Online and On-Campus Historical Geology Students' Prior Ideas about Global Climate Change

By Baldwin, Kathryn A.; Cooper, C. M. | Journal of Geoscience Education, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Online and On-Campus Historical Geology Students' Prior Ideas about Global Climate Change


Baldwin, Kathryn A., Cooper, C. M., Journal of Geoscience Education


INTRODUCTION

As part of a university-wide initiative precipitated by recent research (Lemmons, 2011) to incorporate issues of sustainability into general education coursework, the authors chose to explicitly include concepts of global climate change in both online and on-campus sections of historical geology. The topic of global climate change seemed like a natural fit within a historical geology course because historical geology encompasses global climate change on multiple scales and systems over the Earth's entire history and an understanding of deep geologic time is important to understand the relationship between climate change and society (Nam and Ito, 2011). In addition, the authors also found it important to overcome the potential disconnect of present day climate change from the deep time processes taught in the course. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of global climate change and the popular cultural emphasis on current climate change, the authors recognized a potential problem. Outside of their own program, the authors were unable to speak to the students' prior knowledge about global climate change. Is there a need to study global climate change within the historical geology curriculum, or are students already knowledgeable about global climate change prior to this course, and if so, from which sources?

The learners' prior knowledge is important because it plays a critical role in determining what the learners will find important or relevant and where they choose to focus their present learning (Alexander, 1996). In addition, failure to engage students' prior knowledge may result in students' failure to grasp new concepts and information (Donovan and Bransford, 2005). Knowing our students' preconceptions and beliefs allows us, as educators, to better design and modify the curriculum.

Many studies report that students commonly hold misconceptions about global climate change (Fortner, 2001; Rebich and Gautier, 2005; Matkins and Bell, 2007; Cheek, 2010; Lambert et al., 2012). Examples of these misconceptions include misunderstandings of the role of the greenhouse effect in global climate change (Fortner, 2001; Rebich and Gautier, 2005; Cheek, 2010; Lambert et al., 2012) and the causes and consequences of climate change (Lambert et al., 2012). However, Cheek (2010) suggests that rather than focusing on what students do not know, we should focus on what students do know, and how students acquire that knowledge. This study followed this suggestion. The authors wanted to know what our students know about global climate change, and how they came to their preconceptions. In this paper, when the term preconceptions is used, it means "preconceived knowledge" without placing any connotations of correct or wrong on the term.

The purpose of this study was to determine the prior knowledge (perceived and actual) of global climate change for students enrolled in online and on-campus historical geology courses. Second, the study was to identify similarities and differences between online and on-campus students' prior knowledge of global climate change. This will help determine the need for coverage of global climate change within online and on-campus historical geology courses.

Diaz and Cartnal (1999) found there can be "drastic differences" between the learning styles of online and oncampus students. The researchers state that online learners tend to be more independent and intrinsically motivated than on-campus students. The researchers conclude by cautioning faculty teaching online courses from using the same methods and activities that they would in an oncampus course because one method may not be equally effective in both groups. Yet, many research studies do compare the effectiveness of learning techniques and exercises in online and on-campus courses. This makes it important to identify the initial differences that exist between the groups in these different academic settings as the effectiveness in teaching methods may actually result from differences in a student's prior knowledge rather than be reflective of differing learning styles. …

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