Research in Science Education

, Volume 44, Issue 6, pp 859-883

First online:

Drawing on Experience: How Domain Knowledge Is Reflected in Sketches of Scientific Structures and Processes

  • Benjamin D. JeeAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Rhode Island College Email author 
  • , Dedre GentnerAffiliated withNorthwestern University
  • , David H. UttalAffiliated withNorthwestern University
  • , Bradley SagemanAffiliated withNorthwestern University
  • , Kenneth ForbusAffiliated withNorthwestern University
  • , Cathryn A. ManducaAffiliated withCarleton College
  • , Carol J. OrmandAffiliated withCarleton College
  • , Thomas F. ShipleyAffiliated withTemple University
  • , Basil TikoffAffiliated withUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison

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Capturing the nature of students’ mental representations and how they change with learning is a primary goal in science education research. This can be challenging in spatially intense domains, such as geoscience, architecture, and engineering. In this research, we test whether sketching can be used to gauge level of expertise in geoscience, using new technology designed to facilitate this process. We asked participants with differing levels of geoscience experience to copy two kinds of geoscience images—photographs of rock formations and causal diagrams. To permit studying the process of sketching as well as the structure and content of the sketches, we used the CogSketch system (Forbus et al. 2011, Topics in Cognitive Science 3:648–666) to record the time course of sketching and analyze the sketches themselves. Relative to novices, geoscience students included more geological structures and relational symbols in their sketches of geoscience materials and were more likely to construct their sketches in a sequence consistent with the order of causal events. These differences appear to stem from differences in domain knowledge, because they did not show up in participants’ sketches of materials from other fields. The findings and methods of this research suggest new ways to promote and assess science learning, which are well suited to the visual–spatial demands of many domains.


Spatial knowledge Causal knowledge Science education Sketching Sketching software STEM