Project Sisyphus
Project Sisyphus

Responses From Others

  1. I would like to provide a very small note that may be a rather different perspective from most. I teach a 200-level (i.e. not really introductory, but not upper level either) course called Map Interpretation and the Visualization of Space. It is designed to help students (mostly geology and environmental science majors, but including some urban studies, environmental studies, biologists, anthropologists, and assorted masochists) to use things like maps, aerial photographs, satellite images, etc. to understand and visualize the surface of the earth: what it looks like, why it looks like that, and perhaps even how it is likely to change. I haven't found a decent textbook for this course, so I put the lectures onto a multimedia format accessible from our departmental LAN. All of the information is available in the lecture, and the students can "attend" the lecture as many times as they want in order to get the material. There are lots of graphics and written stuff as part of the multimedia. It was my intent to put as much information into the multimedia as students would need to carry out the exercises, and I honestly believe that I have succeeded. But one of the most common complaints of students is that they want a textbook. I really don't think that they need it, but they want it -- and this is from a student population in a definitely "blue collar" university where textbook costs are a real issue.

    Perhaps the problem is that students come to CSU believing that "learning" means "memorizing", when the delivery system for this course emphasizes critical thinking. But the theme of "I want a textbook" is one I would not have expected in a class like this.

    Perhaps some of you have had similar experiences.

    Pete Clapham
    Department of Biological, Geological, and Environmental Sciences
    Cleveland State University
    Cleveland, Ohio, 44115
    Voice: [216] 687-4820
    Fax: [216] 523-7200

  2. I am a secondary English and Art teacher, however have worked with scientists and science for over ten years at the Alaska Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Facility (ASF) in the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks where we download, process, archive and distribute satellite data from international satellites, primarily SAR data. I met John Butler at AGU a few years ago. Currently, I am working on a Ph.D. attempting to correlate and integrate Alaska Native culture with western science utilizing our data sets along with AVHRR, LANDSAT, and perhaps others. SAR data have been used successfully to track flooding, volcano deformation, forest fire burn scars and vegetation re-growth, glacier movement, sea ice freeze-thaw cycles, and more. I am curious to find out if you use SAR data in your class and, if so, how? Your approach sounds good.

    In Alaska we are working to develop on-line distance education courses. Life is different here. For instance, of all the Native villages along the Yukon River, not one is accessible via road. Many of our distance education courses do have textbooks, however there are some that are purely distance delivery, i.e. over the web via satellite links. Even those, though, will usually have some "hands-on" reading (not textbooks). Students must send for materials via mail and then they can "visit" the class when they are ready. Classes often have their own chat-room for participating students. We are looking into software called WebBoard for our Yukon River secondary course development. Our distance delivery folks also use TopClass. Are you familiar with these programs?

    Perhaps a combination of multi-media and hands-on materials might meet students half way? I guess I'm not clear if you are just using the multimedia lecture or if you are using it as a supplement to the classroom? We developed a middle school multi-media curriculum supplement on glaciers: to be used as a classroom resource. Some reduced-resolution SAR imagery of glaciers is available for educational use at this site.

    Students of all ages learn in different ways but are often trained into a stereotypical way of learning that, while excellent for some, may short-change others. Using a variety of materials and methods may be the best. What do you think?

    Donna Sandberg, M.A.T.

    Alaska SAR Facility, Geophysical Institute

  3. It seems to me that serious students may want textbooks for future reference. I have kept nearly all my textbooks, and over the years I have referred to most of them at one time or another. Also, I don't like reading for long periods on the computer screen and I know many people feel the same way. A textbook is much easier on the eyes. Finally, I write notes in my textbooks. In sum, I think it is unrealistic to think that most or all students will prefer electronic to written materials for a course. The written materials don't have to be an actual book. I think you can get by with a bunch of handouts that could be put into a notebook.

    David C. Kopaska-Merkel

    Head, Ground Water Section
    Geological Survey of Alabama
    PO Box 869999
    Tuscaloosa AL 35486-6999
    (205) 349-2852
    FAX (205) 349-2861
    GSA web site:

  4. From surveying and interviewing students in an introductory physical geology class (for which I was not the instructor), I've found that very few actually read the textbook - or if they do, most say that they don't learn from it. On the other hand, there are 15% who say that they learn more from their text than from any other aspect of the class. This is a typical large lecture with small lab sections. Of the students who don't regularly read the text, most say that they use the textbook as a reference, primarily for lab assignments and before exams in order to make sense of their notes. I don't think this is necessarily inconsistent with development of critical thinking skills. Students may not read their text ahead of time, but if assignments and directed discovery exercises require them to "produce" they suddenly become more motivated to read the applicable parts of the text. The key, of course, is to avoid assignments that merely require regurgitation of the text without requiring synthesis and understanding.

    Chris Brick
    NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in Science Education
    Geology Department
    The University of Montana
    Missoula, MT 59812

  5. I do use a textbook as the primary form of information in my sophmore level Earth Materials course, but I supplement it with resources like the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Project web pages. I'm thinking about not using one, but so far, the task of identifying suitable primary sources for such a broad course has been too daunting.

    I owe a debt to Fred Heck, who inspired me to change my use of homework questions. I post assignments to an on-line discussion space ( that are to be answered by one hour before class. I review those answers in my prep time just before class and know where to go from there. Students get credit for each homework completed, whether or not the answers are correct and for each comment they post on the homework answers of others. Asking additional questions counts as much as posting answers - I'm just trying to get them to read and to think a little before class. I have found that this method gives them the responsibility of learning the easy material from the text and then working on the hard stuff in class activities and discussions. Since I don't lecture on the material and the questions count for credit, I find that students actually do the reading.

    Dave Smith
    La Salle University

  6. I have been teaching Environmental Geology to non-majors for nearly 20 years. About a dozen years ago we found a text that seemed to work fairly well - at least, it was better than anything else on the market at the time. But over the years, and subsequence editions, the book changed, to the point that we no longer use it.

    The problem we found is that the book has been dumbed down to a considerable extent. The first and second editions explained things reasonably well. The third and fourth editions merely tell students things. There is little structure to the discussions. In effect, no arguments are presented; the text is just a list of factual statements.

    I have been telling the sales representatives of the course this for several years, and I even documented the matter by comparing a couple of editions. But of course, the publisher is not going to make a book "harder to read," because students would complain and fewer faculty would use the book.

    I am not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg. Are the books dumbed down because students do not like to read, or have students gotten out of the habit of reading because they find little of interest in what they are assigned?

    So I keep changing books, hoping that some day I will find the holy grail.

    Pat de Caprariis
    Dept of Geology
    Indiana-Purdue Univ
    Indianapolis IN 46202

  7. Pat has hit the nail on the head regarding the major problem with most introductory level physical and environmental geology textbooks. Very often the science just isn't there any more, in terms of a logical progression from observation to discussion to interpretation. If textbooks don't encourage students to think and to understand, perhaps this explains why students are sometimes unreceptive to coursework or exams in which they have to think, rather than regurgitate memorized 'facts'.

    Roger Suthren

  8. This point (from Roger) is well taken. I suppose in the best of all possible worlds we would like textbooks to be interesting pieces of literature; engaging, provocative, appealing, and sufficiently absorbing as well as informative that students would enjoy reading them. I'm not necessarily advocating that Stephen King be asked to write an intro geology textbook, but on the other hand it would be interesting to see what he, or some similar popular novelist, would come up with if he tried. I have colleagues who have used John McPhee's books in non-major courses with great success.


  9. Maybe this reflects my naivete, but I hate the idea of giving in to the dumbing-down of university education. I will be teaching my first class next semester (as an adjunct). It is a graduate carbonate course and I'm going to use the primary literature to a great extent. If they don't invite me back to teach next year, well, that will be a mixed curse. I understand the principle of giving a helping hand to students who have difficulty with reading, or with concepts, or other things, but at some level you have to say "this is what you need to be able to do." I do plan to use a text, the one I used myself in 1979 (Bathurst's), and I expect to have to explain some things I think they should know. They'll probably also ask questions I can't answer! At least, I hope so.

    If I'm talking like a fool, maybe someone with more experience can suggest another way to combat this trend.

    David C. Kopaska-Merkel

  10. Further on the topic of textbooks. I have been teaching "Physical Geology" for a number of years and agree completely with Pat's comments concerning the dumbing down of text books - certainly this is true for all Physical Geology textbooks over time. For example the first edition of Press and Siever was very good. Since then it and its offspring are useless as good learning tools. I could say the same for any book now on the market. I am old enough to have used Strahler - Physical Geology. It was superior. Drawbacks in the present market? No pictures in millions of colors. Too many words. Students even have to think. I have become very cynical because students can gain little except looking at pictures from the texts. Adding a CD in most cases has contributed little other than to reinforce the idea to if knowledge is not on a screen it is not workth trying to know. THat said, of course, I try to have students use my web pages for class.

    I have also talked to the publisher reps with 0 result.

    What is the answer?

    One is to get a society to publish upper end textbooks for much less money than commercial publishers. Mineralogical Society of America has done some of that with success. This takes a big commitment on the part of folks who are willing to write the books. But these same folks have some excellent web pages.

    One society that comes to mind is AGI which is already into publishing lab books and pre college texts.

    Any takers?

    In the ideal world of course we would have publish on demand using a selection of chapters that could, for a fee, be downloaded, printed on site and sold - all for a fee to the organization that holds the copyright.



  11. The following message came over the Illinois Science Teachers' Assoc. listserv today. While it is for middle school, this may give some inset about the problems college professors are encountering with their students.



    The following press release was passed over the wire today from AAAS. Their study of textbooks is far deeper than the "alignment to standards" that everyone else--textbook publishers, test writers, CASE authors--have done, and it shows. I think the implications are enormous.

    Heavy Books Light on Learning:

    Not One Middle Grades Science Text Rated Satisfactory

    By AAAS's Project 2061

    Washington, DC - Not one of the widely used science textbooks for middle school was rated satisfactory by Project 2061, the long-term science, mathematics, and technology education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). And the new crop of texts that have just entered the market fared no better in the evaluation. The in-depth study found that most textbooks cover too many topics and don't develop any of them well. All texts include many classroom activities that either are irrelevant to learning key science ideas or don't help students relate what they are doing to the underlying ideas.

    "Our students are lugging home heavy texts full of disconnected facts that neither educate nor motivate them," said Dr. George Nelson, Director of Project 2061. "It's a credit to science teachers that their students are learning anything at all. No matter how `scientifically accurate' a text may be," Nelson continued, "if it doesn't provide teachers and students with the right kinds of help in understanding and applying important concepts, then it's not doing its job."

    Nelson released the textbook evaluation on September 28 at the National Press Club, which featured him as its "Morning Newsmaker."

    The study, headed by Dr. Jo Ellen Roseman, Project 2061 Curriculum Director, examined how well textbooks for the middle grades can help students learn key ideas in earth science, life science, and physical science, drawn from AAAS's Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards.

    "This study probed beyond the usual superficial alignment by topic heading," Roseman said. "Instead, it examined the text's quality of instruction aimed specifically at the key ideas, using criteria drawn from the best available research about how students learn."

    Each text was evaluated by two independent teams made up of middle school teachers, curriculum specialists, and professors of science education. The evaluation procedure was developed and tested over a period of three years in collaboration with more than 100 scientists, mathematicians, educators and curriculum developers, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

    "This study confirms our worst fears about the materials used to educate our children in the critical middle grades," said Nelson. "Because textbooks are the backbone of classroom instruction, we must demand improvement so that our students can acquire the knowledge and skills they will need for more advanced learning in high school, college, and the workplace."

    The study also looked at three stand-alone units that are not part of any textbooks. Developed at Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Education through research aimed at how students learn, the units rated much higher than the textbooks. "These encouraging results show that good science materials can indeed be developed," Roseman reported.

    "Although Project 2061 does not write textbooks," Nelson explained, "our goal is to provide guidance for those who do. For example, we plan to send detailed reports to the publishers of science textbooks and invite them to discuss the findings with us. Project 2061 hopes the reviews not only will guide textbook development in the future but will also be valuable for middle school teachers today. We understand that these negative evaluations will be disturbing for schools using these texts, but teachers should be able to use the explanations in the full reports to start looking for ways to compensate for the text's shortcomings."

    This is the second in a series of Project 2061 textbook evaluations funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The evaluation of middle grades mathematics texts, released in January 1999, rated several texts high, but these texts are not yet widely used. As a result of Project 2061's evaluation, a number of school districts are now considering these highly rated math texts for adoption. Project 2061 will release its findings for high school algebra and biology textbooks next year and is seeking funds to examine elementary school materials and to update the middle and high school materials evaluations.

    Project 2061 has been working since 1985 to improve science, mathematics, and technology education for all students. Its 1993 publication Benchmarks for Science Literacy recommended specific learning goals for students at the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 and provided the foundation for national and state science standards and frameworks. The project offers a variety of professional development programs for teachers and other educators.

    A summary of the middle grades science textbook evaluation will be posted on the Project 2061 web site at . Full reports on each textbook will be available early next year.

  12. Janis

    Thanks for sharing this interesting, if somewhat sobering report. I would say it echos some of the comments we have been hearing on this list concerning the quality (or lack thereof) of geoscience text books. Maybe we need a "Project 2061" task force to begin to look at college level texts.

  13. As a member of the geriatric generation, I hesitate to join this discussion, but ... I have authored several textbooks that I (perhaps arrogantly) think of as contributions to the "smartening up" rather than "dumbing down" trend. I did not write these books before determining that my students, not a highly selected intellectual group, were capable of handling these ideas. Admittedly, I never tried to write a freshman text, though I did teach large freshman groups for many years and tried the same "smartening up" approach on them, with reasonable success.

    Looking back on my own student days, I incline to think that the best teachers were those who challenged the students to do better than they thought they could -- though one must make only reasonable demands. I am reminded of a marvellous TV show I saw a couple of years ago about a math teacher at a "low achievement" school who wrought wonders teaching calculus at a relatively advanced level to high school students who would never have believed they were capable of that level of achievement.

    The Web is wonderful for first explorations and awakening interest, but for deeper studies, students need to use a library and read books. I do not think the value of a good book has been changed much by the Internet.

    Gerry Middleton

  14. Dear David:

    Thank you very much for your message. I am pleased that there is interest in the idea that SEPM should publish advanced-level textbooks. This is, in fact, a move that SEPM has already taken: we are in the process of re-defining the scope of our "Concepts in Sedimentology and Paleontology" volume series to limit it to specialist texts. The formal ratification of this new policy by SEPM Council should take place at the GSA meeting in Denver later this month. The first of the books of this type will then appear later this year: it is a text on siliciclastic sequence stratigraphy by Henry Posmentier and the late George Allen, written essentially for graduate students and professionals in the petroleum industry. Another text is also in preparation, dealing with the application of radiogenic and stable isotopes in stratigraphic correlation and paleoenvironmental interpretation.

    I am sure that there are many more possible topics out there for advanced-level textbooks and SEPM is eager to consider proposals. I am not sure whether SEPM would want to compete with the commercial publishers in the market for undergraduate texts (especially at the lower levels), but I am prepared to judge each proposal on its merits.

    If you or others with whom you correspond have ideas, please have them contact me. Feel free to circulate this message on your earth-science education listserv.

    ______________________________________________________________________ R.W. Dalrymple

    Professor and Acting Head
    Dept. of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering
    Queen's University

  15. After reading Weecha's (M.L. Crawford) letter I felt compelled to comment. As a coauthor of a successful physical geology textbook I have a very different, although admittedly biased, perspective. To begin with, a highly selective school, such as Bryn Mawr, should have brighter and more motivated students than a large, state university (such as where I teach). What would be an easy read for one student population could be a real challenge for another. Most of the students I have taught in physical geology classes consider our textbook challenging but understandable (at least for topics also covered in lectures). Our physical geology classes are small and relatively demanding because most students here take earth science or general geology to fulfill their general education science requirement. My experience teaching general geology is that much of our textbook is beyond what these students are able or willing to grasp. So demands of the marketplace have some influence on the level of books that are published. I disagree with Weecha's statement that all physical geology textbooks have dumbed down over time. Certainly the original Press and Siever ("Earth") bears no resemblance to the very dumbed down, current P&S ("Understanding Earth"). I feel that our textbook (Plummer, McGeary, and now, Carlson) has gone the other way. Compare the 1st edition (I cringe to look at it) to the current, 8th edition. What has happened is that for each revision we go over numerous reviews from a broad spectrum of geology instructors. Some are very critical some say everything is fine. Some are constructive, others are not much help. There is rarely a consensus on how we should treat a topic. I weigh every suggested addition, change or deletion very carefully. I have tended more toward the changes that make the book more rigorous, because they usually make the book more accurate. This has resulted in a creeping "dedumbing" of the book. What could be done to enhance learning with a textbook? One thing would be to read the pages assigned to a class when you are preparing a lecture on the topic and modify your lecture to expand or enhance those topics you want covered in more depth. (I suspect that a lot of instructors donít read the textbook they have assigned.) Another suggestion is to be selective about reading assignments. I think few, if any, instructors can cover everything in a standard textbook in a semester. Few students today read any more than they think they have to (meaning what they perceive will be on the exam) and the more specific you are at telling what they are expected to read and learn from a textbook, the more likely they are to do it.

    Charles "Carlos" Plummer

    Professor of Geology
    California State University

  16. Charles Plummer's comments on textbooks are interesting because I have never spoken to the author of an introductory text about the process of revision.Charles Plummer's comments on textbooks are interesting because I have never spoken to the author of an introductory text about the process of revision.

    I mentioned in an earlier posting to this forum that I found little structure in the presentation in a popular Environmental Geology textbook. Since others have mentioned texts specifically, I might as well mention that the book I referred to is Carla Montgomery's. When I was using the second edition, I decided to try to teach my students how to read scientific text. So I used some ideas I found in an Ed Psch. article on the subject. Those authors noted several structures that exist in scientific articles. So I found places in Montgomery's book and showed the class (using handouts) the patterns and how they explain what is said.

    When the third edition of the book came out, I tried to redo the handout, since the pages on which my examples occurred would have changed. But I found that the revisions made had wiped them out. And I could find no other good examples. The arguments had degenerated into talk. Because the other people in the department who taught the course agreed that the book had been dumbed down, we shifted to other books, though we have not found one we liked as well as the first two editions of Montgomery.

    If anyone is interested in the article I mentioned, it is in the Journal of Educational Psychology, vol 80, no. 4, p. 448-456, 1988. The title is Teaching readers about the structure of scientific text," by Linda Cook and Richard Mayer.

    Pat de Caprariis

    Department of Geology
    Indiana-Purdue Univ.