David W. Mogk
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published Aug 27, 2009

This past week I had the opportunity to join Cathy Manduca and her family on a backpacking trip to the Spanish Peaks area in the northern Madison Range just southwest of Bozeman, Montana. This is an area where I have had an ongoing research project for ~25 years, and beyond the social aspects of the trip, and my desire to share this special place with my friends, I needed to go back and re-check the field relations in a very complicated high-grade ductile shear zone. An eight mile hike and ~2800 foot gain of elevation to 9000 feet brought me to the Spanish Lake campsite.

I simply had to go back to this area to take another look, to see the area with fresh eyes informed by some new data, to acquire some more structural data, to collect a few more samples for additional thermobarometry and thermochronology analysis, and to reconfirm our working model on the structural evolution of this area before I could hope to write up the results for a scholarly publication this winter. Walking on a steep trail under a heavy pack (camp gear, sledge hammer, mapping equipment, and of course fishing gear) has a way of freeing your mind to wander as you head towards camp, and on this hike I happened to fixate on the factor of mind known as conation.

Huitt (1999) defines conation as: "...the connection of knowledge and affect to behavior and is associated with the issue of "why." It is the personal, intentional, planful, deliberate, goal-oriented, or striving component of motivation, the proactive (as opposed to reactive or habitual) aspect of behavior (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven & Tice, 1998; Emmons, 1986). It is closely associated with the concept of volition, defined as the use of will, or the freedom to make choices about what to do (Kane, 1985; Mischel, 1996). It is absolutely critical if an individual is successfully engage in self-direction and self-regulation. Some of the conative issues one faces daily are: what are my intentions and goals; what am I going to do; what are my plans and commitments?" In a podcast from EDUCAUSE, Thomas C. Reeves argues that ".... many instructors teach to higher-order cognitive, affective, and psychomotor outcomes and to specific objectives derived from their disciplines, they ignore critical conative outcomes." Conation translates knowledge (cognition) and emotion (affect) into behavior and action. Conation is also an integral part of inquiry-based learning, and is the aspect of human behavior that motivates students (of all kinds) to independently get out and learn.

Field-based geologic studies provide an optimal environment to develop conative habits of the mind. First, you have to want to be there--it's just too darned hard getting there in the first place, and even harder to hike out with heavier packs laden with prized samples. Field studies must be goal-oriented--today I'll finish mapping this basin, I'll measure 100 foliations, I need to collect representative samples for future petrographic work. While you're in the field, you have to do it right. You may never get the chance to come back (I'm blessed in having regular access to my field sites, but every trip to the field provides a few answers and opens up a whole cascade of new questions). The field season is short. Weather and other logistical factors may limit time spent on task. So the connative lessons are clear: Be thorough and complete in your investigations in the first instance. Collect the data you need while on-site--complete field notes, structural data, representative samples for further analysis, field photos. Walk the ridge to the end--you don't know what you may find, and you will probably not get the chance to come back. Note opportunities where future work is needed. Optimize your time in the field; start early, come back to camp late. When you're working solo in the back country, only you will know if you adequately covered the ground (like a distance runner in the third quarter of a long race--only you will know internally if you've slacked off or not). We'll never be able to do it all, but leave the field site knowing that you did the best you could. And when the day is over, take a few minutes to savor a hot dinner, and then go fishing. You've earned it.

I'm pretty sure that the values associated with conation that I've learned in the field have carried over into the rest of my professional life. In preparing samples I've collected in the field for geochemical analysis, attention to lab protocols to minimize cross-sample contamination is critical. There are no short cuts. Carefully clean the crushing/separation equipment at every stage. You simply can't afford to compromise the integrity of a sample after packing it out of a remote field site (in the bad old days one zircon sample might weigh as much as 50-100 pounds depending on its bulk composition; newer analytical methods require smaller samples but it's still a major commitment of time and energy to acquire samples from the back country). The interpretation of an area may hinge on a single critical age determination, so contamination is unacceptable. Do it right in the first instance. Using the electron microprobe to obtain mineral compositional data, similar connative traits that lead to behavior arise; should I take the time to restandardize; how many spot analyses do I need to determine a compositional zoning pattern...? Check and recheck your results. If you're going to take the time to do the analysis, do it right. Take personal initiative and responsibility. Be proactive in addressing issues or problems that may arise.

In our forthcoming Synthesis article on Learning in the Field, Chuck Goodwin and I explore many dimensions of learning in the field that are of value to all geoscientists. Field work strongly emphasizes the conative domain, and helps to develop habits of the mind and professional practices that are important for all geoscientists--field-based or not.

Huitt, W. (1999). Conation as an important factor of mind. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from

Reeves, T. C., 2008, ELI Podcast: Technology and the Conative Learning Domain in Undergraduate Education

Conation --Discussion  

This post was editted by Kim Kastens on Sep, 2009
I saw Tom Reeves give a talk that included the idea of conative learning goals, and the idea has fascinated me ever since. I'm glad you wrote about it here.

It seems to me that in Earth Science education, the idea of conative learning goals goes beyond striving to act or behave responsibly and effectively in one's learning or research. There are also conative learning goals that have to do with how the student or graduate strives to act or behave in life out of school.

Take global climate change as an example:
* a COGNITIVE learning outcome would be that students are able to explain how the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causes warming of the atmosphere.
* an AFFECTIVE learning outcome would be that students feel concern about the impact of global climate change on humans and other species.
* a CONATIVE learning outcome would be that students strive to reduce the carbon footprint of their households.



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I stumbled across a lighthearted but insightful discussion of conation on an Australian education site ( The author is Marie Jasinski, of "The Australian Flexible Learning Community," and the presentation is targeted to educators.

As examples of conation, she includes quotes from:
* Winston Churchill
* The Little Engine that Could
* "Bob The Builder"
* Tom Reeves, mentioned in my previous comment.


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