Assessing Undergraduate Learning in Earth Science Residential Fieldwork

TitleAssessing Undergraduate Learning in Earth Science Residential Fieldwork
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsChua S, Switzer AD, Hartman K, Bhatia N, Koh J
JournalAsian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
Date Published05/2020

One of the challenges for module and academic programme coordinators is having to simultaneously measure module outcomes, programme outcomes and the development of graduate attributes. Reliable measures of student growth are difficult to obtain because much of what students are asked to do in their modules is not made available to stakeholders in an easily analysable form. In the earth sciences, fieldwork provides both a consistently orchestrated activity that students repeat at multiple time points in their academic careers and an activity that yields artefacts that can be flexibly analysed depending on a programme’s intended outcomes and the university’s desired attributes.

Fieldwork is an essential component of undergraduate earth science education, and provides a platform for students to learn in a ‘real-world’ setting which is not readily replicated in more traditional methods (e.g. lectures, tutorials). Students record their field experience and accomplish field-based tasks in field notebooks, where careful assessment of these books serve to measure student learning and the development of key skills and competencies integral to their progress as future earth scientists. Based on the collected corpus of student field notebooks, we crafted a generalisable rubric to assess student field notebooks for programme outcomes and the presence of the university’s graduate attributes. The rubric was modelled on the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1989; Biggs & Collis, 2014), a structured method of classifying learning outcomes.

A cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of three student cohorts indicated that the presence of the key skills, competencies, and attributes the programme and university value increased over time. We found that earth science undergraduates generally showed greater sophistication in parameters related to their capacity to organise field information, record information via text, and identify field features, but displayed lower levels of sophistication in aspects related to the use of field symbols and critical thinking. A longitudinal comparison indicated students showed an increase, at the cohort level, in the use of field conventions and textual recording, but showed a decrease in the presence of critical thinking. The changes could be due to the inherent nature of field-based tasks which do not create situations to test higher-order thinking. The findings from this study can thus be used by both students to make informed decisions to improve their own learning (formative assessment), as well as field instructors in possible redesigning of fieldwork content and pedagogy.