A phenomenographic approach to investigating students’ conceptions of geoscience as an academic discipline

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Stokes, A. (2011). A phenomenographic approach to investigating students’ conceptions of geoscience as an academic discipline. In Feig, A. D., & Stokes, A., (Eds.), Qualitative Inquiry in Geoscience Education Research. Geological Society of America Special Paper 474, 23–35. doi:10.1130/2011.2474(03).
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Phenomenography is an empirical approach to identifying the qualitatively dis- crete ways in which individuals experience and understand aspects of the world around them. Although established for several decades, the technique is seldom applied (if at all) in geoscience education research, yet it has the potential to significantly enhance undergraduate instruction. This paper presents an overview of phenomenographic inquiry in terms of its characteristic methods and applications to education research. The value of this approach to geoscience education is then demonstrated in a study investigating conceptions of geoscience as an academic discipline. Students enrolled in undergraduate geoscience programs at a single U.K. university, together with geo- science faculty, provided brief, written responses to the question “what do you believe your chosen discipline to be about or concerned with?” Phenomenographic analysis revealed six qualitatively distinct conceptions, ranging from simple to complex, to be present within both the student and faculty populations. Although process-based con- ceptions dominated both the student and faculty data, simpler conceptions were more pervasive among students, and complex conceptions were more pervasive among fac- ulty. This has implications for curriculum design and instruction since the concep- tions held by faculty will influence their assumptions about students’ perceptions of geoscience, and the learning strategies and techniques likely to be effective.

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