Improving Observational Skills

Robert Filson, Green River Community College
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Initial Publication Date: April 16, 2013 | Reviewed: June 24, 2014


Students are asked to make general observations about a geologic photograph both before and after the subject is covered in class, and then compare their observations.

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This activity is appropriate for an introduction to geology course for non-science majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

No previous background in geology is needed to participate in this activity.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity would be used in a lecture setting. Some of the photograph observations would be answered individually, other photographs are to be discussed in small groups.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The primary goal is to improve students' ability to observe and analyse what they see in the photographs shown in class. My hope is that this activity will carry over so that the students will make more geological observations in their daily lives.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The students' observations of the photographs initially is influenced by their backgrounds and their pre-instructional ideas. When the students see the same photograph after instruction they will have an opportunity to apply their new knowledge to observing the photograph the second time. In this way they will be using a form of critical thinking and synthesizing their previous views with the new ideas they learn in class.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will write their observations and answer questions related to the photographs. Student will also work in small groups.

Description and Teaching Materials

One of the general goals for an introductory geology course should be that students develop an improved ability to observe nature and discuss what they are seeing. In my first class of the quarter I show an image of an aesthetically and geologically interesting place, such as Maroon Bells in Colorado. I tell my students that they will see the same photograph on the last day of class in hopes that they will see more in the same image on that last day of class. When I show that image again at the end of the last class session, students frequently comment on the new features that they observe.

My plan is to show more photographs using this "pre" and "post" process to see if I can further improve the observational skills of my students. I plan to show the photographs prior to our class discussion of a topic and then again after we have discussed the subject. In some cases the student observations of the photograph will be individual, while other times the photographs will be discussed in a small group. My hope is that students will be interested in the photographs and will be motivated to learn more about the topic as well as improving their observational skills.

Some of the activities will involve asking students to simply record what they see. Other activities will involve comparing two photographs, such as the time-series photographs of the glaciers in Glacier National Park by the USGS. Some of the photographs will be used in conjunction with the topic to be discussed that day; others will be discussed later in the quarter. I plan to do this activity one to two times per week.

Some of student observations will be unstructured and in other cases I will ask specific questions to guide the students. Here are some possible questions that I could use to guide students:

  • What is the horizontal width of the image at its widest point in inches, feet, or miles?
  • Are the rocks in this photograph igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic?
  • What is the evidence for erosion by running water, wind, glaciers, or mass movement in this image?
  • In what ways are the biological aspects of this image related to the physical aspects?
  • Contrast the two images. What processes are most likely responsible for the differences you observed in the two images?

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Teaching Notes and Tips


I plan to collect the responses from the students, but I will not grade their answers. The students will receive some small number of points for their participation in the activity.

The responses from the students will be informal feedback aobut the students' initial pre-instructional ideas and what they have learned from the lectures prior to an examination.

References and Resources