Click-on-diagram questions as a tool for visual learning and identifying conceptual barrier

Nicole LaDue
Associate Professor
Northern Illinois University

One of the many challenges for STEM students is comprehending the complex and varied visuals in their science classes. Instructors need quick tools to diagnose visual-spatial conceptual barriers and education researchers need expedient ways to reveal common conceptual errors. This engaged student learning project investigated the questions: (1) do click-on-diagram (COD) questions promote conceptual understanding of spatial geoscience concepts? and (2) can COD questions identify novel conceptual errors previously undocumented in the literature? For Study 1 we collected data in Fall 2019 with three institutions to evaluate conceptual learning gains based on implementation of either CoDs or traditional multiple-choice questions. The data were inconsistent across instructors and had too much variance to be statistically analyzed. However, qualitative analysis of the systematic errors (i.e., patterns of incorrect responses) in the CoDs revealed conceptual barriers to student understanding. For Study 2, we further probed the systematic errors with semi-structured interviews. Twenty undergraduate non-science majors were asked questions about surface water and groundwater movement. An iterative coding process was conducted through which the codebook was revised and we achieved adequate agreement between coders (Cohen’s kappa = .76). The interviews uncovered previously undocumented conceptual errors associated with water flow in rivers and groundwater flow. When asked how the speed might change across a river channel as a river bends, many students incorrectly noted that the inside of the bend is where the fastest water would be found (n=7), though many students correctly associated faster moving water with the deeper parts of the river (n=8). When prompted to answer a question about groundwater movement, all students correctly describe the downward movement of water due to gravity, but only 7 participants noted that topography and the groundwater gradient depicted in the diagram would cause lateral flow. Few students correctly connected how groundwater can naturally leave groundwater storage through natural springs (n=2), geysers (n=1), although many noted evaporation can cause groundwater loss (n=7). Nearly all students said groundwater is removed from storage through human activities (n=18). The outcomes of this work demonstrate that there are many novel conceptual errors when introductory-level college students reason about water movement in rivers and in the ground. This project yielded four conference presentations, a book chapter, a peer-reviewed manuscript, with an additional manuscript in development. Additionally, we conducted a highly reviewed workshop with 40 geoscience instructors on designing and implementing CoDs and generated a SERC Pedagogy in Action webpage with 22 example questions. The broader impacts of this work include training for 3 undergraduate and 2 graduate students, and one postdoctoral scholar. CoDs are an effective tool to reveal students’ conceptual errors for research and to target for re-teaching in the classroom. They also allow spatial input from students and can identify challenges that have an underlying spatial reasoning component. The conceptual errors about groundwater flow can guide scientists as they approach the public about groundwater issues.


Thomas F. Shipley, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA