ONLINE EXTRA: Learners and Learning as a Foundation for Competent Earthquake Instruction

NICOLE LADUE ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois; MICHAEL HUBENTHAL ( is a senior education specialist at teh IRIS Consortium, Washington DC; and GLENN DOLPHIN ( is the Tamaratt Teaching Professor in Geoscience, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta.

In spite of being societally relevant and engaging to learners, earthquakes can be a challenging topic to comprehend as the underlying physical processes cannot be directly observed. Research shows that students have difficulty learning content that occurs outside the range of everyday human activity (i.e. large timescales, extremely small or large spatial scale) (Jones et al., 2009; Tretter et al., 2006). For instance, elastic rebound theory explains accumulation and release of earthquake energy (see Dolphin in this issue). In this process, large sections (i.e.100s of square kilometers) of Earth's rigid outer layer (i.e. the lithosphere) slowly deform, on timescales ranging from 10s to 100s, or even 1000s of years. This elastic deformation primarily occurs beneath the surface and begins at the molecular level. Over time it results in the accumulation of potential energy and up to many meters of change in the rocks. Eventually, this strain becomes so great that the rock suddenly fractures (or fractures may be pre-existing) and slips when one side of the fracture moves relative to the other side and unseen potential energy is rapidly released as an earthquake.

Next, it is common for learners to hold ideas about the elastic rebound theory and related concepts, such as plate tectonics, that are either incorrect or only partially correct relative to the consensus scientific view (e.g. Francek, 2013). These often incorrect ideas, sometimes called naive conceptions, misconceptions, and preconceptions, are important. They serve as students' existing conceptual framework and must assimilate or accommodate the new information being presented (Chi, 2008; Treagust and Duit, 2008). Several of the misconceptions documented in education research relate to earthquakes. Many undergraduate students are unclear about the location, thickness, and composition of tectonic plates (e.g. Libarkin & Anderson, 2005; Clark, Libarkin, Kortz, & Jordan, 2011; King 2000). Middle and high school students have difficulties connecting the concept of tectonic plates to the rocks they see at the surface (AAAS Project 2061, n.d; Hubenthal, 2015) and, along with college students, believe that tectonic plates do not bend (Dolphin & Benoit, 2016; AAAS Project 2061, n.d.).

Many students across grade levels do not know what causes earthquakes (Libarkin et al., 2005; Ross and Shuell, 1991), while others hold surprising alternative conceptions. For example, some believe earthquakes occur due to temperature, weather, or climate (Leather, 1987; Libarkin et al., 2005), air pockets collapsing or gas pressure (Kirby, n.d.; Libarkin et al., 2005), gravity, the rotation of the Earth (Libarkin et al., 2005), or associate earthquakes with supernatural causes (Simsek, 2007; Tsai, 2001). By the time these students become undergraduates, the vast majority of students associate the movement of tectonic plates with earthquakes (Barrow & Haskings, 1996; DeLaughter et al., 1998; Libarkin et al., 2005), but additional work suggests these associations are shallow at best (King, 2000; Smith and Bermea, 2012). In fact, Smith and Bermea (2012) conclude most undergraduate students lack an explanatory mental model that links together the many geologic concepts associated with elastic rebound theory. Specifically, they note that "students do not understand the relationship of earthquakes, plate motions, stress, and strain and this lack of understanding impedes their ability to relate earthquakes to the dynamics of plate motions" (p. 356).

Finally, in addition to holding misconceptions or ideas that do not align with the consensus scientific view, many students also have "missed" experiences, or a lack of experiences critical for developing scientific understandings. Niebert et al., (2012) argue this occurs because many scientific concepts are grounded in the process of scientific inquiry, which differs from our everyday life experiences. For example, most students' everyday experiences with rocks do not include opportunities to experience them deforming elastically. This lack of experience combined with common, colloquial uses of the term rock as a "solid" and "stubborn" leads many students to believe that rocks are not able to bend or deform elastically (Hubenthal, 2015). Because the elastic rebound theory is dependent upon understanding elastic deformation of rocks, this belief significantly inhibits students' abilities to conceptualize how earthquakes occur.

This special issue offers several scientific models and pedagogical strategies to overcome these challenges and promote students' deep understanding of earthquakes. Scientific models provide learners with the opportunity to explore the elastic rebound theory at spatial and temporal scales more familiar to students.

As students are introduced to new ideas about earthquakes, they may incorporate these new ideas into their existing framework (called "assimilation"), or modify their framework in response to the new ideas (called "accommodation") (Posner et al., 1982). Some non-scientific conceptions conflict with the scientific consensus and can be resistant to change. Thus, it is important to anticipate students' initial conceptions from the literature above or elicit them. Pre-assessments that elicit students' mental models of a concept can help focus students on the topic being studied. Students are then prepared to engage in active, minds-on learning where they can compare their existing ideas to observations about models they are using in class. In some cases, this may confirm students' prior knowledge, while in other cases, new experiences may lead students to discover surprising new ideas.


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