Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Using Concept Maps to Plan an Introductory Structural Geology Course

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Using Concept Maps to Plan an Introductory Structural Geology Course

Article excerpt


A concept map is a visual representation of concepts and their relationship to each other in a body of knowledge. They show the hierarchy of these concepts and emphasize the links between them. Concept maps are valuable pedagogical tools used to design the syllabus for an undergraduate structural geology course. Their value as an aid to student learning has been widely documented (Novak, 1990), and we have found them particularly suitable in the initial planning of courses such as structural geology where many new concepts are introduced.

Concept maps used in the design stage of our structural geology course has resulted in a significant re-ordering of the topics. A more logical sequence begins with descriptive topics (joints and faults) and progresses to more abstract topics (stress and strain and continuum mechanics). The resultant sequence of topics is not that used in most traditional structural geology textbooks. Although it is not necessary for a course to be taught in the same sequence as material is presented in a textbook it is more convenient for students if it does.


For the past several years our methods of teaching undergraduate structural geology courses have evolved in response to an effort to achieve more meaningful learning in our students (Ausubel, Novak and Hanesian, 1978). Two principal modifications to the way we deliver material to students have resulted from our work: firstly the direct delivery of computer developed material during lectures (James and Clark, 1992), and secondly the use of concept maps, both to aid syllabus design and to aid student learning. A concept map is a representation of the inter-relationships among concepts and has the advantage over lists in that it is not linear and can help students visualize these inter-relationships in concept rich subjects. The use of concept maps to aid student learning is described elsewhere (Clark and James, 1997).

Statement of the Problem - Structural geology is a subject that many students find difficult to learn. Many new concepts are introduced, some being rather abstract. Moreover, inter-relationships do not become apparent until all concepts have been introduced. It is our experience that the teaching and learning of structural geology is not as effective as it could be. Assessment results taken prior to the innovations described here indicate that only a small group of students has been successful in understanding the higher order concepts and their inter-relationships. The majority of students completed the course by rote learning, but did not carry the knowledge into subsequent courses.

To address these problems, we modified our approach to teaching the subject matter by incorporating constructivist methods including the use of concept maps. The overall goal of this project was to encourage students to adopt a deep/holistic approach to learning in order to better understand the concepts of structural geology. In addition we wanted students to develop a sound understanding of what they had learned, so that they could relate it to previously learned geologic concepts they already held and then relate these concepts to new concepts as they are introduced. To achieve our goal we modified our approach to teaching. We encouraged the students to use concept maps and other techniques (James, Peterson, Hillis and Clark, 1995) to monitor their metacognition. Secondly, we as teachers used concept maps to help plan the curriculum. In this second part of the study we were testing whether the use of concept maps would indicate a more logical sequence of topics for presentation.

To determine the extent to which we achieved these goals we investigated whether:

1. the teaching methods became more overtly constructivist;

2. there was a change in the order of presentation of topics;

3. the order of presentation normally followed by textbooks was the same as the order determined using concept maps. …

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