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Volume 13, Number 2

Dedicated to Dr. David Lambert, Professor of Geography Education, University of London, and to the Geographical Association of the United Kingdom. 

Disciplinary Divergence and Convergence in the Content of Introductory Undergraduate Coursework in Geography
David J. Rutherford 
Volume 13 (2011), Number 2, Pages 3-29

While some geographers assert that the variable, diverse, and wide-ranging content focus of geography produces a problem of disciplinary disunity and lack of coherence, many geographers argue that geography is a discipline of synthesis whose content focus is of secondary importance to its unifying perspectives. This tension between diverse content focus and synthesizing perspectives appears particularly noticeable in introductory undergraduate courses in geography. While observers have noted widely differing content foci across the three most widely taught introductory undergraduate courses (human geography, physical geography, and world regional geography), no systematic empirical research has documented the differing content foci of these courses or identified the extent to which these courses may incorporate synthesizing perspectives. The research reported in this paper utilized a theoretically informed empirical approach to identify the content foci and synthesizing perspectives that were present in these introductory courses during the mid-2000s I n the United States. Formal curricula, in the form of course syllabi for the three introductory courses were subjected to a rigorous and replicable content analysis that identified subject matter content and synthesizing perspectives in these three courses. Overall results show the existence of (1) limited commonality of subject matter across the courses, particularly between physical geography courses and the human and regional courses, and (2) a small set of subject matter items and disciplinary perspectives that are common across the courses. Detailed results provide nuance to these overall results and additional insight. The results suggest ways that instructors can not only teach the specific content focus of each course but also introduce students to perspectives that can serve to unite geography as a coherent disciplinary approach. In addition, by drawing from theory, this paper suggests ways that these results can contribute to overcoming the divides that exist across the overall discipline of geography and help to “engineer the synergies that are now latent” in the discipline (Abler, 1992, p. 224).

Keywords: Geography education, undergraduate, introductory courses, synthesis, fragmentation

Concept Mapping Validates Fieldwork’s Capacity to Deepen Students’ Cognitive Linkages of Complex Processes
Casey D. Allen 
Volume 13 (2011), Number 2, Pages 30-51

Concept maps created by introductory physical geography students were analyzed to assess the power of a field index in students learning concepts related to rock decay. Students (n = 571) were randomly selected from introductory physical geography laboratory sessions where 86% had never taken another college-level geography course, 46% had never taken a “lab science” course, and 22% were from minority (non-white) populations. All students, upon completing a straight-forward demographic survey and open-ended questionnaire, undertook a concept mapping exercise after learning about rock decay through direct instruction (i.e., lecture). From this n, 322 students also took part in a hands-on field-based experience involving analyses of rock decay associated with petroglyphs, and then completed another concept map. Concept map scores indicate field experience participants understood form and process connections better after the field experience than after direct instruction, and especially minority students, where the average score increase approached 23%, compared to 11% in non-minorities. Female students (16% average increase) also scored higher after the field experience compared to male students (11% average increase). Concept maps were compared to open-ended questionnaires to further establish validity, and after testing for normalcy with Kolmogorov-Smirnov, t-tests revealed all score increases to be highly statistically significant (p < 0.001), with minority student score increases compared to non-minority increases yielding a statistical significance (p < 0.01), while learning in females over males yielded a statistical trend (p = 0.067). These findings reveal fieldwork’s power to deepen cognitive linkages between complex biophysical processes and the corresponding landscape forms, especially among minority and female students.

Keywords: Field methods, concept mapping, alternative pedagogy, geography education, science education assessment

GIS Instruction: Learning from Student Perception of Concept Difficulty
Niem Tu Huynh & Nathaniel Dean 
Volume 13 (2011), Number 2, Pages 52-78

The focus of this study is on students’ perceived difficulty of GIS concepts and this research is guided by three related research questions: 1) What are students’ perception(s) of the difficulty level of geography and GIS concepts?, 2) What patterns of student perception, if any, exist?, and 3) How do the findings inform instructional strategies in a GIS class? The analytic process drew on two mathematical approaches, multidimensional scaling (MDS) and minimum spanning tree (MST). These analytic methods project and compare the data spatially which allows for a visual assessment of the emerged clusters. The preliminary findings identify groups of simple and complex concepts and suggest instructional strategies. Two trends are evident from the results. The first is that students generally agree on the difficulty level of concepts; those ranked more similarly are grouped within a cluster. For example, students found data manipulation (e.g., categorization of data, identification as spatial/non-spatial), geodesy, datum, coordinate systems, geocoding, and neighborhood functions especially difficult. The second trend is that concept clusters are loosely aligned with overall student performance. For example, students do better on concepts they rank as “easy” compared to those they perceive to be “difficult” although anomalies exist. The practical application of the results is to devise in-class exercises that add meaning to theoretical topics and to engage students with hands-on activities.

Keywords: GIS instruction, GIS learning, student perception, hands-on activities

Examining the National Geography Standards for Presence of Spatial Concepts
Meredith J. Marsh 
Volume 13 (2011), Number 2, Pages 79-101

The publication of the Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (GESP, 1994) proved to be a milestone event in the recent history of geography education in the United States. While this document is certainly comprehensive in scope, early analyses of its effectiveness and implementation has revealed areas for improvement. Building on these concerns, a content analysis of Geography for Life was conducted using a comprehensive list of 22 geography concepts developed in a 2005 Ontario, Canada standards study by Sharpe and Huynh. The research was performed in two parts: Part 1 applied the expanded set of 22 Ontario concepts to Geography for Life with the aim of discovering the degree of emphasis in U.S. standards between basic “object and process” geography and concepts associated with higher levels of “spatial thinking.” A secondary goal in Part 1 was to observe the extent to which differences might exist between Ontario and U.S. standards. Part 2 investigated a different set of 16 geospatial concepts—developed from the author’s experience in teaching a college-level introductory human geography course, and by reviewing other related materials - to examine the extent to which these 16 concepts might also be found in various grade levels in the national standards. Part 2 questioned the assertion that simple concepts appear more often in early grade levels, while more complex ones appear later in the K-12 continuum. The content analysis of Part 1 revealed definite strengths in the U.S. geography standards in terms of its areas of emphases on higher level spatial concepts, as well as, basic geography concepts. The Ontario standards differed with an emphasis on concepts related to “geomatics,” (geographic information science) which did not appear in the U.S. standards. Findings from Part 2 were generally as expected, encouraging for instructors of higher education geography courses; however, findings from this research also indicate that more research is needed on the effectiveness of the national standards, not only for K-12 education, but for the geographic and spatial knowledge that students carry on to higher education.

Keywords: U.S. geography standards, national geography standards, Ontario geography standards, spatial concepts, content analysis, K-12 geography education

Indications of the Influence of Teacher Training On Standards-Based Middle School Geography
Catherine W. Cooper 
Volume 13 (2011), Number 2, Pages 102-120

Since the 1994 publication of Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, which specifies what students in American schools should learn and be able to do with regard to geography, educators have questioned the extent to which the national standards’ framework for grades K-12 has been incorporated into state standards’ documents, and then subsequently, adopted by teachers and included in their classroom instruction.  Using a survey design of a sample of middle school teachers throughout the State of Maryland, this research examined the degree to which a significant difference exists between the intended geography curriculum developed at the state level and informed by the national standards, and the geography curriculum actually taught in classrooms.  In addition, this research tested the degree of association between teaching specific standards and teachers’ formal and informal training, as well as, between teaching specific standards and other explanatory variables related to their classroom preparations.  Findings suggest the need for additional preparatory training of teachers in geography standards as well as opportunities for targeted professional development in applying standards in the classroom.  This research further suggests that, creation of a “geography study community” might be useful for teachers who might need assistance for understanding geography content within the broad context of the discipline’s overarching themes.1 

Keywords:  Geography K-12, National Geography Standards, state geography standards: intended versus taught, geography study community, application of geography standards