ED43B-0731: Fossils, Facies and Geologic Time: Active Learning Yields More Expert-Like Thinking in a Large Class for Senior Science Students

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Authors: Stuart Sutherland, Francis M Jones

Author Institutions: Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Teaching and assessing concepts involving the relationships between deep time and the Earth System can be challenging. This is especially true in elective courses for senior general science students who should be starting to think more like experts, but lack background knowledge in geology. By comparing student activities and work, both before and after introducing active learning strategies, we show that increased maturity of thinking about geological time was achieved in the science elective “Earth and Life through Time”รน taken by 150 upper level general science students. Student demographics were very similar in 2010 and 2011 allowing comparison of data from a consistent end of term survey, classroom observations, and test or exercise questions used in both years. Students identified the workload as greater in 2011, yet they also gave the course a stronger overall rating of excellence. Also, students in 2011 felt assessments and homework were more appropriate and expressed a nearly unanimous preference for group versus solo class work. More objective indicators of improvement include item analysis on test questions which shows increased difficulty and discrimination without compromising overall scores. The wide variety of changes introduced in 2011 do make it difficult to rigorously ascribe specific causes for improvement in how students think about geologic time. However the shift towards more sophisticated thinking involving skills rather than recall can be demonstrated by comparing geological interpretations produced by students in early and improved versions of exercises. For example, labs have always involved basic identification of rocks and fossils. Now, the new in-class group-based activities enable students to use data to establish the relative history of a geologic section, including environments, ages of known materials, and time spans of materials missing at unconformities. In addition to activities, specific exam questions and corresponding results from both versions of the course also reveal improvements. In order to help educators improve teaching and assessment of geologic time in similar settings, we will offer some details about course modifications and activities. First, learning goals were adjusted to emphasize skills geologists use when interpreting the geological record, rather than focusing on specific knowledge such dates, time spans and rock or fossil names. Then, one third of the lectures were replaced with 50-minute guided group activities, higher level clicker-based questioning strategies were introduced, labs were restructured to include follow up in-class group activities, structured reading and homework exercises were added, and formative and evaluative assessments were diversified. In conclusion, we will show that introducing active learning strategies has helped meet the challenges of increasing the sophistication of students’ thinking about geologic time, at the same time as increasing their satisfaction. The specific strategies should be transferrable to any course in which senior general science students learn to use the rock and fossil record to experience the ways in which geoscientists integrate geology and paleontology to interpret the Earth System’s evolution.

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