Improving Courses About Geologic Time by Focusing on Clear Goals and Making Thinking Visible

Francis Jones, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia

A quick review of the Temporal Learning Journal Club "findings" web page provides a good reminder of the huge range of issues associated with learning or teaching about geological time. Many important aspects of learning were touched upon in those readings and during those discussions. For this workshop, I am particularly interested in pursuing two of these aspects: First, how should we clearly articulate specific facets of understanding deep time? For example, if you "understand" geological time, what can you do that others can't? This boils down to defining very clear learning goals based on details of how experts think and structure their knowledge. Only then can corresponding activities and assessments be designed that make relevant learning (i.e. changes in thinking) possible.

The second aspect that I am particularly interested in involves making thinking visible. This is important for several reasons. When learners compare the results of their own thinking to what it could (or should) be, they develop their own metacognitive abilities, which are important lifelong learning skills. In addition, when instructors see how students are thinking, they can act on this evidence to adjust pedagogy to steer students along optimal paths. In order to keep thinking of students as relevant and visible as possible, learning activities must be used that cause students to confront or wrestle with difficult aspects of concepts, and which cause students to deliberately practice doing things that improve or change attitudes, knowledge and abilities.

These two key aspects of learning (clear goals and making thinking visible) have helped focus our efforts at UBC to improve the ways we teach about time. Our context for teaching ranges from nature of science courses to foundational courses for geoscience majors, so the four initiatives described below include aspects that should be applicable in many contexts. My role in these projects has not been as a content expert. My technical background includes experience with instrumentation, glaciology and hydrocarbon and minerals exploration. However, for the last five years I have been fortunate to work full time with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI), learning about, and implementing, research-based best practices to transform the way science education is done in our large, research oriented, earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences department. The four specific initiatives I would like to describe are as follows.

1. A concept inventory about geological time: In early 2008, an honors student we had hired to help interview students about curriculum issues asked about the possibility of doing an honors thesis project related to geosciences education. At the same time, based on prior work in physics, biology, chemistry and geosciences, we were beginning to recognize the potential of concept inventories as tools for clarifying key learning goals and for illuminating student thinking. The project involved establishing instructor expectations of students (i.e. clarifying explicit learning goals), developing a set of concept questions from existing resources, think-aloud validation of those questions with student volunteers, and iterative refinement of the assessment. The result is a twenty question Geological Time Concept Inventory1.

2. A concept inventory about landscape formation processes (including confidence): One of the six key concepts about time identified by experts during development of the Geological Time Concept Inventory was "rates of geologic processes". It was not addressed in that test, so a second honors student decided to build on the initial experience by developing and applying a concept test to assess knowledge and confidence about landscape identification and formation timescales (the LIFT test). An article about results is currently in preparation, and the assessment itself will also be added to the SERC website when available.

3. Re-design of two courses on geologic time & stratigraphy: We recently completed two separate course transformation projects, one targeting second year geoscience students and the other aimed at third year science (but not geoscience) majors. Both courses had learning goals adjusted so that students use both geological and biological thinking to understand coupled geologic, biologic and environmental processes. Active learning strategies are important for steering student thinking and ensuring their thinking is visible, so clickers are used extensively in both courses. The foundational course for up to 50 geoscience majors includes two hours of lab work each week, while the non specialist course (with 150 students) includes fifty minute group activities every week, some of which incorporate hands on access to rock and fossil samples. The course for non-geoscience majors is described here: Earth and Life Through Time.

4. Questions database for clickers, homework and tests: There is plenty of literature discussing benefits of diagnosing prerequisite knowledge, using readings with quizzes to "cover" basic content, and incorporating frequent low stakes testing to promote discussion, confront misconceptions and assess conceptual understanding. We have accumulated a collection of some 500 questions to help instructors offer these kinds of opportunities. The questions are organized in twenty categories chosen to correspond with principle concepts addressed in the four UBC geologic time courses. Most questions are not thoroughly validated, but they are continually evolving, and various forms of item analysis are used to improve them. They are maintained using the "Respondus" tool so that questions can be deployed in a variety physical or electronic and on-line formats. Incorporating increased testing and self-checking is of course all about revealing thinking, and clear learning goals are necessary if such a collection is to be of optimal use to students.

These represent four examples of initiatives that have been informed by precedent from both the geological and educational domains. All four have benefited from focusing on articulating clear learning goals and making thinking visible. However we can undoubtedly do better. The Temporal Learning Journal Club helped emphasize to me the importance of engaging with many different colleagues and points of view. Now, I look forward to continuing with face to face versions of these discussions, and especially learning more from our cognitive and educational psychology colleagues regarding the cognitive aspects of using, learning, and teaching about deep time.

1 Honors thesis: development of a concept inventory about geologic time:

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