McLean, N.M., Baker, G.S., and Moller, A., 2018, Demonstrating the impact of classroom transformation on the inequality in DFW rates ("D" or "F" grade or withdraw) for first-time freshmen, females, and underrepresented minorities through a decadal study of introductory geology courses: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 66, p. 304-318. 

Sawada, D., Piburn, M., Judson, E., Turley, J., Falconer, K., Benford, R. and Bloom, I., 2002, Measuring reform practices in science and mathematics classrooms: The Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol: School Science and Mathematics, v. 102, p. 245-253. 

Tanner, K., 2010, Order Matters: Using the 5E model to align teaching with how people learn: CBE – Life Sciences Education, v. 9, p. 159-164. 

Tanner, K., 2013, Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity: CBE – Life Sciences Education, v. 12, p. 322- 331. 

Teasdale, R., Viskupic, K., Baarley, J.K., McConnell, D., Manduca, C., Bruckner, M., Farthing, D., and Iverson, E., 2017, A multidimensional assessment of reformed teaching practice in geoscience classrooms: Geosphere, v. 13, p. 608-627. 

Yuretich, R.F., Khan, S.A., Leckie, R.M., and Clement, J.J., 2001, Active learning methods to improve student performance and scientific interest in a large introductory oceanography course: 


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