Laboratory Earth: Using Content Mastery Activities (CMAs) as a Mechanism for Integrating Cognitive and Metacognitive Skills to Enhance the Learning of Earth System Science

David Gosselin, School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

As I reflect back over the past 15 years and my work related to the professional development of pre- and in-service K-12 educators related to Earth system science, my colleagues and I have tried to design learning environments that are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered as advocated by Bransford et al. (2000). Over the past few years, we have transitioned much of our professional development activity from face-to-face activities to the on-line environment. We have developed the Laboratory Earth series of online, distance-delivered courses. As we have developed these courses, we have become increasingly committed to taking advantage of the strengths of online delivery. We want to develop distance delivered courses that equal or surpass face-to-face methods. Each course we have designed employs a multiple learning strategies approach (Gardner, 1992) to help participants successfully meet the learning outcomes. The learning strategies include: narrated PowerPoint presentations, field-based activities, video, kitchen labs, simulated experiments, interactive visualizations, individual reading assignments, research projects, online writing responses to open-ended questions, and on-line discussion.

I am admittedly a novice learner regarding metacognition, but developing this essay has provided an opportunity for me to realize that one of the objectives of helping our students develop their metacognitive skills is for them to become more confident, independent learners. Independence leads to ownership as students realize they can pursue their own intellectual needs and discover a wide open world of information at their fingertips. Metacognition requires us to develop a plan as to how to approach a given learning task, monitor our comprehension, and evaluate progress toward completion. Planning, monitoring, and evaluating are higher order thinking skills that require active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. However, according to Livingston (1997), cognitive and metacognitive strategies are closely intertwined and dependent upon each other. Any attempt to examine one without acknowledging the other would not provide an adequate picture. In this context, within our online graduate-level Laboratory Earth courses and an undergraduate course entitled Earth's Natural Resource Systems, we provide an opportunity for students to take control and employ these higher-order skills through what we call content mastery activities (CMAs). We do not explicitly teach metacognitive skills, but through CMAs students indirectly use the basic elements of metacognition to achieve the cognitive goal of learning the Earth systems concepts in a particular learning module.

The Laboratory Earth professional development series, developed through funding from NASA, consists of three, three-credit hour, graduate level, distance-delivered, online courses designed for K– 12 educators. Our approach to strengthen the scientific qualifications of K-12 classroom practitioners is to use I2A; that is, each course seeks to integrate science content, inquiry-based learning, and the application of science to "real world" situations and issues. We emphasize that the Earth is a system, which consists of many subsystems, in which everything is connected to everything else (ECEE).

In the Lab Earth courses, we want participants to focus on learning, not grades. Unfortunately, grades have to be issued. Our grading strategy has evolved to a system that uses content mastery activities (CMAs) to document the participant's ability to master course content. The CMAs are available at the beginning of each module. In theory, this should provide the students the opportunity to plan their approach to completing the task, monitor their learning in the context of their plan as the module progresses, and evaluate their level of understanding after the completion of the task using instructor feedback. Activities consist of a scenario that presents a problem or situation and a rubric that outlines the general expectations for their response. Students choose and plan their own approach to synthesize their knowledge and understanding of a module's material and to address the scenario. Formats used include traditional essays, power-point presentations, newsletters, newspaper articles, concept maps, poetry, photo essays, and movies. If the materials presented do not address the elements of the rubric, the student is asked to reevaluate, revisit and resubmit the activity. The student can resubmit as many times as they want. The goal is for the student to be intrinsically motivated to learn the material and reduce the use of grades as a motivator, which distracts from learning. We want everyone to acquire the required concept knowledge and understanding.


Bransford, J.D., A.L. Brown, A.L., and R.R. Cocking (eds). 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.

Gardner, H. (1992). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Livingston, J. (1997) Metacognition: An Overview. State University of New York at Buffalo. Available online at

Ridley, D.S., Schutz, P.A., Glanz, R.S. & Weinstein, C.E. (1992). Self-regulated learning: the interactive influence of metacognitive awareness and goal-setting. Journal of Experimental Education 60 (4), 293-306.