Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Incorporating Concept Sketching into Teaching Undergraduate Geomorphology

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Incorporating Concept Sketching into Teaching Undergraduate Geomorphology

Article excerpt


Constructing concept sketches (diagrams annotated with short captions in which students demonstrate their understanding of form, process, and interactions) provides a new and different way to teach Earth surface processes and assess the depth of student learning. During a semester-long course in Geomorphology, we used concept sketches as an icebreaker, as a means to help students place field observations in a spatial context, and as a catalyst for understanding complex graphical presentations of data. For the mid-term and final assessment components of the course, we required students to consider a historic aerial photograph of a local site they had not visited previously in order to strengthen their abilities in landscape interpretation based upon imagery alone; a task many of them will be required to undertake in their future endeavors. Anecdotal student response to the use of concept sketches in Geomorphology was uniformly positive with students self-reporting that the sketches helped them to synthesize large amounts of seemingly disparate information. As instructors, we found concept sketches particularly useful for motivating students and for identifying misconceptions and knowledge gaps.

© 2012 National Assodation of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/10-201.1]

Key words: assessment, interpretation, fluvial, hillslope, undergraduate education


Geomorphology, the study of Earth surface processes and history, is one of the most integrative of all geologic subdisciplines. For students to complete successful undergraduate coursework in Geomorphology, they must not only understand the intimate linkages between physical processes, landforms, and geologic history, but also understand and have the ability to apply principles of physics, chemistry, and in many cases biology (Rhoads and Thorn, 1996). In addition, understanding the behavior of Earth's surface requires students to conceptualize change over time and to make predictions into the future as well as hypothesize about past forms based on their understanding of process (Baker, 1988). These abstractions and interconnections are difficult to teach and often seem to stymie novice learners unaccustomed to synthesizing material from disparate fields. The societal relevance of geomorphology in such arenas as natural hazard mitigation and resource management demands that its practitioners are able to communicate difficult scientific concepts to lay audiences in a visually attractive manner (Merritts et al., 2010), adding yet another challenge for learners.

In order to assist Geomorphology students in making this challenging set of connections, we introduced the process of concept sketching into the undergraduate Geomorphology course at the University of Vermont. Concept sketching is the use of annotated visual prompts (diagrams, photographs, or graphs) as a tool for students to organize information (Tewksbury et al., 2004; Johnson and Reynolds, 2005; Reynolds and Johnson, 2005). In constructing the sketches, students are forced to acknowledge and consider the spatial relationships and interactions between geomorphic form and underlying process. They also gain the opportunity to study geological information in a visual manner (Reynolds et al., 2005; Yin et al., 2010). In this way, the concept sketch acts as a map enabling students to organize otherwise disparate pieces of information into a more coherent and comprehensive picture. In this paper, we present the three different ways in which we integrated concept sketches into a Geomorphology course, providing examples of their use in the classroom, in the field, and as a final assessment tool.


In 2008, we added concept sketches to an established undergraduate Geomorphology course at the University of Vermont. The course has been taught since 1993 and includes field, laboratory, and classroom components and stresses techniques of data collections and analysis of realworld data (http://uvm. …

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