What would a Geoscience Education Research toolbox look like?

Thomas F. Shipley, Temple University, and Carol Ormand, SERC
published Sep 25, 2016

This essay draws from our experience with the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, an NSF funded Science of Learning Center that aimed to understand and support the role of spatial thinking in STEM education. Over the course of 10 years Cognitive Scientists worked with Geologists to develop tools to support spatial thinking in the context of geoscience education. We learned two key, generalizable lessons from this work: 1. The interrelations among tools is complex and we needed to expand our initial conceptions of what a tool was. 2. A cycle of education design profited from both an understanding of the material to be learned and a theory of what was happening in the mind of the learner.

Tools that characterize learning and learning challenges

It would be helpful to have a sense of the myriad learning challenges in the geosciences. What do students find challenging and which of these challenges are important for instructors? We found that it was helpful to work to characterize spatial thinking challenges in the context of a theoretical structure that identified categories of challenges. The processes of linking classroom learning experiences to the psychologist's categories helped the psychologists be clear about the nature of the categories, and helped the geology instructors by identifying challenges across courses that might have a common psychological cause. These tools take the form of typologies that allow the community to categorize a specific learning challenge as a member of a broader group of challenges that can be measured and improved. In other words, the same cognitive processes may be required to understand geologically disparate concepts. Having a typology of learning challenges allows us to recognize that.

Tools that measure learning

As we developed a sense of the different types of spatial thinking challenges we worked to develop ways to measure specific skills (e.g., volumetric thinking – also referred to as penetrative thinking). These tools allowed us to assess each skill (understand how many students had specific difficulties) and to see what interventions improve a specific skill. Developing usable measuring tools required both standard psychometric analyses and an understanding of the nature of the spatial thinking errors that novices make (what were likely misconceptions). Notably, this new understanding lead to several important new discoveries in basic cognitive science.

Tools that improve learning

In conjunction with measuring learning, we worked to develop tools to improve learning. We began with general principles from cognitive science (e.g., that externalizing a spatial relation with a sketch or gesture can support thinking about the relationship, and analogical learning is a powerful mechanism to use what is known to learn new spatial information) and worked to apply them to specific learning challenges. Lab studies and small classroom proof-of-concept studies fueled a cycle of design changes where theory and educational practice simultaneously developed. Notably, these learning tools echo common geological teaching practices – gesturing, sketching, analogy – but often with unusual "twists" that make them more effective.

Tools that support the design of new tools

Our research program occurred within the context of a center, which supported design in several ways. 1) The tools are not independent (developing tools to improve learning requires characterizing and measuring learning, developing tools to characterize learning is informed by understanding what does and does not improve learning, etc). 2) All tools required experts in psychology, education, and disciplinary science. Developing these tools required colleagues with diverse skill sets working together – people who, in the absence of the center, would not have worked together. This required time, particularly for the development of a rudimentary understanding of and a deep trust in the expertise of colleagues in other disciplines. 3) In addition to the challenge of disseminating findings to groups who do not all read the same journals, improving tools requires some institutional memory of data. Here the geosciences are well ahead of the social sciences in community databases. A community supported database would offer researchers an opportunity to ask new questions and to allow research by investigators without ready access to classrooms.

An Example

One outcome of our collaboration has been the development and deployment of the Geologic Block Cross-sectioning Test. Using our earliest conception of the typology of spatial thinking skills in the geosciences, we recognized that penetrative thinking – visualizing the interior of an object – is a key skill, required in most sub-disciplines of the geosciences. Previous studies (e.g. Kali and Orion, 1996) had identified this challenge and some common novice errors. However, there was not an existing psychometric instrument that measures a person's ability to visualize interiors. (There was a psychometric instrument that measures the ability to visualize the shape of a slice through an object, but it did not require the subject to visualize the interior of that slice.) We used common novice errors to construct the foils – incorrect answers – of a multiple-choice cross-sectioning test. As we deployed the test and our understanding of the cognitive processes and misconceptions developed, as well as how the test might be used, we revised the test – The current test is the seventh revision! Armed with this test, we have been able to evaluate the efficacy of a variety of methods for supporting the development of students' cross-sectioning skills, and to distinguish between subtle variations in those teaching methods. We have then applied the most effective versions of those methods to develop new curricular materials for undergraduate courses in Mineralogy, Structural Geology, and Sedimentology & Stratigraphy, in the Spatial Thinking Workbook.

Collaboration is everything

In the spirit of "the medium is the message," this essay is coauthored by a psychologist and a geologist because we are convinced of the necessity and value of combining social and natural sciences to the goal of understanding the role of the mind in learning and practicing Geosciences.

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