Teaching Large Introductory Geoscience Classes

These pages were developed by R. Mark Leckie, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

I believe that the geosciences can be, and should be, accessible to everyone!

The principal objective of these web pages is to demonstrate how students can be actively engaged and challenged in large geoscience classes, whether or not the class has an associated discussion or laboratory section. These pages are based on my (Mark Leckie's) experiences teaching large introductory geology and oceanography classes at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst.

Students using classroom response systems ("clickers") to answer questions during class.

Making Large Geoscience Classes Effective: My Philosophy

Large enrollment courses are typically introductory in nature and the clientele almost always includes a diverse mix of student interests and backgrounds, including a wide range of majors. However, geoscience classes are ripe for interesting, engaging, and relevant learning opportunities. In particular, these courses provide opportunities to make connections to the real world by demonstrating the relevance of the geosciences, by linking knowledge about the home planet to the human experience, and by articulating and modeling tangible life skills that go beyond the course content. When a variety of active learning strategies are used to provide a diverse interactive learning environment, students can be guided to make these connections. Implementing these practices can generate student buy-in and interest in the geosciences, as well as an improved understanding of the problems and prospects for dealing with global change today.

Engage Students with Active Learning Strategies

Engage and challenge students with active learning on a daily basis. One way to accomplish this is with short in-class exercises that are integrated with your lecture. In-class activities can be effectively used to "set the hook," to get students interested in what you have to teach, to challenge misconceptions, to initiate discussion of a new topic, to provide reinforcement of material presented in your lecture, to assess student understanding, or to practice critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Research shows that these strategies improve student learning in classes of all sizes.

Communicate the Relevance of Course Content

Students are much more likely to engage in the material if they understand how and why your course is relevant to them. Find ways to emphasize how your course has relevance: make connections to the real world, particularly to the human dimensions of geoscience, such as the impact of human activity on global climate or regional environmental conditions, or how the distribution of natural resources affects global economics and human history. In addition, articulate how the course pedagogy and the course policies will help students develop real-world skills, such as meeting deadlines, solving problems, thinking critically, proposing ideas and then evaluating or testing the likely outcomes, working in groups, considering diverse perspectives, and communicating effectively.

Make Science Accessible

Most of the students in your large enrollment geoscience course are not geoscience majors. Your course provides an opportunity to engage them in the Earth sciences for a term and to foster greater awareness of the world around them. By making science accessible to non-scientists and by providing opportunities for all of your students to be successful, you can stimulate an interest in science that they may not otherwise develop.