Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Challenging Students Ideas about Earth's Interior Structure Using a Model-Based, Conceptual Change Approach in a Large Class Setting

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Challenging Students Ideas about Earth's Interior Structure Using a Model-Based, Conceptual Change Approach in a Large Class Setting

Article excerpt


A model-based, conceptual change approach to teaching was found to improve student understanding of earth structure in a large (100+ student) inquiry-based, general education setting. Results from paired pre- and post-instruction sketches indicated that 19% (n = 18/97) of the students began the class with naïve preconceptions of the structure of the interior of the Earth. Many of the remaining students (95%; n = 75/79) began the lesson believing that the crust is several hundred kilometers thick. Peer discussion and instruction appeared to be effective in eliminating most naive preconceptions. Analyses of post-instruction sketches indicated that 3% (n = 3/97) of all students retained naïve preconceptions, 18% (n = 18/97) changed their views from naïve to the "thick crust" view, 58% (n = 58/97) began to recognize the relative scales of the boundaries with 30% (n = 28/97) drawing the sketch with scaled boundaries. Many of the students (65%; n = 76/117) could correctly answer formative earth structure conceptual questions that were asked five lessons after the earth structure lesson was taught. A comparison of pre- and post-course conceptual test question responses indicated that 13-20% more students could correctly answer similar questions two months after the model-based, conceptual change plate tectonics lessons were taught.


Conceptual change instruction in the sciences is a well known strategy for improving student understanding of major scientific concepts and has been widely explored in the areas of biology (Pfundt and Reindeers, 1991; Gabel, 1993; Barrass, 1996), physics (Hestenes et al., 1992; Dykstra et al., 1992; Pfister and Laws, 1995) and chemistry (Bradley and Brand, 1985; Garnett and Treagust, 1992; Schmidt et al., 2003). Conceptual change in the learning of science involves the students' shifting from naïve views, preconceptions or alternative conceptions to accurate understandings driven by strongly supported scientific theories and evidence. Helping students shift from simplistic views to more accurate views can be facilitated using hands-on concrete models in conjunction with effective instructor support to clarify students' cognitive understanding (Gilbert and Ireton, 2003).

Stepans (2003) formalized a multi-stage Conceptual Change Model (CCM - Figure 1) that provides a framework to improve learning. Students first write down their beliefs by making a prediction or formulating the outcome related to a concept. Students then share their views and ideas with peers. This idea sharing is a scaffolding technique to help students articulate their beliefs about the topic at hand and then resolve conflicts (Zeidler, 1997). At the university level, professors then commonly step in to challenge students to resolve conflicts that arise when their initial ideas are not supported by actual data, expert models or other information. Students learn how to extend and transfer their knowledge through this process of raising and answering questions about the application of concepts to new situations.

Several conditions are needed for conceptual change to occur and multiple outcomes are possible even when these conditions are present. Conceptual change is facilitated when students acknowledge confusion about their current views, when the new framework appears plausible, when students understand the clarified framework, when the concept is fruitful in addressing new situations and when they accept the data (Posner, 1982; Posner et al., 1982; Thorley and Stofflet, 1996; Chinn and Brewer, 1998). These conditions all operate within the students' conceptual ecologies that include their existing knowledge, familiar analogies and metaphors, and past experiences (Thorley and Sofflett, 1996; NRC, 2000). In response to new conceptual challenges, students' understanding may not change if they ignore, reject, are uncertain of, reinterpret or exclude new data (Chinn and Brewer, 1998). …

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