Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

How Students Think: Implications for Learning in Introductory Geoscience Courses

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

How Students Think: Implications for Learning in Introductory Geoscience Courses

Article excerpt


Non-major students in introductory geoscience classes exhibit a wide range of intellectual development. Approximately half of these students do not have the skills to understand the abstract scientific concepts traditionally discussed in introductory classes. Many geological concepts will remain unlearned without appropriate activities that build on a foundation of concrete examples. The good news is that these same students can improve their logical thinking skills when they participate in challenging in-class collaborative learning exercises with their more intellectually sophisticated peers. While the exercises themselves are important in promoting the development of higher-order thinking skills, the group interaction also appears to be a significant contributor to the improvement of reasoning.


Surveys of college faculty consistently rank the intellectual development of their students as a primary teaching goal (Trice and Dey, 1997). Faculty value the development of higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, logical reasoning, and creative thinking (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991; Pinet, 1992; Angelo and Cross, 1993; Cross and Steadman, 1996; Eljamal et al., 1998; NCPI, 1999). The greatest gains in critical thinking during the college experience typically occur in the first year and in courses related to the student's major (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991; Cross and Steadman, 1996). Instructors can promote cognitive growth by focusing on teaching and learning strategies that make content relevant and understandable to the intended audience, increase student-student interaction in class, and require construction of student knowledge rather than the recognition of memorized facts (Tobias, 1992; Angelo, 1993; Tsui, 1999). Students in introductory science courses infrequently find themselves in an educational setting where higher-order thinking tasks are routinely assigned and assessed to encourage cognitive development. Instead, learning is often reduced to low-level intellectual skills of listening and memorizing facts for multiple-choice exams (Pinet, 1992; Prothero, 2000). An introductory geology course, often taken during freshman year, represents a great opportunity to help students develop the reasoning skills that are essential for success in college (American Geophysical Union, 1994). Unfortunately, many instructors are unaware of now teaching may impact student intellectual development and hence are ill-prepared to help students cultivate the skills necessary to perform at an optimal intellectual level.


Developmental and educational theorists have documented sequential stages in the intellectual development of students (Inhelder and Piaget, 1958; Perry, 1970; Baxter Magolda, 1992; King and Kitchener, 1994; Knight and Sutton, 2004). Students do not enter college classrooms as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, but instead actively work to construct their own understanding and form mental models that integrate new information with previous experiences (Kurfiss, 1983; Redish, 1994). Psychologists recognize multiple stages of intellectual development from infancy through adolescence to adulthood during which a person's mental models and conceptual understanding become increasingly sophisticated (Purser and Renner, 1983; Knight and Sutton, 2004). Two of the later stages, concrete operational and abstract (formal) operational (Inhelder and Piaget, 1958), have been widely recognized as characteristic of entering college students (Chiappeta, 1976; Good et al., 1979; Biggs and Collis, 1982).

All students learn best when exercises are tied to personal experience, either as result of direct hands-on activities or indirectly through the description of familiar events. Students who are identified at the concrete operational stage for a specific discipline may have an inefficient working memory and have difficulty managing multiple concepts simultaneously (Biggs and Collis, 1982). …

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