Psychologists describe two distinct frames of reference for diagram interpretation: environmental (i.e.,
describing objects’ locations based on the axis of the environment or scene) and object (i.e.,
describing an object’s location based on the intrinsic features of another object) (Carlson-Radvansky
and Irwin, 1993). Psychological literature demonstrates that most people will use an environmental frame
of reference (Friederici and Levelt, 1990; Carlson-Radvansky and Irwin, 1993). Friederici and Levelt
(1990) support the idea that situational conditions can impact the frame of reference that a person
uses, suggesting that frame-of-reference thinking is context dependent.
We propose that geologic training influences a geologist’s frame-of-reference judgments and may be a
predictor of geologic expertise. Geologic training focuses on the object level of the scene, putting
equal importance on the parts as the whole. For example, introductory geology students learn that the
top and bottom contact of an individual sedimentary layer has meaning, even when the layer is folded or
tilted. In other words, the term “above” has special geologic meaning in context and does not always
refer to the top of a diagram. For example, when discussing “above,” advanced stratigraphic features,
including onlapping or offlapping layers and topset, foreset, and bottom beds may cause
miscommunication. The draped manner of these layers and unique patterns that emerge may change the
understanding of “above” for novices or experts. We also propose that expert geologists will preference
an object frame of reference when interpreting geologic diagrams. Novices’ recent training with
introductory concepts, such as Steno’s laws, may cause equal rates of object responses for geologic and
These proposed ideas imply that frame-of -reference judgments may be a predictor of geologic expertise
and could be used to evaluate where people fall on the expert-novice spectrum. Understanding the
relation between expert and novice frame-of-reference judgments has implications for the classroom and
field; students and faculty may utilize the same terminology to discuss different features, causing a
Here, we report the results of a pilot study that examines the proposed impact of geologic training on
frame of reference by asking the following questions: (1) does geologic expertise impact the frame of
reference geologists use when deciding where “above” is in a scene?; and (2) does the context of the
scene impact frame-of-reference thinking?
A survey was administered at the 2017 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting at the Michigan State
University Geocognition Research Laboratory booth. The survey included four frame-of-reference questions
and a demographic survey. The demographic survey collected data on geologic experience. The
frame-of-reference questions included two geologic scenes and two non-geologic scenes. The non-geologic
scenes were modeled after Carlson-Radvansky and Irwin (1993), with a donkey on a hill with two flies,
one placed in each reference frame (Fig. 1A). Participants were prompted: “Circle the fly above the
donkey.” To evaluate whether context influences frame of reference, a parallel item depicted a geologic
scene with tilted sedimentary beds exposed on the side and top. A hiker and tree were placed above the
limestone layer in the object and environmental frames of reference, respectively (Fig. 1B).
Participants were prompted: “Circle the object that is above the limestone layer.”
Diagrams with the non-geologic (A) and geologic (B) scenes have objects placed in the object and
environmental reference frame.
Participant responses were categorized as an object or an environmental reference frame. For example, if
the participant selected the fly perpendicular to the donkey’s back or the hiker, then they were coded
as the object reference frame. The demographic survey was scored based on participants’ number of
undergraduate courses, graduate courses, degrees, and years worked. An expert is a typical geology
faculty member or senior-level employee, an intermediate is equivalent to a graduate student or
early-career employee, and a novice is a typical undergraduate student.
The results focus on the use of an object frame of reference for two reasons: (1) we proposed that
geologic training would focus geologists on the objects within the scene, and (2) a high rate of use of
an object frame of reference will show a deviation from the expectations of the psychological
Testing research question 1, our study divided frame of reference use by geologic expertise, then by the
type of scene. Our results show that all levels of expertise used an object frame of reference at least
35% of the time (Fig. 2). For the geologic scenes, experts and intermediates used an object frame of
reference to answer the prompts over 75% of the time. Novices answer ~60% of the time for both scenes.
Percentage of participants who responded using an object frame of reference by expertise and context.
The red line represents Carlson-Radvanksy and Irwin’s 1993 object response rate.
For research question 2, we tested each level of expertise using a chi-square test. No significant
difference was found in novice responses based on the context of the scene, X2 (1) = 0.254, ρ
= 0.614. Context is important at higher levels of expertise. Intermediates [X2 (1) = 20.422,
ρ = 0.000] and experts [X2 (1) = 6.798, ρ = 0.009] both switch from an object reference frame
for the geologic scenes to an environmental reference frame for the non-geologic scenes.
Future Work and Limitations
This pilot study is limited by a small number of survey items. However, we gathered data with a higher
number of participants compared with the cited literature (Carlson-Radvansky and Irwin, 1993).
Comparison with previous studies is limited, because modern use of technologies (e.g., GPS) may yield
poorer frame-of-reference thinking (Ishikawa et al., 2008). Future work should test if the forced-choice
response format in this study primed participants and yielded a higher object-centered response rate
than an open-ended task. Since frame of reference is a component of spatial thinking, expanding the
study to include other science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines and a general audience
would be valuable to understanding the context of these findings. This study concludes that explicit
frame-of-reference training may prevent confusion between faculty and students, increasing the rate
novices move along the expert-novice spectrum, and provides the basis for continued research to further
understand its relationship with geology.
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navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience: Journal of Environmental
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Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about the Earth: Geological Society of America
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