Visuospatial Ability and Geologic Mapping: Experts and Novices in the Field

Nicole LaDue, Northern Illinois University
Heather Petcovic, Western Michigan University
Julie Libarkin, Michigan State University
D. Zachary Hambrick, Michigan State University
Kathleen Baker, Western Michigan University

Bedrock geologic mapping is a complex and cognitively demanding task. Most US geology majors receive training in geologic mapping, however, we know little about the cognitive processes that underlie successful mapping and about how these processes change with education and experience. To address this gap, sixty-seven geologists (54% male, mean age = 36.4 years, 21% undergraduate students, 28% graduate students, 55% with professional work experience) completed a suite of cognitive tests and a 1 day field mapping project in the Rocky Mountains, Montana, USA. The cognitive tests included measures of domain content knowledge, visuospatial ability, perceptual ability, and working memory capacity. Geologic problem solving was assessed through a bedrock mapping task in which participant movement was tracked via GPS. The map area was 70 hectares and included a plunging syncline, one limb of which is cut by a thrust fault. Following the mapping task, participants were interviewed to gain further insight about their mental models of the map area.

We report on the observed relationships between visuospatial ability, domain content knowledge, navigation in the field, and success in the mapping task among novices and experts in order to address the general question: what role does visuospatial ability play in successful geologic mapping? Results from this study indicate: (1) a significant visuospatial ability by geological knowledge interaction, such that there was a positive correlation of visuospatial ability with map accuracy for low geology knowledge participants (novices) but not for high knowledge participants, (2) success at the mapping task (both in accuracy of the rock distribution and correct interpretation of the structures) correlated with both geological knowledge and thoroughness (p<.05), (3) correct structural interpretation positively correlated with speed (p<.05) for experience mappers only, (4) participants' mental model accuracy positively correlated with other measures of map quality (map spatial accuracy and map structural interpretation) and geologic knowledge, and (5) for participants with low mental model accuracy, visuospatial ability correlates with understanding the distribution of rocks. Overall, the data suggest that visuospatial ability may be less important in geologic mapping than previously assumed. Visuospatial ability appears to play a role in developing accurate representations of the spatial distribution of rocks in a field area, but not in developing models of the 3D structural geology. Instead, geologic knowledge appears to play a much more critical role in developing accurate 3D geologic interpretations during mapping.