Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Spatial Ability and Earth Science Conceptual Understanding

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Spatial Ability and Earth Science Conceptual Understanding

Article excerpt


Although spatial ability is related to success in the sciences, relatively little research has considered the relationship of spatial abilities with common misconceptions and broader conceptual difficulties in the Earth sciences. Spatial thinking and abilities have not commonly been directly addressed in traditional education. In this study, I found moderately significant positive correlations between scores on the ESC, a new test of Earth science conceptual understanding, and scores on each of three types, or factors, of spatial ability in university undergraduate non-science majors. Types of spatial ability tested included mental rotation, spatial perception, and spatial visualization. I found mental rotation to be the best predictor of ESC scores of the variables tested. Results suggest that an opportunity may exist to improve Earth science conceptual understanding by focusing on spatial abilities or the spatial aspects of concepts.


Does the Earth's shadow cause moon phases? What happens to water that evaporates in the water cycle does it dissociate into oxygen gas and hydrogen gas? These explanations for common Earth science phenomena are often offered by university non-majors, as well as the general population. Students may also exhibit conceptual difficulties in interpretation of topographic maps, aerial photos, geologic cross sections, and various two-dimensional diagrams showing three-dimensional or moving phenomena. Many misconceptions and broader conceptual difficulties have been reported (Ford, 2003; Kusnick, 2002; Wampler, 1999,2001; Meyer, 1987; Philips, 1991; DeLaughter, 1998) in all four areas of the Earth sciences, although most are in the geosciences, astronomy, and meteorology. Although many conceptual problems are reported verbally as information-based misconceptions, such as the belief that seasons are caused by differences in Earth-sun distance at various times during the year (Schoon, 1992, 1995; Kikas, 1998), other conceptual difficulties are more broadly based. Examples are interpretation of geologic block diagrams (Piburn et al., 2002; Kali and Orion, 1996), aerial and satellite photos (Hawkins, 2000), and topographic maps (Repine and Rockey (1997), as well as understanding of map projections (Downs and Liben, 1991), and of geologic time (Dodick and Orion, 2002a, 2002b; Trend, 2000,2001). In addition, the principles of the kinetic-molecular theory (KMT), which are basic to an understanding of meteorology, are also a source of many Earth science misconceptions (Chang, 1999; Griffiths and Preston, 1992). Other researchers have studied issues of scale related to Earth science, including models and astronomical distances (Dyche et al., 1993), geologic distances (Gobert and Clement,1999; Gobert, 2000), sizes of scientific objects (Tretter and James, 2003), and time (Friedman, 2000, Dodick and Orion, 2003).

Why are misconceptions important? Constructionist learning philosophy (Chang et al., 1999; Riggs and Kimbrough, 2002; Slater et al., 1999; Carpenter et al., 1999) stresses that learners construct knowledge by assimilating new information with their personal previously held concepts. It is important, therefore, that students' previously held concepts are consistent with the ideas accepted by scientists, in order to establish a base on which to assimilate further concepts. The presence of erroneous previously-held concepts, or of broader conceptual difficulties, may impede understanding of Earth science concepts. Many Earth science misconceptions have been reported to be extremely difficult to change, even with thorough instruction and increasing age (Schneps and Sadler, 1989); this appears to be especially evident if the scientific explanation of Earth science phenomena is contradicted by intuitive knowledge derived from observations since early childhood.

Spatial ability has been defined as skill in "representing, transforming, generating, and recalling symbolic, nonlinguistic information" (Linn and Petersen, 1985, p. …

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