Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Case-Based Curriculum for Introductory Geology

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Case-Based Curriculum for Introductory Geology

Article excerpt


For the past 5 years I have been teaching my introductory geology class using a case-based method that promotes student engagement and inquiry. This article presents an explanation of how a case-based curriculum differs from a more traditional approach to the material. It also presents a statistical analysis of several years' worth of student assessment data from both the traditional and case-based curricula. These analyses demonstrate that the case-based method not only improves student learning relative to a traditional curriculum, it also improves students' ability to apply higher-order thinking skills to the study of the earth. © 2011 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/1.3604824]

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)


The recent emphasis on assessment in higher education has given educators the tools necessary to test the effectiveness of a wide variety of pedagogical methods and styles. Geology and geoscience education have kept pace with this trend, as even a cursory glance through any issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education will illustrate. While numerous geoscience educators have continuously refined classroom techniques, constructivist demonstrations, and lecture supplements to more effectively deliver their curriculum, fewer have evaluated that curriculum as a whole.

Since the plate tectonic revolution of the 1960s, a stereotypical curriculum for teaching introductory geology has emerged and become entrenched. That curriculum is effective for teaching students the basic factual information of our science, but it is suboptimal when it comes to teaching the scientific method and higher-order tWnking skills. For the past 5 years, I have been teaching my own introductory geology classes using a case-based approach to the material. This approach has become common in the teaching of many other fields and several previous studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in these fields for improving student engagement and learning (e.g., Barnes et ah, 1986; Lawson et ah, 1990; Hake, 1998).

In the case of my introductory geology classes, assessment data reveals that a case-based approach to teaching does more than improve student engagement and learning: It also improves students' ability to engage in higher-order thinking about the subject matter. Beyond improving student understanding, this teaching method has additional benefits. The case-based approach more closely models the scientific method as used in geology than does a traditional curriculum, in that it infers broad principles inductively from field data. It also taps into the curiosity about geology that brings many college freshmen into our classrooms in the first place.


It might seem obvious to say that introductory geology classes share a common curriculum. After all, introductory geology classes are presumably all trying to teach students the same information. By curriculum, however, I mean not only the subjects that are covered in a class, but also the order in which those subjects are covered. For example, most introductory geology classes will include segments on both volcanoes and weathering, but there is no particular pedagogical reason why those topics should be taught in the same order in those classes.

It would be exceedingly difficult to collect comprehensive data on the curricula of all introductory geology classes currently being taught at colleges and universities around the United States. Textbook tables of contents, however, provide a reasonable proxy. Table I shows the results of a series of pair-wise Spearman rank order correlations that I performed on the tables of contents of five of the most popular textbooks being sold today (based on their Amazon. com rankings). With 99.9% significance, there is no difference in the order of the contents in these books. …

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