Using tailored problem-based learning and volcanoes to teach undergraduate geoscience

Kelsie Dadd, Theresa Winchester-Seeto, Richard Flood

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingOther chapter contribution


    We have redesigned units of study in our geoscience program to incorporate a modified form of problem-based learning that we call Tailored Problem-based Learning (TPBL). TPBL is an effective way to involve students in an active-learning environment, instill the principles of scientific research, and incorporate generic skills into the curriculum. While some form of PBL has been a component of senior years, it is the development of this technique for use in first and second years that is our innovation. Students work in small groups with each problem extending over several weeks. Tests of content retention give similar results to the use of more traditional teaching methods, but with the weaker students performing at a higher level. Cooperative efforts in small groups particularly benefit weaker students but all benefit from increased engagement with the content. TPBL provides a lecture series and fact sheets that give background to the problem and help to focus the direction the students take. A tutor facilitates each class and helps to guide the students. This method has been introduced into single units rather than the whole program due to the flexible nature of the degree program at Macquarie University. The problems place the students in the role of a geoscientist with topics that they might encounter in industry or a research role. Several problems were designed using volcanoes in Australia and the nearby western Pacific to cover a range of key concepts in plate tectonics, igneous and sedimentary geology and geochemistry. The use of volcanoes helps to engage students with the content and students typically complete these problems with enthusiasm. One problem, set for second year undergraduates, examines islands in the Bismark Sea and the results of a cruise that dredged on hummocks around the islands produced by sector collapse. The students are placed as part of a team of marine geoscientists working for a United Nations taskforce on volcano-related disasters. They are asked to describe the volcanic islands in terms of their shape, type and tectonic setting, to identify how they build from the seafloor and how they are destroyed. Students are presented with topographic and bathymetric maps of the area and a set of rocks from the cruise. The data set includes chemical analyses of the igneous rocks. While these rocks match those of the island chain, they are taken from the departments teaching collection. Students are asked to write their report so that it can be circulated to other scientists on the taskforce. This problem incorporates skills in map reading, constructing profiles, graphically representing and interpreting chemical data, rock identification, and report writing for a specific audience. The students are required to synthesise all aspects of the project in the final report.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationEarth
    Subtitle of host publicationour changing planet : proceedings of IUGG XXIV General Assembly Perugia, Italy 2007
    EditorsLucio Ubertini, Piergiorgio Manciola, Stefano Casadei, Salvatore Grimaldi
    Place of PublicationPerugia, Italy
    PublisherUmbria Scientific Meeting Association 2007
    Number of pages1
    ISBN (Print)9788895852254
    Publication statusPublished - 2007
    EventInternational Union of Geodesy and Geophysics General Assembly (24th : 2007) - Perugia, Italy
    Duration: 2 Jul 200713 Jul 2007


    ConferenceInternational Union of Geodesy and Geophysics General Assembly (24th : 2007)
    CityPerugia, Italy


    • problem based
    • generic skills
    • volcanoes


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