Assessment and Outcomes
Teaching - Learning Fellows, Summer 2003 Learning Outcome Project
Geology 101 is an introductory general education course with an enrollment of around 125 students. Most students in the course have never had a geology course and do not intend to take another one. Although it is attended by non-science majors, and in fact many of the students are science-phobic, many new geology majors are recruited from this course. I engaged in this learning outcomes/assessment project because I wanted to transform this course from a survey/content-rich/cover-everything approach to one where the students developed specific competencies in geology and left the course seeing the world from a new geological perspective.
As a result of this course, I want students to notice geological features through their car window or on the beach, be able to make appropriate geological observations and understand the origin or significance of the feature in question. I want them to be excited about these discoveries and tell their friends and family about them. In order to achieve this level of geological competency, the students need to learn appropriate geological content and get practice in applying this knowledge in novel situations. As they become confident in their ability to make geological interpretations, I hope they will discover the relevance of geology to their everyday life and enjoy it. My student partner, Michele Malone, and I developed six specific learning objectives for Geology 101, accompanied by six activities at which they should be able to demonstrate skill.
- Recognize examples of the three major rock types (igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic) based on visible physical characteristics and explain how these rocks formed. (Look at a rock on the beach, or a photo of a rock, and formulate a brief geological history of it based on visible physical characters.)
- Understand the origin, distribution, and classification of volcanoes. (Analyze a map of a volcano and predict the regional risks of blast, mudflow, lava flow and ash fall in the event of an eruption, e.g. will the town of Glacier survive if Mt. Baker erupts?)
- Understand the physics, distribution, origin of and damage caused by earthquakes. (Assess the earthquake risk of a building based on type of bedrock, type of construction, and the nature of frequency of earthquakes in the region, e.g., what is the most earthquake-dangerous building in Bellingham?)
- Understand the role of plate tectonics as a general explanatory hypothesis for a variety of geological phenomena. (Predict the distribution of mountains, earthquakes, volcanoes and islands that you would find in an area based on the nature of the plate tectonic boundaries, e.g., why do we have earthquakes and volcanoes but New York does not?)
- Understand how air, water and gravity have shaped Earth's surface. (Describe the landscape out of the window of a car or airplane and construct a brief geological history of the area, e.g., how did the Grand Canyon form?)
- Understand the influence of environmental hazards (e.g. flooding, landslides) on society (e.g. resource use, voting decisions). (Evaluate the geological qualities and hazards of a potential building site and know what questions to ask about the geology of the area that are pertinent to building construction, e.g., is this a good place to build a house?)
Translating the learning objectives into active skills not only makes them inherently assessable, it also provides a guide to me for exactly what content should be taught and gives a rationale to the student as to why they have to learn this particular fact. For example, if the target skill is to be able to identify rocks on a beach, the students will need to know how to recognize visible minerals and structures in rocks. There is no reason for the professor to discuss non-visible microscopic features or rocks too unusual to normally be seen in nature. The content lesson will be immediately followed by application (“What is this rock?” referring to a photo in class or an actual specimen). The student sees the relevance of the material just learned and internalizes it by repetition and discussion with peers. Competency at an activity like this employs higher order thinking skills than simple memorization, because the student must evaluate and analyze rather than repeat facts. Although some content will be sacrificed from the survey approach normally used in Geology 101, far more of what they learn should be retained.
The structure of the class has been redesigned to both teach and assess the six competencies listed above. Take for example outcome/skill number 1 (recognize rock types). The lecture will cover common rock-forming minerals and the significance of the three major rock types. Student comprehension during this phase will be assessed daily using the “one-minute write” format. The lab will also have activities on identifying minerals and rocks using purchased lab specimens which each exemplify a particular type of rock. The rock identification activity will be personalized by giving each student a “pet rock” at the beginning of the course which has been collected at a local beach. They will be told to take this rock to both lecture and lab in order find examples of other rocks like it and to help them identify it. It is important that this is a “wild” rock that has been collected locally and not a laboratory specimen chosen because it best characterizes a certain rock type. During the course the students are to identify their rock by using the principles outlined in the lectures and lab and to tell its “story”, i.e. how it formed, what kind of tectonic regime it characterizes (e.g. ocean floor, continental crust, etc.) and speculating about how it got to the beach where it was found. The rocks will be numbered and each student will be registered with their rock. All the rocks will be pictured on a web site and each student will log onto this site and tell the story of their rock. I will then comment on, ask for revision, and/or approve their story on the web page. All rocks and comments will be available for all students to see, thus modeling the story-telling process. I will have the students share their stories in small groups, making sure that each group has several different rock types, thus promoting peer discussion and practice at rock story-telling. I will bring closure to the exercise, by showing a geological map of the region and helping them infer where their rock originated and how it was transported to the beach. The results can then be assessed by showing a picture(s) of a rock(s) from entirely different areas and assigning a one-minute write.