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A metacognitive approach to teaching geologic reasoning

Stephen J Reynolds and Julia K Johnson, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus

Solving geologic problems requires various reasoning strategies, some of which are unique to the geosciences. Most geologic problems involve observing, interpreting, and trying to make sense of a complex array of features, such as various geologic structures in an outcrop or diverse geologic units in a landscape. From such observations, geologists try to characterize the most important features, interpret the order in which the features formed, and derive the underlying processes that were involved. Here, we provide a metacognitive perspective on teaching students how to improve their geologic reasoning in understanding landscapes and other geologic systems.

Metacognition is commonly described as thinking about thinking, or knowing about knowing. It involves a self-awareness and self-assessment while reasoning about some problem. A main goal of a college education, whether for scientists or non-scientists, is to improve critical thinking and reasoning strategies about problems relevant to society. We suggest that explicitly incorporating some metacognitive approaches in teaching geology in the classroom and field can help us achieve these important scientific literacy goals.

One of the main strategies in raising metacognitive awareness is to explicitly model geologic problem solving in front of students. A key component of this modeling process is to share the instructor's thoughts during a problem-solving activity by the use of a think-aloud approach. For example, in teaching students how to observe landscapes, the instructor shares aloud with students all the aspects that the instructor observes, identifying which aspects are important and which ones are not, for the particular context being considered. The instructor notes which observations and interpretations are more certain and which ones are less certain, what information remains unknown, and what types of data would be needed to fully define the setting and to reconstruct the processes and sequence of events that resulted in the scene. In an introductory geology class, this involves spending one or more class periods examining landscapes and modeling for the students how to observe and interpret the key aspects. The same approach can be used while presenting information about other geologic systems, such as features and processes associated with plate boundaries, or outcrops in the field. When introducing students to a new field area in a field geology class, we typically walk around with the students sharing everything that we see and think about for various features we encounter, sharing our thoughts about possible strategies for approaching different problems and predicting where we would go in the field area to better constrain the geology. The advantage for students of this think-aloud, metacognitive approach is that they can begin to appreciate the diverse thoughts, types of data, and various strategies that will enable them to solve geologic problems. The advantage for instructors is identifying all the strategies and wealth of background knowledge we use in problem solving, some of which are so automated that we may not recognize we are using them, and so we may never share this knowledge and strategies with students.

One result of a think-aloud metacognitive approach is that it helps students with what we consider to be one of the most essential skills for a geologist – disembedding. Disembedding involves being able to extract essential information from a complex visual display, in other words to distinguish the signal from the noise. It comes into play in nearly all geologic situations, such as identifying key geologic structures in an outcrop obscured by loose materials, rock varnish and stains, plants, and other distracting elements. Disembedding is important in observing a landscape and recognizing that it consists of a relatively limited number of geologic features, including layers, joints, bedrock, and talus. Instruction on disembedding can be done in person in front of the class or by means of overlays and other signaling techniques.

Another approach commonly recommended for improving metacognitive skills is to have students make a graphic representation of their thoughts to explicitly identify the knowns and unknowns, the influence of different variables, and the relationships among different aspects. In the geosciences, the most spatial of the sciences, concept sketches are an ideally suited graphical learning tool for promoting metacognition. A concept sketch is a relatively simple sketch annotated by complete sentences that describe the features, processes, and relationships among different features and between features and processes. The starting point for a concept sketch can be a photograph of a landscape, textbook-style illustration, map, animation, or observation of a natural scene out in the field. Constructing a concept sketch requires us to identify which aspects in the visual display are critical for understanding and which ones are not, that is, to be able to disembed. We have to decide which aspects of the figure to sketch and how to best show these aspects. We must decide how to explain the geologic system in our own words. This process requires us to engage in metacognition as we decide what we know and what we do not know. It also requires that we develop a strong linkage between visual and verbal knowledge, an activity that promotes deeper learning. We have strong evidence that having students construct concept sketches results in a much deeper understanding of geologic concepts than nearly any other educational activity we have identified.

In order to free up time in class for explicit instruction on metacognitive strategies, the instructor will not be able to cover as much content as is typical. This is an acceptable trade-off since one of the main goals of every geology instructor is to teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills. If an instructor deems this goal important, then it is appropriate to spend sufficient time in the classroom achieving this goal. If content not covered in class is critical, it will have to be learned outside of the classroom. To encourage such outside-classroom learning, we recommend the use of a what-to-know list that identifies what information and skills students are expected to understand and be able to use, even if that topic is never discussed in class. This list should be handed out before such material is taught and before students encounter that material in a textbook. We also recommend that curricular material feature a high degree of integration of text and figures, like a figure surrounded by accompanying text, perhaps with leaders that point to the part of the figure being described by the text. Cognitive and educational research demonstrates that students retain more information and can better use information from integrated text and figures than from long blocks of text that are not proximal to, and are only loosely linked to, accompanying figures. With appropriate materials from which students can learn on their own – and making students responsible for learning some content outside of the classroom – an instructor can spend time in classroom using metacognitive approaches to help students become more self-aware, self-assessing, and self-regulating problem solvers.

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A Metacognitive Approach to Teaching Geologic Reasoning (Microsoft Word 32kB May11 12)


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