GLG 111 - The Dynamic Earth

Mike Brudzinski
Miami University


This course is being revised as part of a 2-year university-funded project entitled "Developing, Implementing, and Assessing Active-Learning Modules for 100-Level Geology Foundation Courses." The innovation we are developing is a modular compilation of teaching resources for our introductory courses, facilitating department-wide adoption of active-learning approaches. We are incorporating established teaching strategies to achieve learning outcomes framed around the scientific method, with in-class cooperative learning and problem solving, and out-of-class vocabulary building and data analysis. Ultimately, we seek improved student achievement, critical thinking abilities, and satisfaction with learning.

Course Type: Intro Level Earth Science
Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in separate lecture and lab components. The lecture is taught by the professor and the lab is taught by TAs.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? no

Our course revision project will generate several teaching resource modules specifically targeting the GLG 111: The Dynamic Earth course. We believe this approach will also have a broader impact on our other 100 level geology foundation courses (GLG 121: Environmental Geology and GLG 141: Geology of U.S. National Parks), as they have approximately a third of their content in common. The majority of students take these courses to fulfill their physical science liberal education requirement. These courses also all serve as an entry point into our major, minor, and thematic (3-course) sequences, and they typically include up to 10 sections per semester on the Oxford campus ranging from ~90-200 students per section. In addition, numerous smaller enrollment sections are taught each semester on the regional campuses.

Course Content:

The topics that we seek to cover in GLG 111 with our teaching modules are: Plate Tectonics, Earth Materials, Geologic Hazards, History of the Earth, Climate Change, Earth Structure, Surficial Processes.

Course Goals:

In our effort to construct a revised pool of teaching resources that will improve student learning, we have developed a set of student learning outcomes that are framed around the scientific method. This is the core component to how any geologist thinks, so we expect students to be able to understand how this approach works by the end of our introductory course. The specific learning outcomes we have identified are that students will learn how to:
A.) Select and/or generate possible answers (hypotheses) to key questions
B.) Collect and analyze data
C.) Place the results of data analysis in context of other experiments
D.) Evaluate hypotheses based on results
E.) Disseminate the conclusions to peers
F.) Convey the scientific information to the general public

Course Features:

We have chosen to focus on specific in-class and out-of-class instructional strategies to achieve our student learning outcomes. Based on previous research of each of these approaches, we chose strategies that are student centered, utilize active learning, engage students, promote group learning, improve critical thinking, and reduce class time spent on low-level learning.

In-Class Instructional Strategies
Class Discussion of Hot Topics: Students discuss current events and newsworthy issues that have a significant geologic component. Discussions can occur across the whole classroom with students volunteering their own thoughts (talk-show style) or in smaller groups with final reports to the rest of the class. Research shows metacognitive activities and self-regulated learning can be guided and facilitated by this peer interaction (e.g., Palincsar & Brown, 1989).

Role Playing: Students take on the roles of different people, organizations or interest groups and enter into a debate about how best to deal with a geologic issue. This learner-centered environment effectively provides learners with motivation and opportunity to better understand scientific inquiry, enhancing student learning of content and critical skills (e.g., Duveen and Solomon, 1994; Gautier and Rebich, 2005).

Think-Pair-Share ConcepTest: Instructor poses a conceptual question with a right or wrong answer to the class, provides students with time to think about and select their own answer, then students pair with a neighbor to discuss which answer they chose and why, and select groups share their final answer and reasoning with the class (Lyman, 1981; Mazur, 1997). Students who use ConcepTests perform better on course exams and score higher on measures of traditional problem solving and conceptual understanding than students in traditional lecture classes (Crouch and Mazur, 2001).

Predict Experiment Outcome: Instructors use a physical model, animation, or video to demonstrate a conceptual process by first introducing the situation in which the process occurs and then asking students to discuss and predict the outcome of that situation before the outcome is revealed. Research suggests students understand the underlying concept better than when they passively watch the experiment, because they think more actively about the demonstration and its explanation, and have opportunities to discover inconsistencies or weaknesses in their own thinking (e.g., Crouch et al., 2004).

Out-of-Class Instructional Strategies

Reading Comprehension: Students will read sections from a textbook and or supplemental material that is tied to the key issue to be addressed in class. A significant portion of this reading will target low-level memory or descriptive material. Comprehension and assimilation of this basic knowledge will be tested with a short 5-10 question quiz administered via Blackboard, as optimal learning conditions occur when there is immediate or instantaneous feedback (e.g., Skinner, 1954). We also anticipate incorporating a new textbook with a question-based approach that utilizes cognitive research to encourage inquiry-based learning (Reynolds et al., 2008).

Internet Data Analysis: Students will collect information from datasets available through the internet, and investigate trends in the data. The analysis will involve basic calculations and construction of graphs, maps and plots to investigate correlations. Comparing data from separate studies will also be important to demonstrate how results need to be placed in the context of other experiments. For example, engaging students with real data from natural hazards is a way to promote student inquiry and learning of key earth science concepts in a way that is intellectually challenging and personally meaningful (e.g., Guiterrez et al., 2002).

Term Projects: Students will work on longer-term projects over several weeks to create either a written document or a poster presentation that seeks to answer a research question with components from each step of the scientific method: hypotheses, data analysis, results, and interpretation. We will also involve students in the anonymous evaluation of each other's projects to help ensure students understand peer review is an important component of the scientific process. Studies have also found that this type of project produces high levels of motivation and students learning from each other's research (e.g., Katz, 2003).

Construction of Education Materials: Students will create their own education resources for specific key content in order to assist themselves and their classmates in the understanding and retention of basic ideas and concepts. This cooperative learning style reinforces the need for students to work together in their learning and teach each other (e.g., Slavin, 1996). This task parallels that of scientists who are asked to seek a broader impact of their research through public education and outreach. We will advise students to keep in mind that their educational resources should be designed to be accessible by the general public as well.

Course Philosophy:

The goal of our course revision project is to enhance the ability of students to recognize geology as a multidisciplinary science that utilizes a wide range of tools to solve problems related to Earth's complex systems. The current structure of our introductory courses focuses on instructing the students on "what to know" instead of "how do we know." This approach developed from the recognition that for a large majority of college students this is their first experience with geology, and many have limited science backgrounds. As a result, previous classroom instruction has been geared towards building a vocabulary-based foundation, which is the standard at most colleges and universities. The substantial amount of recent media coverage of natural disasters, such as the Indonesian tsunami and hurricane Katrina, as well as, the debate over available natural resources and global warming, however, has put geology in the forefront of the minds of our students. They want answers to geological questions as they experience these issues and plan for their futures. We need to give them the tools to be able to answer their own questions.

Our department recognizes the need to respond to the current and future needs of the students by both creating and maintaining a more inquiry-based learning environment. The key issue for our faculty is that dominantly-lecture-based courses are also the norm throughout geosciences introductory courses in higher education. Considering the large amount of faculty time that would be required for each instructor to successfully revise their own course to a new inquiry-based format outside the norm, the innovation we propose is to develop a modular compilation of teaching resources that pools all of our resources and provides a way for any faculty member to adopt the new format. The collection of resources will provide faculty with learning activities that are a direct alternative to lecturing. This will transform our introductory courses to incorporate more cooperative learning in the classroom with opportunities for in-depth discussion and real world problem solving that will direct vocabulary recitation outside of class. Ultimately, we seek this new approach to improve student achievement in our introductory classes, improve the critical thinking abilities of our undergraduate students, and increase student satisfaction with their learning to promote inquiry-based learning beyond the classroom.


The assessment plan for our course revision project seeks to evaluate student learning outcomes both at the university level and those specifically targeted by our own project. The outcomes sought by our university are defined as:
C1) significant gains in student content mastery,
C2) improvements in students' critical thinking abilities, and
C3) increases in student satisfaction with their learning.
We have just completed a deployment of assessment tools that we believe our department can incorporate into all introductory course sections on a long-term basis through the Blackboard Survey Tool. Each of these tools is in place before the start of any proposed revisions, providing an important reference baseline for comparison after implementing new techniques. We plan to assess outcome C1 by comparing Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI) scores from the beginning and end of a given course. The GCI is a valid and reliable measure of student understanding of critical geological concepts (Libarkin and Anderson, 2005). For outcome C2, we plan to compare pre- and post-course scores on the Group Assessment of Logical Thinking (GALT; Roadrangka et al., 1982; McConnell et al., 2003). The GALT is a valid and reliable assessment instrument that measures logical thinking skills requiring mastery of logical operations such as proportional reasoning, controlling variables, probabilistic reasoning, combinational analysis, and correlational reasoning. A strong correlation (0.80) between GALT results and the use of Piaget student interview protocols to determine logical thinking ability supports the validity of the instrument (Roadrangka et al., 1983). To assess outcome C3, we will incorporate a student questionnaire currently used by other Top25 courses to examine student opinions and impression about their learning. We are working with the Office of Liberal Education and the Assessment Fellows to help conduct the assessment of outcomes C2 and C3.

In regards to assessing our specifically defined student learning outcomes framed around the scientific method, our assessment plan is two-fold. First, we plan to use a few multiple-choice critical thinking questions following each class to evaluate conceptual understanding of the topic discussed in class. We expect that this type of assessment will provide us with immediate feedback on the progress of our students towards the desired student learning outcomes and allow us to make adjustments during the course. Our second type of outcome assessment will occur only a few times during the course, and this will be done through the grading of term projects. We plan to use the Scientific Inquiry Rubric already developed by the Assessment Office to evaluate both the term project and the student learning outcomes since there is such a close link between the rubric and our defined outcomes. We expect this type of assessment will provide valuable information about the progress towards one outcome relative to another, helping us to evaluate the success of different aspects of our course.

References and Notes:

Course text: Reynolds, S.J., Johnson, J.K. Kelly, M.M., Morin, P.J., and Carter, C.M., 2008, Exploring Geology, McGraw-Hill, 592 p.
In our course revision, we anticipate incorporating this new textbook with a question-based approach that utilizes cognitive research to encourage inquiry-based learning.