Effective Learning in Earth Science

Jason McGraw, Department of Earth Science, College of Lake County

I am a current adjunct earth science instructor, former high school teacher, and future professor of science education when I finish my EdD in a few years. My experience with metacognition started with teacher in-service training. I learned about graphic organizers, two column notes, and Venn diagrams, among other things. There are many excellent techniques for grades 4 to 10. The juniors and seniors in my high school class, however, thought that those techniques were "childish" and they preferred lectures. Realistically, the juniors I taught in the afternoon were no better at note taking and studying than the freshman I taught in the morning. What I did with my older students, which may or may not fall into the metacognitive category, was to give them choices. They could work in groups or work alone, they could choose their own research topics, and they could choose current event articles to bring in and present. By turning over the day-to-day workings of the curriculum to the students, they perceived a sense of self-pacing and autonomy. Overall, I thought it was a more effective strategy than just direct instruction.

Jump ahead four years and I am teaching on Saturday morning at my community college. I have students that are a few years older than before and a lot of adults who are returning to school. Only meeting one day a week precludes using student choice as a daily strategy. Instead, I have started to draw from a field that I just recently learned about: andragogy, the field of educating adults. According to Knowles, Holton & Swanson (2005), there are six attributes that adults have that make them different from adolescent learners.

  1. Need to know.Adult learners want to see a benefit to learning.
  2. Self-concept.Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for themselves. School can cause a conflict between being dependent on the teacher and program and the need to be self-directing.
  3. Experiences.Adults have a wide range of life experiences that they can draw upon to help them learn new information.
  4. Readiness to learn.Adults are ready to learn skills that will help them solve problems in their lives.
  5. Orientation to Learning.Adults are task- or problem-centered in their orientation to learning. They learn most effectively when the new knowledge, skills and attitudes are presented in the context of realistic situations.
  6. Motivation.Adults are motivated to learn by both internal and external motivators. External motivators include increased employment opportunities and promotions. Internal motivators include increased quality of life and increased self-esteem.

The principle of need to knowis the most difficult to put into practice. Students in my class rarely take earth science because it will benefit them at work, though I occasionally do have an elementary school teacher who can put my class to use. Experience and problem-centered orientation are the principles I use the most. I use local examples of earth science (limestone pits, the fossil record of Illinois, the Midwest climate) to illustrate the principles in the text. Frequently, I get thoughtful questions about places my students have been or learn about in a television program they saw. On the other side, some students do not like it when off-subject questions are asked in class; these are typically the younger students. However, I feel that the climate of the class is much better and the class is more interesting when I take all questions from students.

I am eager to learn other perspectives on teaching undergraduates.


Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., and Swanson, R.A. (2005). The adult learner,6th ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.