Identifying Students' Conceptions of Basic Principles in Sequence Stratigraphy

Article excerpt


Sequence stratigraphy is a major research subject in the geosciences academia and the oil industry. However, the geoscience education literature addressing students' understanding of the basic concepts of sequence stratigraphy is relatively thin, and the topic has not been well explored. We conducted an assessment of 27 students' conceptions of four central principles of sequence stratigraphy. Ten juniors, 15 seniors, and two graduate-level students were enrolled in undergraduate stratigraphy courses at three research-intensive universities in the midwestern United States. Fifty percent of students were majoring in geology and forty percent in environmental geosciences. Data collection methods included semistructured (videotaped) interviews, which were conducted after the sequence stratigraphy lectures. Using constant comparative analysis, we documented students' conceptions about eustasy, relative sea level, base level, and accommodation. Results indicated that students poorly integrated temporal and spatial scales in their sequence stratigraphic models, and that some alternative conceptions are more deeply rooted than others, especially those related to eustasy and base level. Additionally, students frequently omitted subsidence as another controlling factor on accommodation. Other findings indicated a low level of familiarity with the classic marginal marine profile and associated sedimentary structures. This study documents the most critical concepts likely to be resistant to conceptual change through instruction in sequence stratigraphy.

© 2013 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/12-290.1]

Key words: alternative conceptions, sequence stratigraphy, qualitative methods, eustasy, relative sea level, base level, accommodation


The assessment of conceptions and cognition in the geological sciences has been concentrated mostly on topics such as plate tectonics (e.g., Sibley, 2005; Clark et al., 2011), geological time (Dodick and Orion, 2003, 2006), and problem solving in the field (Manduca and Mogk, 2006; Petcovic et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2009). However, research on geoscience education addressing students' understanding of sedimentary processes, particularly in stratigraphy and especially for advanced undergraduates, is limited (Raia, 2005).

Previous Research

The educational research published on advanced sedimentologie and stratigraphie topics such as sequence stratigraphy mainly documents innovative teaching approaches in undergraduate geology courses. These papers focus on curriculum strategies intended to make the content more digestible for students (Sumner, 2003; Bartek, 2007; Herrmann, 2007). Additionally, Kendall and his collaborative team (Kendall et al., 1990, 1993, 2001) pioneered the use of interactive computer and Web-based teaching tools to extend the understanding of the principles of sequence stratigraphy. While these tools have been introduced and described in the literature, an assessment focusing on student content knowledge acquisition of stratigraphie principles is a yet relatively unexplored research path.

The teaching of sequence stratigraphie fundamentals is also supported by technical workshops promoted by the Geological Society of America (GSA) and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in the form of field trips and short courses. Nevertheless, these workshops are almost always extracurricular for college students and do not reach the larger undergraduate audience. The other primary source of sequence stratigraphie principles that is widely available consists of a number of specialized textbooks (e.g., Coe et al., 2005; Catuneanu, 2006; Abreu et al., 2010). However, instruction via guided field trips, workshops, or textbooks has not been formally assessed for learning outcomes.

Research Relevance

The study of the principles of sequence stratigraphy is relevant because it is a recurrent topic of research in academia and industry (Catuneanu, 2006). …