Collaborative Research: Learning Across the Expert-Novice Continuum: Cognition in the Geosciences

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

Related research projects will investigate cognition across undergraduate geology majors, geology graduate students, and professional geologists using complex natural (outdoor) problem solving tasks and laboratory studies investigating working memory function, perceptual abilities, and the structuring of domain-specific content knowledge. The investigators expect to produce: (1) Valid and reliable methods for investigating field-based geologic cognition and navigation, which could allow for field-based cognitive data to be readily collected from large numbers of students enrolled in field courses; (2) New laboratory-based cognitive experiments that push the boundaries of existing knowledge about the cognitive processes underlying the learning and teaching of complex geoscience content, which will bridge the geoscience education and cognitive science literatures on STEM learning; and (3) A theoretical model for geocognition derived from empirical data that describes how cognitive processes manifest and change as students progress toward expertise, which will provide a foundation for research-based instructional design and teaching in the geosciences.


The outdoor research project will occur at a geology student training facility near Bozeman, Montana; participants will map rock outcrops in a ~1 square mile area of the Rocky Mountains. The related laboratory research studies are performed on a transportable table PC; lab experiments will be conducted at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan) as well as off-site locations.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is cross-sectional, and is structured to generate descriptive evidence (case study, observational, and phenomenological). This project collects original data using computer-based experimental cognitive tasks; online self-completion questionnaires; face-to-face semi-structured interviews; diaries/journals/records kept by the study subjects; and assessments of learning/achievement tests.

All subjects will complete the Geologic Experience Questionnaire (GEQ), a written background and experience questionnaire designed to place participants along the novice-expert continuum, designed for this study

We will develop, utilize, or adapt a suite of cognitive tasks designed to examine geological (domain-specific) declarative and procedural knowledge, spatial ability and visualization, working memory function, and metacognitive behaviors among novice to expert geoscientists. Specific tasks include: (1) Conceptual questions, including questions from the Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI), a written test assessing domain conceptual knowledge developed by J. Libarkin and S. Anderson; (2) a Block Memory Test that examines working memory capacity for 3-D geologic and non-geologic block diagrams, developed as part of this project; (3) a Map Memory Test that examines working memory capacity for 2-D geologic maps, developed for this project; (4) a Mapping Metacognition Survey, which is a written survey of metacognitive behaviors during outdoor mapping, developed for this project; (5) Spatial Scanning and Visualization tests of spatial ability (e.g., path selection, paper folding test, block rotation test, form board) from the ETS Toolkit, and (6) the Working Memory Capacity test, developed by Z. Hambrick.

Subjects in the outdoor mapping task (~60 total) will complete a bedrock geologic map of an approximately ½ mile by 1 mile region of the Rocky Mountains near Cardwell, Montana. This task is commonly taught to undergraduate geology majors and regularly performed by professional geologists. Data collected as part of this project will include: (1) the Novelty Space Survey, a written survey evaluating participant comfort in the outdoors, designed by J. Elkins; (2) outdoor navigation measures in which Global Positioning System (GPS) units worn by mapping participants track the location of subjects during the mapping task producing a spatio-temporal track for each subject, a method developed by E. Riggs and adapted for this project; (3) Mapping artifacts, including field maps and notes produced by research participants, developed for this project; (11) Semi-structured interviews with mapping subjects to probe strategies, protocol developed for this project; (4) think-aloud audio logs kept by participants during the outdoor mapping tasks, which deeply probe thinking in real time, protocol developed for this project.

Qualitative analysis will be conducted of audio logs, interviews and written surveys by coding scheme based on pilot study data; quantitative analysis by rubric (block diagram tests, etc.) or by spatial analysis (GIS) of map, diagram, and navigation track data; regression analysis and modeling of experimental task data.