Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)




Stephen A. Norton

Second Committee Member

Andrew S. Reeve

Third Committee Member

John Thompson


Limited research has been conducted regarding student understanding of groundwater and the prevalence of common misconceptions about groundwater dynamics. The conceptual nature of the topic requires the development of appropriate mental models if enduring understanding is the desired outcome of instruction. Before this can happen, however, it is necessary to uncover what misconceptions exist and their frequency of occurrence. This thesis discusses the outcomes of a study conducted among 131 students at the University of Maine in the spring semester (2006). The goals of the study were to (1) determine what misconceptions about groundwater were held by students enrolled in two introductory, undergraduate geology courses (ERS 101 and ERS 102) before and after instruction, (2) determine whether these misconceptions appeared to change and if so, how, and (3) examine the effects this had on student conceptual learning. Data for this study were collected from a set of pre-tests given to students one to two weeks prior to lecture and laboratory instruction about groundwater, and a set of post-tests given one week after the instruction. The data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. Comparisons of pre- and post-test results for frequencies of selected answers and Chi-squared analyses led to the following conclusions: (1) students in the two courses appeared to harbor almost all of the targeted misconceptions prior to instruction, (2) the misconceptions appeared to correlate with observed gained, lost, or unchanged student learning, (3) half of the targeted misconceptions remained common after instruction, (4) only definitional gains in learning occurred for targeted content; conceptual learning was not evident, and (5) learning for much of the targeted content was questionable or zero due to inconsistencies in student understanding of the content. Misconceptions that appeared to be modified and apparent gains in understanding were heavily based on definitional learning. Students appeared to gain familiarity with groundwater topics and the number of students who could correctly provide answers to questions seeking definition-related knowledge increased. In situations where this knowledge had to be applied to a conceptual context, however, it appeared that the majority of students either: (1) maintained their misconceptions, or (2) developed misconceptions, or (3) simply displayed a lack of consistent understanding indicative of confusion and, at most, superficial learning.