New Approaches to Teaching Spatial Thinking in the Context of Structural Geology

Laurel Goodwin, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
Kristin Gagnier, Temple University
Kinnari Atit, Temple University

We all understand that spatial thinking skills are essential for student success in visualizing 3D structures or collections of structures from 2D sections (maps, outcrop or hand sample surfaces, and thin sections), and solving 3D problems. Yet our undergraduate geoscience majors bring a wide range of spatial skill levels to the classroom, and we learn from experience that even the brightest students may struggle with 3D visualization and manipulation. Recent research shows, however, that spatial thinking improves with practice, and can improve more rapidly with intentional training. We report on the results of a collaborative effort to apply lessons learned from cognitive science research to the development of teaching materials to improve structural geology students' spatial thinking skills.

Promising teaching strategies that have emerged from recent cognitive science research into spatial thinking include gesture and visual comparison. Gesture is familiar to most geoscientists as a means of communication, particularly for spatial information, but is less likely to be consciously employed as a teaching strategy. Nonetheless, recent studies have shown that using gesture can facilitate student learning, and that students who gesture learn better than those who just watch their instructors gesture. Visual comparison is exactly what it sounds like. Comparison draws students' attention to similarities and differences between familiar and unfamiliar structures or concepts.

Research into the utility of incorporating these strategies into a Structural Geology course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began in Spring, 2012. We are using a pre- and post-test study design, with a series of tests of spatial thinking skills administered at the beginning and end of each semester. In 2012, we used a "business as usual" approach to the course to gather baseline data, measuring how much students' spatial thinking skills improved in response to more typical geological methods of developing 3D thinking skills. Pre- to post-test comparisons showed that most students' spatial skills improved over the course of an academic term, with average gains on the order of 10%. In 2013 and 2014 we incorporated curricular materials informed by cognitive science research, in an attempt to boost students' spatial learning gains.

We are currently collecting post-test data for this year, and will complete analyses before the Forum. These data will allow us to determine whether the research-based teaching materials we developed boost students' spatial thinking skills beyond the gains we would expect them to show from completing a Structural Geology course.