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The Role of Cognitive Science in Geoscience Education

Stephen J. Reynolds and Julia K. Johnson
School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ


The research results of cognitive science have profound implications for learning in college-level geoscience courses. Understanding how the brain obtains, processes, and stores new information is increasingly guiding how learning activities are designed and implemented. Four aspects of cognitive science are among those considered most important in teaching college students how to observe and understand geologic systems with their inherent spatially complexities in three dimensions and in time. First, all geologic systems have incredible complexity, from which we try to extract the most important aspects. This process of seeing the signal through the noise is called disembedding, and plays a role from the apparently simplest activities, such as observing outcrops or logging drill core, to the most complex ones, such as interpreting seismic profiles or making inferences from complex computer models. In our experience, disembedding can be learned from materials and activities explicitly designed to target this skill and from repeated experience in practicing disembedding. A second key aspect is the ability to visualize the three-dimensional geometry within a solid object from two-dimensional clues, a skill known as visual-penetrative ability (VPA). Research by us and others indicates that this skill can be learned from educational materials that allow the user to switch back and forth from 2D to 3D views, such as virtual geologic blocks whose sides the learner can switch from opaque to partially transparent. A third important aspect is the recognition that our brains apparently have two processing systems, one for words and another for images, often called dual coding. Studies have repeatedly shown that we learn better when text and figures are tightly integrated, implying that all educational materials, from web pages to textbooks to learning manuals, be redesigned around this concept. One approach to facilitating learning through dual coding is to employ concept sketches, which are sketches of a geologic feature or system annotated to identify and describe features, explain processes, and discuss relationships between various components. A fourth, and perhaps most important, aspect is the concept of cognitive load, which describes our brain's ability to retain only a few pieces of information in short-term memory at any time. If more information is presented to us than can be held temporarily, or incorporated into long-term memory, the new information simply displaces the older, unincorporated information in short-term memory. Cognitive load is one of the underlying challenges in disembedding, VPA, and making sense from text that is not integrated with figures.


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