I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Explorations of Mental Models of Soil Health

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2018: $11,810.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2020
Grant Recipient: The Ohio State University-Wooster Campus
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Steven Culman
Ohio State University

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage, cover crops, cropping systems, crop rotation, no-till
  • Education and Training: decision support system
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: social psychological indicators

    Proposal abstract:

    The paradigm of soil health has become widely embraced in recent years by a variety of stakeholders. While formal definitions have been proposed (and adopted) by academics and governmental agencies (e.g. USDA-NRCS), the ways that these groups conceptualize soil health has not been described. This project—“ I do not think it means what you think it means: Explorations of mental models of soil health”—seeks to describe the mental models of soil health within and across groups in order to facilitate communication and cooperation across these stakeholders. This will result in knowledge creation that is simultaneously valued by all stakeholders and actionable by farmers, ultimately increasing farmer adoption of practices that improve soil health. To further this goal, we will specifically target the mental models of farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) employees, and researchers involved in the fields of agronomy and/or soil science. To develop these models, mail surveys containing prompted and open-ended questions will gauge their conceptualizations of soil health. These responses will then be used to describe similarities and differences in mental models amongst groups. Prompted questions will be used to describe the values and beliefs held by each group, whereas open-ended responses will be coded and used to develop a network-based mental map. After these preliminary data analyses, the mental models will be validated through focus groups where all stakeholder groups will be present. Increased understanding amongst all stakeholder groups will be measured through exit surveys given at the end of the focus groups. In order to disseminate our findings to members of those groups beyond our focus group population, the validated dataset will be used to publish in both peer-reviewed publications and trade publications where they are accessible to farmers, NRCS employees, and researchers. Successful completion of these publication(s) will be considered indicative of a successful description and analysis of stakeholder mental models.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project has four explicit learning outcomes. These outcomes are: 1) to describe mental models for stakeholder groups surrounding the term “soil health”, 2) determine similarities and differences in these mental models of “soil health” amongst stakeholders, 3) validate these models by collectively analyzing and interpreting the data in those models, and 4) increase knowledge of stakeholders of in-group and out-group mental models surrounding soil health. Learning Outcomes 1) and 2) will be primarily accomplished by project leaders through a survey that contains closed- and open-response questions. These two types of questions will be used to develop a set of values and a mental network map, respectively, to represent the mental models held by each group. In order to ensure accurate analysis of those results, a “data party” will be held with stakeholders to validate those models (Learning Outcome 3). The focus-group format of the “data party” will also serve as a venue for stakeholders to understand the mental models from others within their group, as well as from other groups
    (Learning Outcome 4).

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.