"Some Students Will..."

Kim Kastens
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published Apr 21, 2012

Mediterranean Salinity Map Recently my "Teaching & Learning Concepts In Earth Sciences" students and I renovated one of my old data-using lab activities, from the days when I used to teach "Planet Earth" to non-science majors. The old version of the activity led students step-by-step through a series of manipulations of an on-line global data base, using a professional data visualization tool. The old directions provided a lot of scaffolding for how to make data displays of ocean salinity in and around the Mediterranean Sea, but little support for how to extract insights about earth processes from those displays. The new version assumes that students are already pretty adept at getting computer apps to do what they want, and refocuses the scaffolding on how to think like a geoscientist, how to think about the meaning of the data.

As they tried to slim down the plodding directions from the old lab, a student asked what were the learning objectives, so that they wouldn't leave out something really important. A relict from a previous era in my teaching career, the 10-year old activity didn't have written learning objectives, so after class I wrote out learning objectives for the new version.

They came out like this:

  • Students will experience the process of exploring a professional caliber geoscience data set using a professional caliber data visualization tool.
  • Some students will greatly enjoy the data exploration process and be motivated to do further such explorations, thus increasing their likelihood of moving towards a career in science or geoscience.
  • Students will experience the geoscience habits of mind of reasoning from multiple working hypotheses, and using observational evidence to distinguish among the working hypotheses.

. . . clip . . .

  • Students will know that a tongue of salty water exits from the Mediterranean Sea via the Straits of Gibraltar and travels westward out into the Atlantic Ocean in mid-water depths.
  • Students will understand that the tongue of salty water sinks as it leaves the Mediterranean because the high salt content makes it more dense than the surface Atlantic water.
  • More broadly, students will understand that the water in the ocean depths moves around, and that these motions are driven by differences in density.
  • A few students might reason out that the tongue of salty settles out in the middle of the water column rather than traveling along the Atlantic seafloor because it is warmer than the Atlantic water.


I felt a strong need to include those bullets that begin "Some students will..." and "A few students might..."

As for the second bullet, it's neither realistic nor desirable for every student in our intro classes to become geoscience majors or geoscience professionals. And yet I do hope that a small, steady trickle of students will find their way into our excellent profession. It seems honest and appropriate to craft instruction that will attract some students to the deeper pleasures of the science, and to state forthrightly that that is what we are doing.

As for the last bullet, interpreting authentic data from nature is a many layered process, from more obvious to more subtle. This particular data-using exercise was purposely crafted to showcase a part of the world's oceans where the first-order phenomenon of the density-driven circulation can be understood by considering only one factor: salinity. The high salinity of the Mediterranean water explains why a tongue of salty water flows westward over the sill at the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic. But salinity alone cannot explain why the salty tongue settles out in the middle of the Atlantic water column rather than hugging the seafloor. When I have taught this activity, a few students have spontaneously hypothesized that this might be due to temperature, and have found the controls on the Data Viewer to test this hypothesis. Both they and I have found this unscripted excursion into the data archive to be exciting when it happens, and now it is certainly part of my goal for the lesson. But only for students who invest an extra measure of curiosity, who color outside the lines.

I don't recall ever seeing learning objectives that refer to only "some students ..." in the target audience. In fact, the very concept seems to run contrary to the ethic of science for all Americans, and the notion that all students can learn, given good instruction. It sounds like giving up before we even begin, to acknowledge that some students aren't going to get every possible smidgeon of insight out of a learning opportunity.

What do you think? Do you write learning objectives that don't encompass every student?

And do you share your learning objectives with your students? These "Some students will..." learning objectives do not seem suitable for sharing–and yet they seem important to acknowledge and support in curriculum planning.


Sources and Resources:

Co-teaching an earlier version of "Teaching & Learning Concepts in Earth Science" with Teachers College professor Ann Rivet, and conversations with collaborators on the InTeGrate project have sharpened my appreciation of the importance of articulating learning objectives.

Thanks to the students in the spring 2012 version of "Teaching & Learning Concepts in Earth Science," and especially the student who asked "What are the learning objectives?"

Mediterranean Salinity activity (Acrobat (PDF) 543kB Apr1 12) includes the teaching notes and student handout for the activity described, including the complete set of learning objectives. And here is what the Mediterranean salt tongue looks like in N/S profiles, as it becomes more and more dilute traveling westward from the Straits of Gibraltar.

Salt Tongue Profiles

The web offers many sites advising or instructing pre-service and in-service faculty on how to write learning objectives. I sampled a few, and found no one addressing the possibility of learning objective that target only a subset of students. Here are some that otherwise look useful:





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