Example Essays

Applicants to the workshop will be asked to write a short essay that portrays a case study from your own teaching where the affective domain was relevant. Describe the situation, actions you took or solutions you applied, and your analysis of how the affective domain played a role.

Essays should be no longer than one page. If there are references (either your own or work of others) that are important to your thinking, please list them at the end of the essay.

At the workshop you will have an opportunity to refine and build upon your essay. These essays will provide the basis for a web-based collection of examples of the affective domain in teaching geoscience.

Please compose your essay in Microsoft Word and attach the file with the rest of your application.

Vignette #1: Office Hours

by David McConnell, Department of Geology, University of Akron

I taught a large introductory earth science class in spring semester 2006. I encouraged any student who wished to improve their exam performance, especially those who failed the first test, to visit me during office hours to discuss test preparation strategies. Despite the large class size, few students showed up.

The way a student chooses to explain a test result can provide an indication if they will be successful in the class. Students often attribute success or failure to a combination of factors that they view as: 1. Internal or external causes for success or failure typically tied to the student or instructor respectively: 2. Factors that are considered stable or fixed for the semester (e.g., lousy textbook) or that are unstable and may be modified to improve performance (e.g., visit to office hours when needed): and, 3. Situations that the students consider controllable or uncontrollable that may allow students to make necessary changes or may act to prevent opportunities for improvement. Students are more likely to be motivated to change their learning practices where they perceive that their lack of success is attributable to internal, unstable, controllable factors.

The next semester I decided to offer an incentive for students to attend office hours so that I could address the factors that were limiting their exam performance. I assigned 10 extra credit points (total points from semester assignments = 1000) for a 30-minute office hour visit. I also changed the way I managed office hours. Instead of having a consistent hour at the same time every other day, I adapted a technique my education colleagues use. Each week I identify a series of 30-minute blocks and post them on a timetable on my door. A typical week may have 10 blocks but prior to exams there may be as many as 20. This requires that most weeks I devote more time to direct contact with students, a key attribute of best practices in undergraduate education. Few students came to the office hours prior to the first test but the test results provided sufficient incentive to have students start signing up. Prior to the second test, 30 students visited office hours and discussed their performance in the class. The average first test score for visitors was 66.9% (vs. 71.9% for other students, n=205). While most of these students had performed poorly on the first test, five had scored 80% or higher.

Students typically attributed their poor performance on the first test to internal factors (they did not put in enough effort) that were unstable and controllable (they would spend more time preparing for the second test). We discussed their test preparation strategies and students would often tell me that they relied heavily on flash cards. None of these students scored above 70% on the first exam. I pointed out that such methods were helpful for vocabulary but were not as effective for promoting conceptual understanding. I encouraged the weakest students to seek help from the university's tutoring center and to consider using some additional test preparation strategies (e.g., concept maps). We spent almost half of the visit discussing other classes and high school experiences where students had done well in class. Finally, I pointed out that other students who had performed below their expectations on the first exam had been able to do well on later exams and I expressed confidence that they could do the same. The average score on the second test for office hour visitors was 72.3% (vs. 72.8% for other students). Two-thirds (67%) of office visitors improved their score on the second exam. Only 48% of the rest of the students improved their scores. Consequently, the office hour visits appear to have helped students to improve their exam performance more readily than they could have on their own.

Vignette #2: The Effect of Groups

David McConnell, Department of Geology, University of Akron

One of the most reluctant changes I made to my teaching was the introduction of groups into large classes. However, time has shown that this change was perhaps the most important improvement I have made to my teaching. Class evaluations consistently mention the benefits of groups and the level of student engagement in class has clearly increased. Whether it is the immediate buzz of noise that fills the classroom as students discuss a problem or the high fives that follow a successful answer, the groups have gone a long way to improve the learning environment, and making class a "fun" place to be.

During research with a team of colleagues, we discovered that we can increase students' logical thinking skills and conceptual understanding of geoscience concepts if we create a learning environment involving groups of students working on challenging conceptual problems in class. We were curious if these improvements were primarily a result of working in groups or were more attributable to working on exercises that required the application of higher order thinking skills. To investigate this question, one instructor taught two sections of the class using the same learning exercises and using collaborative groups in one class but not in the other. Both classes received the identical lectures and class materials. Students in the class without assigned groups were not prevented from working together, but the instructor did not encourage them to do so.

Overall course grades for students in the section using assigned groups were 5% higher (80% vs. 75%, p<0.01) than in the section that employed similar exercises without the benefit of groups. The overall result was not unexpected since the group work concept has been shown to be successful in many situations (Nelson, 1994; Paulson, 1999; Lord, 2001). Students in structured groups learn from one another and are more likely to get their questions answered as they strive to meet common goals and objectives. They become more socially connected and have more opportunities to address their misconceptions. This is particularly true in large format sections where individual attention from the instructor is at a premium.

The advantage gained by using groups appears to help all students, but the effect is most profound in students with the highest (abstract) logical thinking skills. This was unexpected and goes against a common rationalization for not using groups—"the weak students will pull down the strong students." Perhaps abstract students fare better in the group environment because they have more advanced metacognitive skills that allow them to readily recognize and address their misconceptions as they attempt to explain concepts to peers. This interaction then reinforces the concept for the abstract thinker and better prepares them for later assessment opportunities. In contrast, the exposure to the learning exercises themselves may be the more significant factor for other students with a history of learning strategies that rely heavily on memorization and recall.

For more information see:
McConnell, D.A., Steer, D.N., Owens, K., & Knight, C., 2005, How students think: Implications for learning in introductory geoscience courses: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 53, #4, p. 462-470.

Vignette 3: Teaching in the Field

David Mogk, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

"We're going on a field trip!" the instructor announces enthusiastically to the class, expecting that all students will share this enthusiasm. Field trips are part of the culture of the geosciences and of geoscience education, and much of what we see and do on a field trip is second nature to us. We know what to expect during the trip, what is expected of us, how to function (and behave), and how we will benefit from the experience.

But, what is going through the minds of our students: Where the heck are we going? What are we going to do there? I've never done anything like this before, and I'm very unsure about what I have to do. Will we have to hike a long way, will I be able to keep up? What about the weather, will we go if it rains? I'm terrified of snakes! What about bathroom stops? Will we eat on time? I have hypoglycemia/diabetes and really need to regulate when and what I eat. Will we be back in time for me to pick up my kids at day care? I still don't understand how to use a Brunton compass and what it does. What do we have to turn in for credit, and how will it be graded?

Facing all of this anxiety and uncertainty, how can learning possibly happen? Following the work of Orion and Hofstein (1994), learning cannot effectively happen until a student's "novelty space" is minimized. There are three aspects of novelty space that must be considered when planning and implementing a field exercise:

  • geographic novelty, which refers to the students' familiarity with the field trip site,
  • cognitive novelty, which refers to the skills and concepts the students encounter and are expected to master on the field trip, and
  • psychological novelty, which considers the social aspects of field trips, and related issues such as personal safety and comfort.

The larger a student's novelty space, the less the student is likely to learn. Therefore, these factors should be carefully considered when planning an implementing a field trip to optimize student learning in the field. Mogk (1997; and http://serc.carleton.edu/files/NAGTWorkshops/petrology03/Field_Notes.doc) further discussed the concept of novelty space, and related issues of setting appropriate goals, objectives and outcomes for learning in the field.

Field trips are often cited as an important means to recruit and motivate students to learn geoscience--but this will be true only to the extent the field trips are memorable and positive learning experiences.


Orion, N., and Hofstein, A. (1994), Factors that influence learning during a scientific field trip in a natural environment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31(10), 1097-1119.

Mogk, D. W., (1997), Field Notes, In: Brady, Perkins and Mogk (eds.), Teaching Mineralogy, Mineralogical Society of America

Vignette 4: Learning Environments - Designing a Computer Laboratory

David Mogk and William Locke, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Our department had the opportunity to add computer stations to our Introductory Physical Geology laboratory. In planning for the installation of the computers, we had to make informed decisions about the design of the laboratory. Would the computers be installed on desks in rows looking to the front of the class, in "islands" (e.g. using hexagonal tables), arranged around the perimeter of the room...? Our final design is pictured below. Here's how we selected the design for this laboratory:

diagram of a computer classroom setup

  • We started by asking "what instructional modes will likely be used"? We anticipated that the computers would be used for some "canned" exercises (e.g. on-line activities developed for direct use) and some open-ended discovery exercises using the computers (e.g. students search the web for information). We also wanted to maintain our traditional use of physical materials-maps, rocks, groundwater models, etc. And our Environmental Geology class does a lot of group activities including debates, preparing poster sessions, and other types of presentations.
  • We decided to place the computer stations around the perimeter of the room so that the instructor stand in the center of the room and scan across all the work stations to make sure that students were generally on task when using the computers. The students also had to have eyes front when the instructor (or other students) were making a presentation-not looking at or over the computers (or surfing or playing videogames). We were able to purchase 10 computers, which meant that two students share each computer to do assigned tasks. The keyboard is located on one side of a two-person desk, leaving room on the desktop to place documents, take notes, etc. The monitors are turned so that two students can see the screen at the same time. Two computers are stationed side-by-side so that we can form 4 person working groups for collaborative assignments.
  • Printers have been the bane of our existence due to cost and maintenance. We originally had planned for students to print off completed lab assignments at the end of each class. However, we have had to take these off-line. But, with ease of access to portable data storage devices (e.g. "thumb" drives), the students are able to take their class work with them, revise if needed, and print their work on their own printers.
  • The computer boxes were originally placed on shelves on the wall above the monitors to keep them off the floor and away from dust and slush (during Montana winters). But, to accommodate some of our disabled students, some of the computer boxes are now placed under the tables to facilitate access. All of the computers are equipped with head phones to access audio programs so students can listen and not disturb neighbors at adjacent stations. In one instance, we had a legally blind student, and we installed special software that enlarged text and images (rather than an audio substitute) so that she could have access to the computer-based resources.
  • Other tables are arranged in a U-pattern in an inner ring just behind the computer stations. This was done so that students could turn around in their seats and have access to physical materials-rocks, lay out maps, etc. We believe that it is important for students to be able to easily integrate computer-based resources and manipulative materials. The U-shaped distribution of the tables also allows all students to be able to see each other during whole-class group discussions.
  • A computer station with a projector is dedicated for the instructor and can be rolled to the front center of the room as needed-this allows the instructor to make presentations, and is also used by student groups making presentations, debates, etc. This station is used occasionally for overflow attendance or if another computer malfunctions.
  • We were constrained to design the laboratory around the existing physical structures, which could not be moved: white board, bulletin boards, sink, windows (indicated by rectangles at left and bottom of diagram), and structural supports (indicated by X's).

This room configuration gave us the most flexibility to accommodate a variety of instructional modes: lecture, discussion, demonstration, independent and small group work on the computers, integration of computer-based and physical resources, and ability to form small groups of 2 or 4 for collaborative learning. This also helps the instructor to be aware of what students are actually doing during lab time, and facilitates rapid interventions if students appear lost or distracted. We have used this room configuration for the past 8 years with no significant need to modify or reconfigure. Although we have done no formal assessment of student attitudes about this set up, the students appear to work well in this environment. The design has withstood the test of time.

An excellent resource on designing Learning Spaces was produced by Project Kaleidoscope, What Works Volume III: Structures for Science, A Handbook on Planning Facilities for Undergraduate Natural Science Communities. "This step-by-step guide to planning facilities is intended for use by colleges and universities that are thinking about, or in the process of planning for, new or renovated spaces for their undergraduate programs in science and mathematics." See: https://web.archive.org/web/20180109090130/http://www.pkal.org/collections/VolumeIII.cfm