Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Teaching Geology in the Field: Significant Geoscience Concept Gains in Entirely Field-Based Introductory Geology Courses

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Teaching Geology in the Field: Significant Geoscience Concept Gains in Entirely Field-Based Introductory Geology Courses

Article excerpt


This study quantifies improvements in introductory students' concepts in geoscience after completion of a nine week, entirely field-based geology course. Sixty-three student participants in three consecutive introductory field programs demonstrated statistically significant improvements in geoscience concept knowledge as a result of their experiences on the field programs. Conceptual content gain was assessed using a 19-item, scaled Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI). The scaled GCI mean pre and post-test scores of field course participants show significantly greater improvement in geoscience concept understanding compared with scaled GCI scores from 29 other introductory geoscience courses from across the United States (n = 63 students). Geology courses taught as an extended field trip result in improvements in geoscience concepts for their introductory students that are significantly greater than comparable campus-based courses.


Introductory-level, general education science courses are a common component of most public and private universities' core curricula and their importance to science education is, in part, indicated by the development of guidelines by the National Academies Center for Education (CFE) for improving earth science education. While field components are not specifically mentioned in the Academies' National Science Education Standards, it does suggest a greater emphasis on "understanding science concepts" (National Academies Press, 1996). Studies of field trips and the learning that occurs during them have been addressed by several researchers and in general, their recommendations are that field trips can be effective learning experiences (Orion and Hofstein, 1994; Guertin, 2005; Ambers, 2005). Others have suggested that experiential education (of which field trips have traditionally been a component) is not only a good way to attract and retain students to the geosciences (DiConti, 2004), but might also play a role in developing the broad knowledge base that is the goal for undergraduate higher education (Garvey, 2002).

Other studies of field experiences as part of science curricula suggest that students enjoy field trips and that well-designed field trips are effective at improving student knowledge in the subject area (Orion, 1993). Furthermore, learning in the field should be process-oriented rather than content-oriented in order for students to gain knowledge. Orion and Hofstein's employment of variable assessments, both qualitative and quantitative in their 1994 study of high school students on a geology field trip demonstrate that students most significantly increased their content knowledge about material that the field trip was designed to teach when their field experience was hands-on and reinforced with a reduction in "Novelty Space." Orion (1993) defines "novelty space" as representative of a student's cognitive, psychological, and geojgraphic novelty that they experience in the field setting. There is an inverse relationship between the size of a student's novelty space and the ability for that student to maximize learning in a field setting. For example, a student may be experiencing a high degree of psychological novelty if she has not been informed of what materials she will need for the next field stop or when the next opportunity to use the restroom will be. Moreover, if the student does not feel she understands the basic geologic concepts to be observed at the field stop, her cognitive novelty may also be high. The higher the novelty a student experiences in each of these three areas, the lower the likelihood of successful learning in the field. As Orion recommends, reduction in a student's novelty space through careful planning and reinforcement will enhance that student's ability to learn in a field setting.

Despite the potential for successful learning, however, field trips (as even a small component) in introductory science courses are uncommon. …

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