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Improving Visualization and Spatial Reasoning Using Sketching Software and a Virtual Tutor

Bridget Garnier1, Carol J. Ormand1,2, Maria Chang3, Ken Forbus3, Thomas F. Shipley4, and Basil Tikoff2
1Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, Northfield, MN
2Department of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
3Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
4Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA


Many undergraduate geoscience students struggle with spatial concepts and tasks. Working as a team of geoscience researchers, cognitive psychologists, and computer programmers, we are developing a set of worksheets on geoscience concepts that utilize a sketching software program with a built-in virtual tutor (CogSketch). CogSketch allows the students to sketch spatial concepts and relationships (with a stylus or mouse in a workspace) and provides them with feedback (virtual tutor) about their sketches. Unlike traditional paper and pencil worksheets, CogSketch worksheets require students to apply spatial concepts to example problems while also providing them with on-demand feedback about their answers.

CogSketch is being implemented in the geosciences because advanced spatial skills are needed for students to continue and/or succeed through coursework. By integrating a sketching tool that will improve spatial thinking, students will gain a skill set that may shorten the path from novice to expert thinking. The CogSketch geoscience worksheets that we have developed focus on four spatial skills that are difficult for students to master and are commonly used in geoscience:

1. Disembedding is the ability to identify specific and important information from a larger pool of information. Students are asked to identify and trace faults in an outcrop photo that also contains stratigraphic bedding, fractures, and vegetation. In that task, they need to distinguish geologically relevant information from geologically irrelevant information.
2. Scaling is the linear transformation of an object to a larger or smaller size. To understand the number of atoms in 1 gram of gold (3.1 x 1021 atoms), students are asked to place various amounts of sand (84,000 to 3.1 x 1021 sand grains), and the object that can contains that volume, at the correct position on a log scale. This gives the student a visible and almost tangible representation of a very large number. More generally, these tasks help students to understand very large or very small spatial and temporal scales.
3. Understanding dynamic processes is the ability for students to understand and communicate the dynamic nature of a system. Students are asked to draw arrows indicating fault movement on an outcrop photo or draw arrows between components of the water cycle to show how they are interrelated.
4. Penetrative thinking is the ability to mentally visualize the spatial relations inside an object. For example, students are asked to draw what a slice through an object would look like or annotate a cross-section.

We are developing ~30 CogSketch worksheets for introductory geoscience courses (using 15 topics commonly taught in Physical Geology courses, with two worksheets per topic). These worksheets focus on specific items in each topic that are spatially and conceptually difficult for students to understand.

The act of sketching (which for this project means annotating or tracing on photos, graphs, and images) has been used by geologists for generations to help students understand difficult concepts, as well as develop and improve spatial thinking. Sketching or annotating on images forces students to focus their attention on key elements of the images and requires them to make inferences. CogSketch exercises give students practice at both observing and interpreting images, graphs, and diagrams, skills that are necessary to master quickly in the geosciences. A student not only shows his or her understanding of features and relationships through sketching, but also is able to achieve a deeper understanding of the concept compared to only reading from a textbook. To take this one step further, feedback from CogSketch's virtual tutor helps students immediately fix their sketches to ensure that students understand the concepts.

With each CogSketch geoscience worksheet, students are asked to create glyphs (a drawn shape or object represented by ink), assign conceptual labels to each glyph, and show relationships between glyphs. The author of each worksheet defines the solution and, where applicable, assigns ink tolerances to allow for small variations in student's glyphs and determines what relationships between glyphs are important. For each important difference, the worksheet author creates the virtual tutor responses for incorrect glyphs and incorrect relationships. This allows the worksheet author to define feedback that depends on the absolute shape and location of a glyph and its relationship to other glyphs. To complete a worksheet, the student reads through an instructional prompt, draws in the workspace that contains figures, images, or photos, clicks the Feedback button at any time, and receives constructive feedback from the virtual tutor if any aspects of their sketch are incorrect. Students can then revise their sketches until they get the correct answer. CogSketch records how long a student takes to complete the worksheet along with the ink points they create while sketching. This information can be easily exported for assessment purposes. In general, CogSketch provides a less stressful and independent learning environment for students to improve spatial skills through sketching that can be added to a curriculum with little added work for instructors (no grading and no instruction).

Multiple feedback activities have been conducted at Northwestern University and Carleton College to get formative feedback about CogSketch and forge collaborations with geoscience instructors. At Northwestern University (Fall 2009), introductory geoscience students volunteered to complete four worksheets (three on fault identification and one on relative age dating). The instructor then assigned a mandatory worksheet assignment on the carbon cycle. In Spring 2011, Northwestern introductory geoscience students completed the same fault identification and relative age dating worksheets as homework. Later in the term, they also completed worksheets on the carbon cycle and greenhouse effect for extra credit. At Carleton College (Spring 2011), introductory geoscience students completed an in-class group activity working on four mid-ocean ridge spreading worksheets. This activity demonstrated that students were able to learn how to use CogSketch for the first time and complete between 1-4 worksheets per group in under an hour. These activities have aided in the improvement of worksheets and the CogSketch program.

Two larger scale pilot studies are being planned for this spring (2013) to determine the effectiveness of worksheet content and the effectiveness of CogSketch as a spatial learning tool in geoscience. A materials usability study will be conducted at Northwestern University starting in March, 2013 to identify potential challenges in the content of geoscience worksheets and the CogSketch user interface. After completing a CogSketch tutorial to learn the program, volunteers will complete several geoscience worksheets under the supervision of a CogSketch expert and a feedback survey about their experience using the program. The supervising expert and answers from the feedback surveys will pinpoint any areas in which the CogSketch program and/or the geoscience worksheet content can be improved.

A second study will be conducted at Carleton College beginning in April, 2013. This study focuses on the effectiveness of CogSketch geoscience worksheets at improving a student's spatial skills, as well as evaluating worksheet content. Students in an introductory geology course will first complete the CogSketch tutorial and then complete one worksheet per week for a period of ten weeks. Students will complete a questionnaire after each worksheet to highlight how the worksheet was helpful, in regards to learning the concepts and what parts they had trouble with. Student answers from exam questions focusing on worksheet concepts will help determine the effectiveness of CogSketch worksheets. Data will be used to improve the geoscience worksheets and to evaluate the effectiveness of CogSketch as a spatial learning tool in the geosciences. By June, 2013, we will have finished data collection for this study.

The potential benefits of adding CogSketch worksheets to an introductory geology curriculum include individualized, on-demand feedback and a comfortable learning environment for students to develop their spatial thinking skills. CogSketch geoscience worksheets provide a learning tool that can be added to any introductory geology curriculum that will improve students' spatial thinking skills and help clarify difficult topics with minimal added work for instructors and teaching assistants.


AAPG Search and Discovery Article #120140© 2014 AAPG Hedberg Conference 3D Structural Geologic Interpretation: Earth, Mind and Machine, June 23-27, 2013, Reno, Nevada