On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty

Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering

Contributions and Opportunities for the Geosciences

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University
A two-year study by the NRC (2012) of Discipline-Based Education Research in the STEM disciplines explored 1) the current status of DBER, 2) evidence-based contributions of DBER to STEM education and 3) future directions for collaborative discipline-based education research. Although there are commonalities in DBER among the STEM disciplines, there are unique contributions and opportunities for the Geosciences to engage DBER to support excellence in geoscience education.

Introduction

The National Research Council (Board on Science Education) recently completed a two year study, commissioned by the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education, of an emerging, interdisciplinary field of scholarship: Discipline-Based Education Research. DBER integrates the deep disciplinary priorities, worldview, knowledge, and practices employed by scientists and engineers with complementary to research on human learning and cognition. The results of DBER will support excellence in STEM education, by providing the evidence that demonstrates effectiveness of instructional strategies, methods, pedagogies and assessments to:

Challenges and opportunities that can be further addressed by DBER include:

Future funding opportunities in science education are requiring "....projects (to) carry the development to a state in which the evaluations of the projects have evidence to support the claim that the projects' efforts are effective" and "...should discuss evidence that supports the validity of the approach, and must reflect current understanding of how students learn" (NSF 10-544, Program Solicitation for Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES). DBER provides a foundation for future course and curriculum development, and also provides the methods and tools to engage research on how humans learn in the STEM disciplines. This module is a synthesis of the NRC (2012) report, Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER): Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering.

The charge to the DBER committee was to:

  • Synthesize empirical research on undergraduate teaching and learning in physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, the geosciences, and astronomy.
  • Examine the extent to which this research currently influences undergraduate science instruction.
  • Describe the intellectual and material resources that are required to further develop DBER.

Key questions that were addressed include:

  1. What is the state of DBER scholarship as a whole and what currently is being done across each of the natural sciences? Are there research synergies across disciplines?
  2. What findings are robust across disciplines?
  3. What discipline-specific instructional practices are most clearly linked to increased performance across student groups (especially low socio-economic status, minority, and female students)?
  4. To what extent and how has DBER informed teaching and learning in the various disciplines?
  5. What factors are influencing differences in the state of research and its impact in the various disciplines?
  6. What are the resources, incentives, and conditions needed to advance this research?
  7. What resources and incentives are needed to ensure that teaching and learning in the various science disciplines is informed by DBER?
  8. What questions should DBER scholars prioritize in the next generation of research?

Members of the DBER study committee:

  • SUSAN SINGER (Chair), Carleton College
  • ROBERT BEICHNER, North Carolina State University
  • STACEY LOWERY BRETZ,Miami University
  • MELANIE COOPER, Clemson University
  • SEAN DECATUR, Oberlin College
  • JAMES FAIRWEATHER, Michigan State University
  • KENNETH HELLER, University of Minnesota
  • KIM KASTENS, Columbia University
  • MICHAEL MARTINEZ, University of California, Irvine
  • DAVID MOGK, Montana State University
  • LAURA R. NOVICK, Vanderbilt University
  • MARCY OSGOOD, University of New Mexico
  • TIMOTHY F. SLATER, University of Wyoming
  • KARL A. SMITH, University of Minnesota and Purdue University
  • WILLIAM B. WOOD, University of Colorado

What is Discipline-Based Education Research?

There are three principle components of DBER:

Although there are commonalities in DBER approaches and outcomes among the STEM disciplines, it is also the case that the STEM disciplines have followed different pathways, focused on different questions, and have developed capacities on topics related to each discipline.

Part I: The Current Status of DBER

The primary goals of DBER have been to:

The types of knowledge required to conduct DBER include:

There is an emerging group of scholars who are developing the expertise to address these numerous knowledge bases. However, DBER is also being done by "border crossers"—researchers who were originally trained in their disciplinary science but who have developed an interest in engaging research on human learning in their domains. Consequently, much of DBER has been done as multidisciplinary collaborative projects engaging content and learning specialists.

Major conclusions of the review of the current status of DBER include:

  • Limited Evidence
    • Few peer-reviewed studies with some convergence, OR
    • Convergence with practitioner wisdom
  • Moderate Evidence
    • Well designed, replicated study, OR
    • Moderate number of small-scale studies, OR
    • A few large-scale studies
  • Strong Evidence
    • Numerous well, designed qualitative and/or quantitative studies with high convergence of findings.

Part II: Contributions of Discipline-Based Education Research

DBER has made significant advances in the following areas:

Conceptual Understanding and Conceptual Change

Problem Solving and the Use of Representations

Research on Effective Instruction

Part III: Future Directions of DBER

Translating DBER into Practice

Available evidence suggests that DBER and related research have not yet prompted widespread changes in teaching practice among science and engineering faculty. Strategies are needed to more effectively promote the translation of findings from DBER into practice.

A number of studies in Physics and Biology have concluded that faculty professional development programs have not been effective in promoting curricular change based on DBER results. However, in the geosciences programs such as the On the Cutting Edge program for geoscience faculty professional development have effected significant changes to faculty attitudes about teaching and shifts towards more active teaching strategies (Macdonald et al., 2005).

  • Ebert-May, D., Derting, T. L., Hodder, J., Momsen, J. L., Long, T.M., and Jareleza, S.E. (2011) What we say is not what we do: Effective evaluation of faculty professional development programs. Bioscience, 61(7) 550-558
  • Henderson, C., and Dancy, M.H. (2007). Barriers to the use of research-based instructional strategies: The influence of both individual and situational characteristics. Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research, 3(2), 020102-1–020102-14.
  • Henderson, C., and Dancy, M.H. (2009). Impact of physics education research on the teaching of introductory quantitative physics in the United States. Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research, 5(2), 020107-1–020107-9.
  • Henderson, C., Beach, A., and Finkelstein, N.D. (2011). Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(8), 952-984.
  • Macdonald, R.H., Manduca, C.A., Mogk, D.W., and Tewksbury, B.J. (2005). Teaching methods in undergraduate geoscience courses: Results of the 2004 On the Cutting Edge survey of U.S. faculty. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(3), 237-252.

Recommendations for Translating DBER into Practice

Advancing DBER Through Collaborations

DBER Research Infrastructure

DBER requires a robust infrastructure for research, supported by departments, institutions, and professional societies.

Key elements of a DBER Research Agenda

Part IV: Contributions and Opportunities for the Geosciences

A Brief History of DBER in the Geosciences (aka GER)

Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences Book Cover Earth Science education was formalized in the late 19th Century by the "Committee of Ten (1893)" who emphasized in their report the importance of physical geography in the secondary school curriculum They recommended a 4th year secondary school course of study that included a half year of physiography and a half year of meteorology (geology was significantly excluded here). Earth science education languished in the first half of the 20th Century with the emergence of physics, chemistry and biology. The Earth sciences were viewed (perhaps inappropriately) as being descriptive, qualitative, and taxonomic. In the post-Sputnik era, but pre-plate tectonics, there was a renewed interest and sense of urgency about science education in America. In the Earth Sciences there was a call for "an integrated and up-to-date story of planet earth and its environment in space (Irwin, 1970).

Since this renaissance of Earth science education, significant contributions to DBER made by the geosciences include:

Contributions of Geoscience Education Research

Geoscience education research has historically been conducted in the same manner that research projects are conducted in the field: basic observations are made (in individual learning environments, for a given student audience...), an interesting problem is identified, interventions are tested, and outcomes reported. (See a compilation of articles reported in the Bringing Research on Education On-Line List of References). We have referred to this body of work as "practitioner's wisdom" based on the collective observations and experiences of geoscience faculty in assessing student learning in the geosciences. This has proved to be important foundational work (akin to doing reconnaissance field studies), that have identified the need, and informed future work, in discipline-based education research. Robust, controlled experiments focused on student learning in the geosciences that meet the high standards of DBER have been undertaken by a growing cohort of geoscience education researchers in the past decade.


  • The Geological Society of America (Pardee Symposium, Toward a Better Understanding of the Complicated Earth; Insights from Geologic Research, Education, and Cognitive Science, 2002;
  • The Geological Society of America session on: Geocognition: Researching Student Learning in the Geosciences, 2008)
  • American Geophysical Union (Geocognition and Geoscience Education Research: Impacts on Course Curriculum and Student Learning, 2009).
  • Important foundational work is being done on characterizing the nature of geoscience expertise, and how master-novice relations can inform geoscience education.

  • Manduca, C., and Kastens, K., 2012, Geoscience and geoscientists: Uniquely equipped to study Earth, in K. Kastens and C. Manduca (eds), Earth and Mind II A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences, Geol. Soc. Amer. Sp. Paper 486, pp. 1-12.
  • Petcovic, H.L., and Libarkin, J.C., 2007, Research in science education: The expert novice continuum: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 5, no. 4, p. 333–339.
  • New research collaborations are emerging to address geoscience DBER.

  • The results of geoscience DBER are working their way into the geoscience curriculum. Notable examples of introductory geoscience textbooks that have been developed based on learning theory include:

  • Exploring Geology, Reynolds, Johnson, Kelly, Carter (2012), 3rd Edition, McGraw Hill; an emphasis on question-asking and problem-solving based on use of visualizations, natural examples, graphics, annotations;
  • Earth: Portrait of a Planet, Marshak (2011), Norton & Co.; an emphasis on "thinking as a geoscientist", guided discovery of Earth phenomena, interpreting Earth process and history.
  • Temporal Reasoning

  • Cervato, C., and Frodeman, R. (2012). The significance of geologic time: Cultural, educational, and economic frameworks. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 486, 19-27.
  • Clary, R.M., Brzuszek, R.F., and Wandersee, J.H. (2009). Students' geocognition of deep time, conceptualized in an informal educational setting. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(4), 275-285.
  • Dodick, J., and Orion, N. (2003). Cognitive factors affecting student understanding of geologic time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(4), 415-442.
  • Dodick, J., and Orion, N. (2006). Building an understanding of geological time: A cognitive synthesis of the macro and micro scales of time. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 413, 77-93.
  • Libarkin, J.C., Kurdziel, J.P., and Anderson, S.W. (2007). College student conceptions of geological time and the disconnect between ordering and scale. Journal of Geoscience Education, 55(5), 413-
  • Teed, R., and Slattery, W. (2011). Changes in geologic time understanding in a class for preservice teachers, Journal of Geoscience Education, 59, 151-162. Trend, R. (2000). Conceptions of geological time among primary teacher trainees, with reference to their engagement with geoscience, history, and science. International Journal of Science Education, 22(5), 539-555.
  • Spatial Reasoning

  • Kali, Y., and Orion, N. (1996). Spatial abilities of high-school students in the perception of geologic structures. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33, 369-391.
  • Kastens, K. (2010). Object and spatial visualization in geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 58(2), 52-57.
  • Kastens, K.A., and Ishikawa, T. (2006). Spatial thinking in the geosciences and cognitive sciences. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 413, 53-76.
  • Kastens, K.A., Agrawal, S., and Liben, L.S. (2009). How students and field geologists reason in integrating spatial observations from outcrops to visualize a 3-D geological structure. International Journal of Science Education, 31(3), 365-393.
  • Liben, L.S., and Titus, S. (2012). The importance of spatial thinking for geoscience education: Insights from the crossroads of geoscience and cognitive science. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 486, 51-70.
  • Liben, L.S., Kastens, K.A., and Christensen, A. (2011). Spatial foundations of science education: The illustrative case of instruction on introductory geological concepts. Cognition and Instruction, 29(1), 1-43.
  • Orion, N., Ben-Chaim, D., and Kali, Y. (1997). Relationship between earth-science education and spatial visualization. Journal of Geoscience Education, 45(2), 129-132. Titus, S., and Horsman, E. (2009). Characterizing and improving spatial visualization skills. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(4), 242-254.
  • Systems Thinking and Complexity

  • Stillings, N. (2012). Complex systems in the geosciences and in geoscience learning. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 486, 97-111.
  • McNeal, K.S., Miller, H.R., and Herbert, B.E. (2008). Developing nonscience majors' conceptual models of complex earth systems in a physical geology course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 56, 201-211.
  • Geoscience Education Research on Learning in the Field Setting

  • Mogk, D., and Goodwin, C., 2012, Learning in the field: Synthesis of research on thinking and learning in the geosciences, Geol. Soc. Amer. Sp. Paper 486, pp. 131-163. An overview of the cognitive and affective gains earned by students learning in the field; the importance of inscriptions, embodiment, and communities of practice.
  • Riggs, E.M., Lieder, C.C., and Balliet, R., 2009a, Geologic problem solving in the field: Analysis of fi eld navigation and mapping by advanced undergraduates: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 57, no. 1, p. 48–63, doi:10.5408/1.3559525.
  • Riggs, E.M., Balliet, R., and Lieder, C., 2009b, Effectiveness in problem solving during geologic fi eld examinations: Insights from analysis of GPS tracks at variable time scales, in Whitmeyer, S.J., Mogk, D.W., and Pyle, E.J., eds., Field Geology Education—Historical Perspectives and Modern Approaches: Geological Society of America Special Paper 461, p. 323– 340, doi:10.1130/2009.2461(25).
  • Petcovic, H.L., Libarkin, J.C., and Baker, K.M., 2009, An empirical methodology for investigation of geocognition in the field: Journal of Geoscience Education, JGE, v. 57, n. 4, p. 316-328
  • Orion, N., and Hofstein, A., 1994, Factors that infl uence learning during a scientific field trip in a natural environment: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 31, p. 1097–1119, doi:10.1002/tea.3660311005.> Orion, N., Hofstein, A., Tamir, P., and Gidding, G.J., 1997b, Development and validation of an instrument for assessing the learning environment of outdoor science activities: Science Education, v. 81, no. 2, p. 161–171, doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-237X(199704)81:2<161::AIDSCE3>3.0.CO;2-D.
  • Kern, E., and Carpenter, J., 1984, Enhancement of student values, interests and attitudes in earth science through a fi eld-oriented approach: Journal of Geological Education, v. 32, p. 299–305.
  • Kern, E., and Carpenter, J., 1986, Effect of field activities on student learning: Journal of Geological Education, v. 34, p. 180–183.
  • Maskall, J., and Stokes, A. (2008). Designing effective fieldwork for the environmental and natural sciences. Plymouth, UK: Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography,Earth and Environmental Sciences.
  • Carlson, C.A. (1999). Field research as a pedagogical tool for learning hydrogeochemistry and scientific-writing skills. Journal of Geoscience Education, 47(2), 150-157.
  • Fuller, I., Edmondson, S., France, D., Higgitt, D., and Ratinen, I. (2006). International perspectives on the effectiveness of geography fieldwork for learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 30(1), 89-101.
  • Elkins, J.T., and Elkins, N.M.L. (2007). Teaching geology in the field: Significant geoscience concept gains in entirely field-based introductory geology courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 55(2), 126-132.
  • Huntoon, J.E., Bluth, G.J.S., and Kennedy, W.A. (2001). Measuring the effects of a research based field experience on undergraduates and K-12 teachers. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49(3), 235-248. Pyle, E.J. (2009). The evaluation of field course experiences: A framework for development, improvement, and reporting. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 461, 341-356.
  • Stokes, A., and Boyle, A. (2009). The undergraduate geoscience fieldwork experience: Influencing factors and implications for learning. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 461, 291-311.
  • Boyle, A., Maguire, S., Martin, A., Milsom, C., Nash, R., Rawlinson, S., Turner, A., Wurthmann, S., and Conchie, S. (2007). Fieldwork is good: The student perception and the affective domain. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31(2), 299-317.
  • Fuller, I., Edmondson, S., France, D., Higgitt, D., and Ratinen, I. (2006). International perspectives on the effectiveness of geography fieldwork for learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 30(1), 89-101.
  • Cognition and the Affective Domain
  • Boyle, A., Maguire, S., Martin, A., Milsom, C., Nash, R., Rawlinson, S., Turner, A., Wurthmann, S., and Conchie, S. (2007). Fieldwork is good: The student perception and the affective domain. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31(2), 299-317.
  • Fuller, I., Gaskin, S., and Scott, I. (2003). Student perceptions of geography and environmental science fieldwork in the light of restricted access to the field, caused by foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001. Journal of Geography In Higher Education, 27(1), 79-102.
  • Karabinos, P., Stoll, H.M., and Fox, W.T. (1992). Attracting students to science through field exercises in introductory geology courses. Journal of Geological Education, 40, 302-305.
  • Kempa, R.F., and Orion, N. (1996). Students' perception of co-operative learning in earth science fieldwork: Research in Science and Technological Education, 14(1), 33-41.
  • McConnell, D.A., and van der Hoeven Kraft, K. (2011). Affective domain and student learning in the geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 59(3), 106-110.
  • van der Hoeven Kraft, K.J., Srogi, L., Husman, J., Semken, S., and Fuhrman, M. (2011). Engaging students to learn through the affective domain: A new framework for teaching in the geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 59(2), 71-84.
  • Geoscience Education Research on Teaching and Learning About Topical Issues

  • Gautier, C., Deutsch, K., and Rebich, S. (2006). Misconceptions about the greenhouse effect. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54, 386-395.
  • Research that Demonstrates the Effectiveness of Teaching Methods and Strategies


  • Libarkin, J. (2008). Concept inventories in higher education science. Paper presented at the National Research Council's Workshop on Linking Evidence to Promising Practices in STEM Undergraduate Education, Washington, DC. Available: http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/Libarkin_CommissionedPaper.pdf.
  • McConnell, D.A., Steer, D.N., and Owens, K.D. (2003). Assessment and active learning strategies for introductory geology courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 51(2), 205-216.
  • McConnell, D.A., Steer, D.N., Owens, K., Borowski, W., Dick, J., Foos, A., Knott, J.R., Malone, M., McGrew, H., Van Horn, S., Greer, L., and Heaney, P.J. (2006). Using ConcepTests to assess and improve student conceptual understanding in introductory geoscience courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54(1), 61-68.
  • Linneman, S., and Plake, T. (2006). Searching for the difference: A controlled test of just-in-time teaching for large-enrollment introductory geology courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54(1), 18-24.
  • Nelson, K.G., Huysken, K., and Kilibarda, Z. (2010). Assessing the impact of geoscience laboratories on student learning: Who benefits from introductory labs? Journal of Geoscience Education, 58(1), 43-50.
  • 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. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49(2), 111-119.
  • Kempa, R.F., and Orion, N. (1996). Students' perception of co-operative learning in earth science fieldwork: Research in Science and Technological Education, 14(1), 33-41.
  • Problem-Solving
  • Ault, C.R., Jr. (1994). Research on problem-solving: Earth science. In D. Gabel (Ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning. New York: MacMillan.
  • Teaching with Models and Visualizations
  • Ishikawa, T., Barnston, A.G., Kastens, K.A., and Louchouarn, P. (2011). Understanding, evaluation, and use of climate forecast data by environmental policy students. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 474, 153-170.
  • Piburn, M.D., Reynolds, S.J., McAuliffe, C., Leedy, D.E., and Johnson, J.K. (2005). The role of visualization in learning from computer-based images. International Journal of Science Education, 27(5), 513-527.
  • Titus, S., and Horsman, E. (2009). Characterizing and improving spatial visualization skills. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(4), 242-254.
  • Dutrow, B.L. (2007). Visual communication: Do you see what I see? Elements, 3(2), 119-126.
  • Effectiveness of Research and Research-Like Experiences

  • Carlson, C.A. (1999). Field research as a pedagogical tool for learning hydrogeochemistry and scientific-writing skills. Journal of Geoscience Education, 47(2), 150-157.
  • Gonzales, D., and Semken, S. (2009). Using field-based research studies to engage undergraduate students in igneous and metamorphic petrology: A comparative study of pedagogical approaches and outcomes. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 461, 205-221.
  • May, C.L., Eaton, L.S., and Whitmeyer, S.J. (2009). Integrating student-led research in fluvial geomorphology into traditional field courses: A case study from James Madison University's field course in Ireland. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 461, 195-204.
  • Gawel, J.E., and Greengrove, C.L. (2005). Designing undergraduate research experiences for nontraditional student learning at sea. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53, 31-36.
  • Huntoon, J.E., Bluth, G.J.S., and Kennedy, W.A. (2001). Measuring the effects of a researchbased field experience on undergraduates and K-12 teachers. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49(3), 235-248.
  • Misconceptions and Preconceptions About the Earth System

  • Dahl, J., Anderson, S.W., and Libarkin, J.C. (2005). Digging into earth science: Alternative conceptions held by K-12 teachers. Journal of Science Education, 12(2), 65-68.
  • DeLaughter, J.E., Stein, S., and Bain, K.R. (1998). Preconceptions abound among students in an introductory earth science course. EOS, Transactions of the American GeophysicalUnion, 79, 429-432.
  • Gautier, C., Deutsch, K., and Rebich, S. (2006). Misconceptions about the greenhouse effect. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54, 386-395.
  • Kusnick, J. (2002). Growing pebbles and conceptual prisms: Understanding the source of student misconceptions about rock formation. Journal of Geosciences Education, 50(1), 31-39.
  • Libarkin, J.C., Kurdziel, J.P., and Anderson, S.W. (2007). College student conceptions of geological time and the disconnect between ordering and scale. Journal of Geoscience Education, 55(5), 413-422.
  • Geoscience Education Research focused on target audiences

  • Riggs, E.M., Robbins, E.I., and Darner, R, 2007, Sharing the Land: Attracting Native American Students to the Geosciences – Special Edition on Broadening Participation in the Earth Sciences, Journal of Geoscience Education, V.55, N. 6, 478-485
  • Semken, S., 2005, Sense of place and place-based introductory geoscience teaching for American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduates: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 53, no. 2, p. 149–157.
  • Huntoon, J.E., Bluth, G.J.S., and Kennedy, W.A., 2001, Measuring the effects of a research-based field experience on undergraduates and K–12 teachers: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 49, no. 3, p. 235–248.
  • International Contributions

Opportunities for Future Geoscience Education Research

The following is a list of topics of high interest and need to conduct GER:

  • Upper Division GEO courses: Almost all of the published GER has been done on introductory classes. There is a need to expand GER to cover the entire geoscience curriculum, particularly upper division courses that are required of majors to prepare for graduate school or enter the workforce.
  • Learning environments: most of the GER published to date has focused on the lecture part of the (large section) introductory course; research is needed on how students learn in laboratory, computer-based, and field learning environments.
  • Demographic studies: There has been very little disaggregation of studies of geoscience students to determine "what works" for students with very different backgrounds and abilities (e.g. gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, students over traditional age, students with disabilities, etc.).

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