Cognitive factors affecting student understanding of geologic time



A critical element of the earth sciences is reconstructing geological structures and systems that have developed over time. A survey of the science education literature shows that there has been little attention given to this concept. In this study, we present a model, based on Montagnero's (1996) model of diachronic thinking, which describes how students reconstruct geological transformations over time. For geology, three schemes of diachronic thinking are relevant: 1. Transformation, which is a principle of change; in geology it is understood through actualistic thinking (the idea that present proceeses can be used to model the past). 2. Temporal organization, which defines the sequential order of a transformation; in geology it is based on the three-dimensional relationship among strata. 3. Interstage linkage, which is the connections between successive stages of a transformation; in geology it is based on both actualism and causal reasoning. Three specialized instruments were designed to determine the factors which influence reconstructive thinking: (a) the GeoTAT which tests diachronic thinking skills, (b) the TST which tests the relationship between spatial thinking and temporal thinking, and (c) the SFT which tests the influence of dimensional factors on temporal awareness. Based on the model constructed in this study we define the critical factors influencing reconstructive thinking: (a) the transformation scheme which influences the other diachronic schemes, (b) knowledge of geological processes, and (c) extracognitive factors. Among the students tested, there was a significant difference between Grade 9–12 students and Grade 7–8 students in their ability to reconstruct geological phenomena using diachronic thinking. This suggests that somewhere between Grades 7 and 8 it is possible to start teaching some of the logical principles used in geology to reconstruct geological structures. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 40: 415–442, 2003