Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

An Empirical Methodology for Investigating Geocognition in the Field

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

An Empirical Methodology for Investigating Geocognition in the Field

Article excerpt


The investigation of how geologists engage in field mapping, including strategies and behaviors, is an open area of research with significant potential for identifying connections to best instructional practices. While study of experts in an array of disciplines has yielded general conclusions about the nature of expertise, the consideration of geoscience experts, especially in authentic settings, is virtually unstudied. Field mapping involves a complex interplay between the individual mapper and the natural environment. Both cognition and behavior influence the observations and interpretations that ultimately yield the map, a representation of the natural world. We set out to establish a methodology, adapted from existing studies of expertise, that would allow us to document cognitive and behavioral processes involved in situated map-making and generate preliminary insights into expert-novice differences in mapping behavior and cognition. We present here a theoretically-driven, mixed methods methodology, and suggest that navigation coupled with field artifact and audio data provide the richest and most meaningful insights into geocognition in the field.


The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks. (Anonymous)

What does it mean to be the best, most expert geologist? Is it simply, as the saying goes, the ability to recognize the most rocks? Or, does expertise differ in more subtle or complex ways? The nature of geological thinking ("geocognition;" Libarkin, 2006) is both poorly understood and poorly studied from an empirical perspective, although numerous investigators have discussed what geoscience expertise might look like (e.g., Frodeman, 1995; Raab and Frodeman, 2002; Ernst, 2006; Kastens and Ishikawa, 2006; Petcovic and Libarkin, 2007).

Only recently have researchers begun to systematically investigate how geoscientists engage in authentic practice, in both simulated and real settings. Bond and colleagues (2007) show that prior knowledge and experience play a large role in conceptual uncertainty, essentially biasing expert interpretations of seismic sections. Kastens et al. (2009) discuss the relationships between novice and expert mapping behavior and interpretation of artificial rock outcrops, finding clear differences between how these two populations see and understand these phenomena. In one of the few studies of expert behavior in a natural field setting, Gahegan and Brodaric (2001) provide evidence for the influence of situated cognition in map generation. Other forms of geologic observation and data interpretation are probably also laden with interpretive, situational, and experiencerelated distortions. Given the paucity of existing studies in natural or contrived settings, we are forced to make assumptions about the nature of geological expertise, and we still know very little about how novices (undergraduate students) become experts (professionals), what skills are important to gaining expertise, and how traditional education shapes geocognitive development.

Geoscientists universally regard field mapping as necessary for the development of expertise in the geosciences (MacDonald et al., 2005), and geologic field mapping courses play a significant role in college and university departmental curriculum and expectations (Manduca and McDaris, 2007). Anecdotal evidence suggests that this a priori assumption exists across geoscience disciplines, almost regardless of the importance of field work within that discipline. Within any geological sciences discipline, nearly all postsecondary students receive some field-oriented training, typically as a semester course in field methods, and/ or a four to six week summer field course. Despite this infusion into the curriculum, the nature of expert and novice field-based geocognition, as well as the interaction between cognition, behavior, and environment during field activities, is open for debate. …

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