Teach the Earth > Affective Domain > Dilemmas about Teaching > Mineralogy Motivation

Mineralogy Motivation - A Real-Life Tale of Woe

I teach mineralogy (do you feel my pain?). Mineralogy has a reputation for being a "weed out" course, and not very many students look forward to taking this class. In addition, in our department I've encountered another problem: we have a degree option in paleontology, and students who self-select this option basically want to be Jack Horner and head out to the hills to dig up dinosaur bones. The problem is that they place very little value in the full range of geoscience content knowledge and skills required for a degree in our geology program. By their way of thinking, it seems like these are just hoops to jump through, and most of the curriculum is irrelevant to their interests. Colleagues who teach required courses at other institutions report similar reactions from some of their students. In the first meeting with my mineralogy class, I try to patiently explain the relevance of this course and that even paleo majors will indeed need to know some mineralogy that will be useful in studies of taphonomy, diagenesis, mineralogical replacements of bones and eggshells, etc. But, the response is one of benign disinterest at best (lack of participation in class activities, glazed over looks in lecture, a focus on pulling split ends...) and even open defiance and hostility. I've got a mess on my hands. The discontent of this small group has infected the entire class environment.

Questions and Responses

These questions were posed to participants at the 2007 workshop in the form of a gallery walk ice breaker. The responses were gathered as comments that the participants wrote as they progressed through the walk.

Question 1
What could I have done better on the first day of class (and subsequently) to avert this situation? Is there something about student pre- and misconceptions that I should be aware of? Does this specific example point to strategies that instructors can use broadly to ensure that all students become engaged in a class from the first day, and remain engaged throughout the semester?
  • Talking heads don't do any good-it doesn't matter what they say
  • Make a case study - a mystery to solve (forensics?)
  • Essay assignment to relate course content to their own interest (choose a week in a given semester) -> internalize
  • Tie curriculum back into the framework of the big picture
    • Show tectonic relationship (context)
    • Mineral uses in everyday life (example: household products)
  • Make it relevant (jewelry)
  • Concept mapping
  • Demonstrate the diversity and beauty of minerals by facilitating an unguided inquiry
    • All kinds of specimens (school museums?)
    • Note where students gravitate and what their questions are
    • Enthusiasm! Show your love of the subject! Ask students to write what they most want to learn about mineralogy

Question 2
What do I do now to salvage what's left of the class? How does motivation play in the design of your courses?
  • Engage student by having formative assessment
    • What have you learned?
    • What questions do you still have?
  • Shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" (sorry for the cliches)
  • Ask students about their interests-build on those. What do they want to do with their lives?
  • Acknowledge the problem and engage students in their feelings and thoughts
    • One minute paper-"what are you hearing me say?"
    • Help students understand that what they do in this class has many applications elsewhere
    • Do section on biogenic minerals
  • Ask-what does mineralogy have to do with paleontology?
  • What minerals are involved in the process of fossilization?
  • PBL - give them bones - modern and fossil - project: how do these differ?

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