Cognition and Self-Efficacy of Stratigraphy and Geologic Time: Implications for Improving Undergraduate Student Performance in Geological Reasoning

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ABSTRACT

In general, integration of spatial information can be difficult for students. To study students' spatial thinking and their self-efficacy of interpreting stratigraphic columns, we designed an exercise that asks college-level students to interpret problems on the principles of superposition, original horizontality and lateral continuity, and geologic time using text and symbols. The exercise was designed with two goals in mind: to determine the level of student confidence and cognition and to test the effectiveness of this type of exercise in large-enrollment courses. Overall, students performed well on symbolic representations of the columns, but reported low self-efficacy of their interpretations. The opposite occurred with the short-answer questions. Results suggest that these students are more comfortable with verbal questions, but they lack the ability to synthesize complete answers to diverse questions. Students also tended to feel less comfortable with questions where they had to convert text to a symbolic representation. We found this type of assignment to be extremely useful with a large class, as it elicited much information about student learning without taking extensive time to evaluate. Implications for geoscience educators include the need to incorporate techniques to improve the completeness of student responses on problems that require synthesis. © 2011 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/1.3605042]

INTRODUCTION

Learning environments in science strive to set two goals for students: (1) to master knowledge and understandings constructed by previous generations of scientists, and (2) to be able to construct new scientific knowledge themselves (Gilbert, 2008). Understanding prior knowledge and constructing new scientific knowledge requires background knowledge and the ability to think at high cognitive levels. Bloom's taxonomy of the cognitive domain can be a helpful tool in categorizing lower level and higher level of thinking. This taxonomy was created in 1956 by a team of educational psychologists when they first noticed that over 95% of the questions they encountered on tests in college classes were lower levels of cognition. The original Bloom's taxonomy of the cognitive domain (1956) categorized cognition levels from lowest to highest as knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. More recently, Bloom's taxonomy has been revised to include the latest findings from cognitive research and to reflect a more active type of thinking. The new categories of cognition from lowest to highest order of thinking are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating (Anderson et al., 2003).

Both spatial reasoning and an ability to think at Bloom's taxonomic level of synthesis are prerequisites for knowledge construction in the field of geology. The discipline draws principles from other physical sciences and relies heavily on observation, and deductive and inductive thinking skills. The use and correlation of stratigraphic columns are skills employed extensively in geology and are based on the ability to draw on multiple symbolic representations used to interpret the geologic conditions and the evolutionary history of a region.

It is known that humans in general find that it is difficult to integrate spatial information from two-dimensional to three-dimensional representations, and that individuals vary widely in their spatial integration ability (e.g., Black, 2005; Duesbury and O'Neil, 1996; Ishikawa and Montello, 2006). Study of students' thinking regarding stratigraphie columns can lead to new information about the teaching and learning of these important cognitive tasks.

Typical course content from an introductory level historical geology course addresses concepts such as correlation, "deep time" (McPhee, 1982) and evolution; these core concepts are not a part of everyday thinking. …