1. Introduction

Learning processes are unpredictable; therefore, it is important to build in repetition and scaffolding to create domain-specific knowledge. Recognizing this dynamic in post-secondary contexts gives us important opportunities to develop effective instructional methods. A 2003 study from the University of Washington demonstrated how students' academic growth tends to be discipline-specific, "What students knew and how they grew seemed shaped by their academic majors to a great extent, which meant that their intellectual development was uneven and 'domain-specific" (Beyer et al. 2007, 11). In particular, graduating seniors, who gained expertise in the discipline of their major, define critical thinking and problem solving based on how they learned those skills in their major (Beyer et al. 2007, 155). Social sciences students tended to associate critical thinking challenges with learning new information and integrating how scholars present information to support or define new concepts (Beyer et al. 2007, 184). The analysis and interpretation of data also posed a significant challenge to social sciences undergraduates. It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that learning experiences and gains are significantly domain-specific, and that critical thinking in social sciences disciplines involves negotiating new information and scholarly discourse.

In the American academic system, these critical thinking issues are particularly pronounced among lower-division students who experience significant struggles negotiating disciplinary conventions across a wide spectrum of coursework. Freshmen "move from culture to culture, taking classes in biology, English, and history at the same time, trying to navigate each one with few guiding stars to show them how to do so successfully" (Beyer et al. 2007, 189). How might instructors begin to address the difficulties students experience during this academic journey? How might instructional technology mitigate some of these challenges? Studies have revealed that "experts knowledge is not simply a list of facts and formulas that are relevant to their domain; instead, their knowledge is organized around core concepts or big ideas that guide their thinking about their domains" (Donovan et al. 1999, 36). These studies inform the research questions behind the following classroom research, as we will suggest that 3D digital labs in lower division (first and second year of undergraduate studies) enhance discipline-specific student learning, and can be very engaging for students. From these premises it seems clear that introducing expert ways of organising knowledge early in a learning process would benefit freshmen students, helping them to develop a critical approach to knowledge acquisition from the beginning of their academic experience.

It is quite well recognised that knowledge acquisition can be greatly influenced by students' prior knowledge. A famous study published in Physics Today (Wieman and Perkins 2005), shows how prior knowledge confuses or interferes with academic performance in physics. After explaining the physics of sound, the authors of the article brought a violin into class and demonstrated how, based on prior discussion, the sound of the violin is not caused by the strings but produced by the back of the instrument. Fifteen minutes after this explanation they posed a multiple-choice question to the students and, surprisingly, only 10% retained the information (Wieman and Perkins 2005, 3, 11). According to Wieman and Perkins a low retention score is typical for a "non-obvious or counter-intuitive fact that is presented in a lecture" (2005, 3), and research-based teaching can be a key practice for increasing retention of information in face-to face lectures (2005, 4).

Social sciences are vexed by similar challenges. In archaeology, for instance, students begin coursework with ideas about the profession that are heavily influenced by mass media (Gale 2002; Russell 2002). Introducing expert ways of organising knowledge in introductory archaeology courses could help students to recognise more readily how professionals actually work. Perhaps more importantly, this approach to teaching encourages students to master concepts, history and theory in the discipline, with an emphasis on data analysis and professional methodologies.

Figure 1

Figure 1: An archaeological dig is a material kinaesthetic experience. When archaeologists dig, they utilise a variety of analytical and exploratory procedures that are difficult to explain in traditional classroom settings. In this picture, archaeologists of the Çatalhöyük 3D dig project are at work (picture by Carlos Bazua Morales)

A common strategy to engage students in critical professional thinking is problem-based learning, which is one among a few hallmarks of learner-centred teaching, and can be enacted either in a realistic laboratory activity or written exercise (Huba 2000, 37). This technique allows students to apply theories learned in class and demonstrate professional characteristics. When students try to think in archaeological terms, though, they face one challenge: engaging conceptually with excavation methods. In fact, assuming that an archaeological excavation can be described as a sensory and kinaesthetic material experience (Figure 1), it is difficult to communicate the physicality of fieldwork in traditional classroom settings. This initial conceptual struggle suggests that students at the introductory level need active engagement with the materiality of archaeology in order to master important concepts and subsequently to succeed in fieldwork opportunities.

Our instructional approach was to provide a practical challenge of implementing the principles and experiences of fieldwork, with a 3D application to simulate the archaeological excavation process to freshmen students. An archaeological environment was virtually re-created in 3D, and allowed users to work with the reconstructed excavation area by means of a virtual reality software application. The archaeological site virtually documented is Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic town in south central Anatolia, Turkey, which, in the 1960s, became the most celebrated Neolithic site in western Asia (Hodder 1997). The excavation is recognised as one of the most important in the world, and currently, Çatalhöyük is on the Turkish proposed list for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The 3D application allows students to virtually excavate one of the houses of the town, using the stratigraphic method. The 3D reconstruction is based on real data digitally recorded in summer 2010 by a team of students of heritage and archaeology, directed by Dr Maurizio Forte. The archaeological 3D digital data acquisition at Çatalhöyük was possible thanks to an agreement between the University of California Merced and Stanford University.

The advantage of this experimental and innovative project is that it allows lower-division or freshmen students to reflect on data collected during the fieldwork without losing the feel of the immediate, hands-on experience. In other words, the application provides a wide array of students with a simulation of the archaeological process. If a virtual reconstruction cannot activate the kinaesthetic intelligence needed for fieldwork, it can stimulate sensory-motor learning processes, complementary to traditional instruction in textbook or lecture formats (i.e. textual or symbolic-reconstructive learning processes). To put it another way, simulation promises to expand fieldwork experience and professional activities that are normally limited to a few students in upper-division course work. This technology or technical affordance (Gibson 1979) expands our ability to bring expert knowledge and organising principles to lower-division coursework, ensuring a stronger pathway to success in critical thinking skills.

The software was tested in class for teaching the basics of archaeological fieldwork. The application interface is user-friendly and especially intuitive for students, who now have frequent access to technologies such as computers, the internet, email, and mobile phones in everyday life (Waycott et al. 2010, 1206). Our study employed a pre-survey, post-test, and post-survey design. The pre-survey was aimed at documenting the students' previous familiarity with archaeology and their attitude toward the discipline. The post-test was an ill-defined problem, where students had to demonstrate their acquired knowledge of the stratigraphic method after the use of the application, compared to the knowledge of those students who had used conventional methods (i.e. 2D reconstructions of the same environment). The post-survey was conceived as a summative assessment of the 3D application vs the 2D exercise and its complementary activities (lecture on stratigraphy, ill-defined problem). This case-study demonstrates how a digital approach to laboratory work can strengthen learning outcomes (i.e. to understand the stratigraphic method, to apply the laws of the stratigraphic method and recognise relationships between stratigraphic layers/units, to create a matrix from a stratigraphic sequence). Increased engagement and strengthened abilities to complete ill-defined problems, can, in fact, be demonstrated.

This research is part of an educational study conducted by the Center for Research and Teaching Excellence at UC Merced, and has been partially funded by FIPSE (US Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education). The application was developed as a specific and limited study intended to show the impact of digital tools on learning processes in lower-division courses. For this reason the research discussed in this article is preliminary, and the application should be considered a pilot study, with results that suggest improved learning outcomes associated with 3D learning applications.


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