Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Effects of Different Learning Tasks on Model-Building in Plate Tectonics: Diagramming versus Explaining

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Effects of Different Learning Tasks on Model-Building in Plate Tectonics: Diagramming versus Explaining

Article excerpt


Geology is a complex, semantically rich domain involving the interpretation of geological maps as external visualizations. Geological maps are complex in particular because 3-dimensional features must be inferred from 2-dimensional representations depicted by differing line types and weights. Modeling building, as an internal mental activity, is also required in order to achieve deep understanding of textual materials in geology, of geological maps, as well as in understanding complex causal processes, e.g., convection, underlying geological phenomena. Using literature from Cognitive Psychology, a framework for teaching and learning with visualizations in Plate Tectonics is given as an example of one difficult topic in Geology which involves the understanding of visualizations. Based on previous work in students' conceptions in Geology, three studies of students' conceptions and cognition in plate tectonics were designed. These studies highlight the importance of progressive model-building as a good pedagogical approach, as well as examine the efficacy of different learning tasks as strategies to promote model-building on the part of learners.


Geology is a complex domain which requires interpreting and reasoning with visualizations that are semantically-rich (Frederiksen and Breuleux, 1988). More specifically, the visualizations referred to herein are external visualizations, e.g., graphics, maps, diagrams, models, simulations, etc. These are distinguished from internal visualizations, i.e., internal mental constructs or mental models, used in reasoning (Johnson-Laird, 1985). (More on the role of mental models later in the paper). Furthermore, the visualizations of interest here are semantically-rich representations which involve complex, domain-specific symbol systems and as such are distinguished from iconic visual representations, e.g., a stop sign, which do not require a deep, conceptual knowledge base. Thus, the comprehension of and reasoning with semantically-rich visualizations is much more complex (Gobert, 1994). Because of the complexity involved in understanding geological maps, Geology is an excellent domain in which to think about the human cognition underlying visualizations.

In general, comprehending or interpreting complex visualizations is difficult because all the information is presented to the learner simultaneously in contrast to textual information sources in which the information follows the structure of the text (Larkin and Simon, 1987). For more details on the information-processing ramifications of these differences, see Gobert, 2005 (in press). In the case of graphics in geology, another level of complexity is added because 3-dimensional information is represented in 2-dimensional form. Thus, in order to understand a terrain from a geological map for example, learners must be able to make inferences about 3-dimensional features from 2-dimensional information depicted by differing line types and hierarchies of pen weights. This is a complex and non-trivial task similar to understanding a building as a 3-dimensional entity from it plans which depict this information in 2-dimensions in architectural plans (Gobert, 1994, 1999).

In unpacking the learning processes from visualizations in Geology, the literature from Cognitive Science provides an excellent framework for both research and teaching with visualizations. The next sections of this paper are dedicated to this goal.


In thinking about learning processes for visualization, learning is viewed as an active and constructive process. This view of learning is largely due to a seminal paper entitled "Levels of processing: A framework for memory research" (Craik and Lockhart, 1972; Lockhart and Craik, 1990) which introduced the notion that the nature of the learner's processing of the stimulus material largely determines the learner's memory representations for that material. …

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