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Phenomenography is an empirical approach to identifying the qualitatively discrete ways in which individuals experience and understand aspects of the world around them. Although established for several decades, the technique is seldom applied (if at all) in geoscience education research, yet it has the potential to significantly enhance undergraduate instruction. This paper presents an overview of phenomenographic inquiry in terms of its characteristic methods and applications to education research. The value of this approach to geoscience education is then demonstrated in a study investigating conceptions of geoscience as an academic discipline. Students enrolled in undergraduate geoscience programs at a single U.K. university, together with geoscience faculty, provided brief, written responses to the question “what do you believe your chosen discipline to be about or concerned with?” Phenomenographic analysis revealed six qualitatively distinct conceptions, ranging from simple to complex, to be present within both the student and faculty populations. Although process-based conceptions dominated both the student and faculty data, simpler conceptions were more pervasive among students, and complex conceptions were more pervasive among faculty. This has implications for curriculum design and instruction since the conceptions held by faculty will influence their assumptions about students' perceptions of geoscience, and the learning strategies and techniques likely to be effective.

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