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Showcase January 2014: Using CogSketch to increase sketching and spatial skill development in Geoscience classrooms

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Using CogSketch to increase sketching and spatial skill development in Geoscience classrooms

Bridget Garnier1, Carol Ormand1, 2, Maria Chang3, Basil Tikoff2, Thomas Shipley4, Kenneth Forbus3

1Carleton College, 2University of Wisconsin-Madison, 3Northwestern University, 4Temple University


For a more recent abstract of this research, see:

  • Garnier, B., Ormand, C. J., Chang, M., Matlen, B., Tikoff, B., Shipley, T. F., & Forbus, K. D. (2014, October). Testing CogSketch geoscience worksheets as an effective spatial learning tool in introductory geoscience courses. Abstracts with Programs - Geological Society of America, 46(6), 671.

Many fundamental geoscience concepts and tasks require advanced spatial thinking, including geologic time, plate tectonics, reading topographic and geologic maps, or visualizing the Earth’s magnetic field, ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, and others too numerous to mention. Many students taking introductory geoscience courses struggle with these spatial thinking concepts or tasks, and therefore with the course. Cognitive research has shown that sketching is a valuable tool for spatial skills development in engineers (Sorby, 2009). Geoscience instructors have also long understood the value of sketching through personal use and field exercises. Sketching can deepen a student’s understanding and can be used as a tool for communicating comprehension to peers and instructors (Ainsworth, 2011). In short, practice makes students better both at sketching and at spatial thinking. Our goal is to use frequent sketching to help students develop their spatial thinking skills and understand difficult geoscience concepts, allowing a wider range of students to become interested in the geosciences and continue with higher coursework.

However, there are logistical challenges to including frequent sketching in a classroom setting. Introductory geoscience courses range in size from tens of students to hundreds of students. With large classes, instructors do not have time to grade each sketch, give constructive and individualized feedback before bad habits are formed, and determine whether students understand concepts before moving on to new topics. Therefore, we reach an impasse between knowing that sketching is a strong strategy for learning and not being able to implement it frequently or effectively in the classroom.

Working as a team of geoscience researchers, cognitive psychologists, and computer programmers in SILC, we are developing a set of worksheets on geoscience concepts that utilize CogSketch, a sketching software program with a built-in virtual tutor. CogSketch can be used in a course to increase the frequency of sketching and immediate feedback with minimal added effort from instructors or TA’s. CogSketch allows students to sketch spatial concepts and relationships with a stylus or mouse and provides them with feedback (via the virtual tutor) about their sketch by comparing it to the instructor’s solution (Figure 1). CogSketch geoscience worksheets that have been 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.
  2. Scaling is the linear transformation of an object to a larger or smaller size.
  3. Understanding dynamic processes is the ability for students to understand and communicate the dynamic nature of a system.
  4. Penetrative thinking is the ability to mentally visualize the spatial relations inside an object.

Figure 1
Figure 1: An example of how a student completes a CogSketch worksheet. Each worksheet contains a background image and directions. The student sketches onto the image, move objects, and/or annotate photos. At any point, the student can click the Feedback button to receive advice on his or her sketch. CogSketch compares the student’s sketch to a solution sketch, identifies the discrepancies and supplies the student with pre-written advice to help correct their mistakes. The student can correct their mistakes and continue to click the Feedback button until no mistakes are present and the message “Your sketch looks good to me!” appears.

An example of a worksheet is given in Figure 2. This worksheet focuses on strike/dip and block diagrams, which are two structural geology concepts that are difficult for students to visualize and understand. Students must use penetrative thinking skills to rotate the strike and dip symbols into the correct orientation and sketch the missing side of the block diagrams. For incorrect, the feedback often directs the student to the information they need to complete the task. The feedback may ask a question, ‘If you were looking at the top of the box, which direction is the bedding dipping to?’, or direct the student to a piece of information they may have missed, ‘The strike and dip symbols are show on the top face of the block diagram’.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Strike and Dip and Block Diagram worksheet. This worksheet covers structural geology concepts and penetrative thinking. Students have to move and rotate the strike and dip symbols into the red boxes to indicate the orientation of bedding shown in the block diagrams. For the Block Diagram section, students have to sketch the missing side of the diagrams by using the information on the other two sides.

We pilot tested 8 CogSketch worksheets in an introductory geology class at Carleton College in the spring of 2013. Students learned the program within 20 minutes and completed each worksheet in 10-20 minutes. We saw that students requested feedback (virtual tutor) an average of 2 times per worksheet and in multiple cases, students used the feedback to make changes to their sketches. Ideally, we want to increase how often students use the virtual tutor to help them improve their sketches. Worksheets were revised based on completed worksheets and questionnaires completed by students.

We have increased our worksheet curriculum to 26 worksheets that cover 13 topics in introductory geology (Figure 3). A larger study will be conducted in Spring 2014 with students in at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Baraboo. In this study, students will engage in frequent sketching – typically once or twice a week -- either using CogSketch worksheets or paper versions of the same worksheets. This design will allow us to

  1. Test the efficacy of the worksheet content in developing students’ spatial skills and their understanding of the geoscience content covered by the worksheets, and
  2. Separate the effect of immediate feedback (from the virtual tutor) from the effect of sketching in the learning process.

We hypothesize that both frequent sketching and getting immediate feedback on their sketches will have significant effects on student learning in introductory geoscience courses.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Matrix of the four spatial skills and introductory geoscience topics. Each green box represents a CogSketch worksheet, which focuses on a difficult geoscience concept in the selected topic and at least one spatial skill. Most worksheets focus on multiple spatial skills, but only the main spatial skill is used to categorize each worksheet.

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