College Students' Conceptions of the Role of Rivers in Canyon Formation

Article excerpt


Rivers are important surficial geologic processes that shape Earth's landscape. Students' conceptions of river features and processes serve as a foundation for their learning of new river concepts. Despite the importance of rivers and students' conceptions of them, little research has focused on identifying students' river conceptions. This study investigated students' conceptions of the role of river processes in canyon formation. In-depth interviews with 18 college students were conducted, and students' responses were analyzed using a modified version of constant comparative analysis. Students' conceptions fell into three categories: incomplete scientific conceptions, alternative conceptions, and incomplete scientific-alternative conceptions. Students with incomplete scientific conceptions thought that rivers carved canyons and did not recognize the connection between surficial processes and base level changes in forming a canyon. Students with alternative conceptions thought that catastrophic processes such as earthquakes form canyons or that canyons do not undergo a formation process at all (i.e., they have always been there). Students with incomplete scientific-alternative conceptions thought that catastrophic processes initiated canyon formation (similar to those students who held alternative conceptions) but also thought that rivers contributed to the process of canyon formation (similar to those students who held incomplete scientific conceptions). These findings add to the growing knowledge base of geoscience conceptions and have implications for improving geoscience teaching strategies. © 2012 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5804/11-249.1]

Key words: conception, college student, river, stream, surficial process, geomorphology, qualitative research


Research during the past 35 y has demonstrated that students bring their own ideas, or conceptions, of the natural world to the science classroom and use them to organize, interpret, and learn new science topics (Driver et al., 1994; Wandersee et al., 1994; Bransford et al., 2000; Scott et al., 2007). Students' conceptions that agree with accepted scientific explanations are called scientific conceptions. Students' conceptions that differ from accepted scientific explanations are called alternative conceptions (Hewson and Hewson, 1983, p. 732). When educators know students' conceptions, they can design curricula and classroom instruction that will best modify alternative conceptions and strengthen scientific conceptions (Driver and Oldham, 1986; Wandersee et al., 1994; Vosniadou and Ioannides, 1998).

Most of the research on students' conceptions has been in the field of physics, so an extensive research base on students' physics conceptions now exists (Wandersee et al, 1994; Libarkin and Kurdziel, 2001; Duit, 2004; Duit et al., 2007). In a review of the literature, Libarkin and Kurdziel (2001) concluded that during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, few studies investigated students' conceptions of geoscience topics. In the past 25 y, the number of published studies to uncover students' conceptions of geology topics has been growing, but there is still a significant lack of understanding in this area (Dove, 1998; Libarkin and Kurdziel, 2001; King, 2008; Cheek, 2010). This study helps to fill this gap by exploring students' conceptions of a geoscience concept, specifically, the role of rivers in canyon formation.

The National Science Education Standards recommends that students understand the water cycle, the role of rivers in that cycle, and the role of surficial processes in forming and destroying landforms (National Research Council, 1996). The Earth Science Literacy Initiative developed a set of ideas that Americans should know about the geosciences (Wysession, 2009). In that set of ideas, the Earth Science Literacy Initiative suggests that Americans should understand river processes and the formation of landscape features. …


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