Inquiry initiated approach to an earth system science course for seniors

Category Other
Group GSI.IR
Location International Geological Congress,oslo 2008
Author Clark, Ian; James, Patrick
Holding Date 11 October 2008

Geoscience courses in undergraduate programmes, as with many other fields of study have been taught using a top down, transmission approach. Our dissatisfaction with this led us to try a more interactive approach to teaching and learning by placing the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of students. In an attempt to put these pedagogical skills into practice and evaluate their effectiveness, an action research project was devised for a geoscience course taught to final year, final semester undergraduate students. Qualitative and semi-quantitative data were collected from the students via a course evaluation questionnaire, and a focus group interview. The results of the first two years reported here indicate that the alternative approach is at least equally effective and the positive response by students encourages us to continue. Subsequent work will incorporate a refinement of the teaching method and the evaluation method.
Nature of the Course
The Global Systems course is one of a series that take an Earth System Science approach. Topics include the biogeochemical evolution of the Earth, mass extinctions, bolide impacts, icehouse-greenhouse Earth, and El Nino. The aim is to develop in students a "Deep Time Framework". The course has a significant field component because of the accessibility of an area where the evidence for these concepts can be demonstrated.
Nature of the Problem
In past years all of these topics were taught using a traditional teaching approach. This usually involved lectures, laboratory work as well as the fieldwork to provide content and examinations, practical and field reports, and assignments to assess how well the students had mastered the content.
Student evaluations of the course suggested that these traditional, didactic approaches did not engage the students. This is supported by research into learning which suggests that a constructivist approach where learners actively construct knowledge and meaning from their interpretation of what is happening around them, based on their own experiences and understandings is most effective in developing deep knowledge.
New approach
We encouraged students to become deep rather than surface learners. That is we wanted our students to develop a firm understanding of what they learned so that they could relate what they learned to concepts they already held, and then develop these concepts, rather than regarding learning as a series of discrete occurrences, done to achieve a short term requirement. To achieve this we decided to use a modified Learning Cycle or Five Es approach.
The positive outcomes have encouraged us to continue developing this approach to teaching. Being the first phase of our action research cycle it has raised a number of issues that will be addressed in the next phase.