Developing a scientific habit of mind...

“I think the testing process in this class is unique and different in a good way in that it gives the student an opportunity to apply his knowledge in real life situations as opposed to just choosing an answer from a multiple choice question. This technique is sort of making students think like scientists and use all the knowledge they got from a lecture to answer a certain problem in their own words. I admit it was awkward at first but it really proved to be a helpful and overall good way of testing in this kind of class.”

“[I like] being graded on what we know about how processes happen, not just the end product.”

“this class has challenged me in a way that no other class has. For the first time my ability to memorize definitions and read a textbook have proved basicly useless. This anti-scantron system forces me to think in ways a multiple choice question would never require. For the problem sets we have been assigned, to succeed you must really analyze the way the earth works. It has proved much more difficult than I had ever imagined. But, it has also been a lot of fun. The questions ‘Who?’ or ‘When?’ are meaningless; it’s the question, ‘Why?’ that you seem to have focused on and answering that question often forces students much deeper into the information given."

- Anonymous Physical Geology Students, Fall 2004

Students often come to a teacher and say, 'what do I need to know to get an 'A'?' This question drives all teachers, including me, bananas! Yet, I understand and empathize with students who struggle with the pressure placed on learning by grades. However, my answer to the above question is still, 'Everything. Everything, that is, that will help you address a problem and develop a means of solving the problem."

Geology is a subdiscipline of science that aims to develop questions and answers about the Earth. As such, it follows a systematic, yet sometimes seredipitous but beautiful path of inquiry, analysis, hypothesis, and test. For example, one might ask, 'How do mountains form?' I love to ask and attempt to answer this question because the first step is to make an observation of a mountain. What is more fun than leaving Lubbock and heading to the Rockies, or the Sierra Nevada in California? Or Patagonia or the crystalline altitudes of the Himalaya? The goal in my classes is to develop a "scientific habit of mind" while learning about the Earth.

Therefore, I do not do scantron tests. Rather, the students and I focus on concepts and questions that are generated from our own observations of the geology around us and from virtual field trips to distant geologic environments. While we will learn about the terms and vocabulary used to describe a mountain, a coral reef, or an earthquake fault, we'll spend more time analyzing these geologic entities and developing rational and testable explanations for how and why they formed.

To assess student learning in my physical geology class, I use 'Problem Sets' which include observations that the student and/or I have made and then ask the students to develop testable hypotheses that explain how and/or why a geological feature formed. The Problem Set might be as simple as making observations of geologic featuers in the field (or virtual field trip) and connecting them in some sort of coherent explanation; or, it might be involve the interpretation of a set of graphs or maps; or, it might be a group project in which you and your classmates develop an argument that attempts to refute plate tectonics.

Student Comments about the method of grade assessment:

“The testing process is very satisfactory. I am normally a bad test-taker, but the way your tests are presented helps me to envision the processes we learn in class in a real-life scenario, and also to draw other conclusions that I wouldn’t normally have thought about unless they were presented in this format.”

“I feel that your testing strategy challenges students to understand & comprehend concepts, rather than merely absorbing & regurgitating facts which do not establish a conceptual understanding.”

“Personally, I am not a huge fan of the problem sets. While they require a more in depth analysis in order to do well on them & in turn force you to really learn the material, I have found it hard to study for them.”

“I like taking scantron tests better because they are easier to study for. I respect the way you give problem sets because they make me think more about the problem/situation. I also like how we can sort of apply it to today, and if you go to class you will do fine on them.”

“The problem sets have actually taught me a lot. I do not think that I would have learned as much with scantron tests because they require more memorization than actually analyzing.”

“I like the problem sets… it would be really hard to give scantron tests, because you like for us to draw pictures and sometimes we need to, in order to explain what we are saying. I like the take home problem sets too, because we get a chance to research and make our answers more thorough.”

“I do like the way this class is set up because it allows for a better understanding of the processes opposed to learning definitions that we will forget the next day.”

“I really like drawing the pictures on the problem sets. They are a great visual way to learn.”

“I feel that the problem sets are better than using scantron tests, but I don’t like how they are given on short notice. I think there should be a set schedule for the problem sets.”

“I think that the use of problem sets is a good idea. It opens our minds to real questions & ways to solve them instead of just choosing one out of five. I’ve learned a lot through the notes and images & how to apply them to the problem sets.”

“I like the problem sets over scantron testing because problem sets have the possibility of receiving partial credit for an answer. I also think that problem set tests are more comprehensive and allow the student to display all of the knowledge acquired throughout the course.”

“The problem sets do make you think more abstractly, but most of the people that take this class aren’t geology majors. I would prefer an “information regurgitation” test.”

“I like the problem sets because you tend to learn more about the concepts being taught rather than just memorizing things from the book to answer a question on a test.”

“I like the testing methods you have used this semester because it goes along well with your class. There are many pictures and explanations that could not be expressed in a scantron or multiple choice type of test.”

“Forces the students to ‘think’ instead of just memorizing answers.”

“These tests make you think much more than simple scantrons do. I have really enjoyed the problem sets and actually look forward to them. If anything, I would prefer them to be more indepth and have to draw more of our own conclusions instead of mere reproductions of in-class notes.”

“I like how you can draw to explain your answers. If you don’t know the answer, it is very hard to guess.”

“The problem sets make you have to think about everything you learn, it’s a better way of understanding the material.”

“I like the pictures drawn because I am a visual learner and it gives you another way of understanding the material.”

“The testing procedure is pretty well effective. The problem sets incorporate many different points of knowledge to arrive at the conclusions. This helps make people understand the processes as far as how their interactions are important which is the focus of understanding geology.”

“The style of testing has also been of advantage to a student like me who is not used to the structural composition, and interpretation of scantron tests.”

“I like being able to write down what I know and receiving credit for describing something and how it happens rather than memorizing the exact term for the process. I love this class and how the material is taught because non-multiple choice tests allow us to focus on the more interesting aspects of geology. The only thing I don’t really like about the testing procedure is that the problem sets are hard to study for. I rearly know what to look over, so I usually feel really unprepared for the problem sets.”

“The testing process in this class is great. The pictures help a lot, and have really furthered my understanding of the material. I think that more teachers should stray away from the ‘normal’ way of teaching and try new things.”

“The strength of the problem sets is that I believe I retain the material better because I am applying it and not memorizing it like a scantron test.”

“The problem sets allow me to be creative and my answer is unique from everyone elses.”

“In order to do well on problem sets, you must be able to relate what you’ve learned into a set of questions and I believe that you can learn more by doing so.”