Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Through Their Eyes: Tracking the Gaze of Students in a Geology Field Course

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Through Their Eyes: Tracking the Gaze of Students in a Geology Field Course

Article excerpt


The focus of this research was to investigate how students learn to do fieldwork through observation. This study addressed the following questions: (1) Can mobile eye-tracking devices provide a robust source of data to investigate the observations and workflow of novice students while participating in a field exercise? If so, what are the strengths and limitations of mobile eye tracking? (2) If these devices offer a unique source of data to investigate student work, what findings might be helpful for improving field instruction? To address these questions, we used mobile eye-tracking devices in a pilot study to collect video from students completing mapping exercises during a geology field course. Data were collected from six students participating in two different parts of an exercise where they were asked to create geological maps of an area based on their field observations.

From this study, we learned that conducting eye-tracking research in field conditions is technically demanding and operationally difficult. We found that most of our analysis was based on reviewing the scene video and did not require the eye-tracking information. In reviewing the scene videos, substantive features of students' observational practices were exposed. We found that students struggle with foundational mapping practices, miss opportunities to collect key data, and are often distracted or disengaged during direct instruction. We observed instances of swarm behavior where students tend to group around outcrops even when nominally working independently. We also noted key differences in student behavior working individually compared with group mapping. We believe these findings provide data for geoscience educators to consider when thinking about ways in which to develop the observational skills of their students and to design appropriate field course instruction.

© 2023 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/11-263.1]

Key words: field learning, mapping, instruction, eye tracking


Both America's Lab Report (Singer et al., 2006) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996; NRC, 2011) discuss the importance of "observation" as a critical skill provided by laboratory and field science at all educational levels. However, Roth et al. (2001) commented that in most educational work, visual observation is seen as "unproblematic and taken for granted." Roth et al. concluded that in science education, there is an implicit assumption that students extract understanding from their tactile and visual experiences of natural phenomena (e.g., laboratories, science museums), and yet the validity of this assumption and the mechanisms by which this occurs are rarely discussed in the research literature.

Despite the goal of training students to observe and understand natural phenomena, research indicates that laboratories are often disconnected from real-world experiences (Maltese et al., 2010), and instruction is often designed to routinize inquiry experiences (Luft et al., 2004). Findings about learning from observations overwhelmingly indicate that information is not extracted in the form, or to the degree, that is intended (e.g., Driver, 1983; Eberbach and Crowley, 2009). Research has shown that the depth of knowledge held by the observer plays an enormous role in what is observed and gleaned from that observation (e.g., Chase and Simon, 1973; Lindwall and Lymer, 2008). As a result, novice students are unclear about the purpose of observations (Haslam and Gunstone, 1998) and often fail to grasp the connection between observed phenomena and deeper scientific concepts (e.g., Ford, 2005; Lehrer and Schäuble, 2004).

Duschl and Osborne (2002) argue that observation is a foundational element of scientific practice, but the research indicates that students are not receiving educational experiences that encourage development of these skills. Given that many geology field courses focus on teaching students to make interpretations of their observations of natural phenomena, and given the general lack of understanding on how this observational learning occurs, the focus of this research was to investigate how students make observations of natural phenomena during a geology field course. …

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