Applying Cognitive Science Research to Improve Geoscience Teaching and Learning

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
Thomas F. Shipley, Psychology, Temple University
Basil Tikoff, University of Wisconsin - Madison

The Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center conducts research on spatial thinking in the geological sciences, with two complementary goals: to better understand how humans reason about complex spatial problems and to use that understanding to improve science education. Spatial thinking is pervasive in the geological sciences, and particularly so within structural geology and tectonics, making us an excellent study population. SILC research demonstrates that the term "spatial skills" encompasses a wide range of specific skills, that these skills improve with practice, and that particular strategies and tools can be used to move learners along the novice-expert spectrum.

Work on characterizing the spatial thinking skills utilized in the geological sciences has revealed a broad array of skills, including (but not limited to) mental rotation, perspective taking, navigation, penetrative thinking, scaling, 3D visualization (volumetric thinking), and 4D visualization (mental animation). Measuring these skills in an individual is non-trivial, and is a prerequisite to assessing the development of spatial skills or comparing spatial skills between groups, such as undergraduate majors, graduate students, and professionals. Where psychometric instruments exist, we have used them. In other cases we have begun developing new instruments to measure specific spatial thinking skills. Our geoscience-cognitive science collaboration has allowed us to develop a valid and reliable test of penetrative thinking skills.

Laboratory and classroom experiments provide guidance as to teaching tools and strategies that help learners develop spatial thinking skills. Laboratory experiments reduce the number of confounding factors, thus allowing for focused testing of specific techniques in a highly controlled environment. Techniques shown to be helpful in a laboratory setting can then be imported into the classroom. However, classroom studies also need to be carefully designed. For example, many classroom studies use a pre- and post-test design to measure student learning. But to evaluate whether student learning gains are greater than they were with the previous teaching methods, one needs to compare these gains to those of a control group.

Our laboratory and classroom research support many standard teaching practices in structural geology and tectonics, and offer a few ideas and tools for improving student learning. We will present an overview of spatial skills assessment instruments, experimental design principles, and implications for teaching from our laboratory and classroom studies.