Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > Physical Geology

Physical Geology

Jennifer Wenner,
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh


This course is a large lecture course (140-200 students) with 6-8 2 hour lab sections (24-25 students each) taught by me or another faculty member. Because 75-90% of the students in this course are taking it as a general education course and will never take another science course, it is designed to give them a taste scientific method and thinking. As survey course, it covers a broad swath of geoscience topics from the perspective of plate tectonic theory.

Course Type:
Entry Level:Physical Geology Entry Level

Course Size:
greater than 150

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites that both satisfies a general education requirement and serves as the entry to our major. Generally, less than 10% of the students that take this course will continue in the major, the rest are either taking it as the first in a two course sequence that satisfies the B.S. GE requirement or will never take another science class again (those working toward a B.A.). The course has a required lab component that is taught by the instructor or another faculty member.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses?yes
The real answer is sort of... We teach Physical Geology course, which is supposed to be more rigorous and designed for majors, and Environmental Geology, which has historically been more qualitative but I am not sure that is true anymore. The advising office tends to steer "non-science" folks into Environmental and "science and math types" into Physical. They cover most of the essentials needed for Geology but Environmental focuses more on surface processes and human impact whereas Physical is more about the physical processes that take place in and on Earth and not so much human impact.

If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? no

Course Content:

Physical Geology focuses on Geology through the lens of plate tectonics. As it stands now, the lab component involves labs completed out of a lab manual in the lab room. Students learn to identify rocks and minerals, read maps and interpret geologic processes utilizing maps. There is a half-day field trip attached to the course that examines igneous and sedimentary rocks near the university.

Course Goals:

In this survey course in physical geology, the main goal is to enable students to observe physical phenomena and be able to interpret their observations in a geologic context.

Students will also be able to identify 15 minerals, 13 igneous rocks, 10 sedimentary rocks and 6 metamorphic rocks, read topographic maps, interpret geologic information on maps.

When I teach the class again, I would like to re-examine the "goals" of the course to encourage students to do some data gathering and interpretation, particularly in the labs. I am writing this with goals of the course as it is taught right now.

Course Features:

Active participation in class with think-pair-share activities on observation and interpretation.

Lots of working with maps in the labs

I have not taught this course for around 4 years but will be doing so again, I would like to incorporate clickers with concept tests and modify the labs for more critical thinking and data gathering.

Course Philosophy:

Part of the design of my course stems from the fact that I am responsible for more than 150 students. The difficulty in grading exams somewhat mandates that we give multiple choice exams in the lecture.

Other aspects of my course are designed to accommodate the large number of faculty who teach the labs - a standard set of labs is necessary. I would like, however, to standardize some more active labs for part of the course, including gathering data and doing some analysis of that data. I would also like observations in the field to be widely incorporated into the lab portion of the course.


Assessments are all done by exam. We have both lab and lecture exams in this class. Students are not assessed on the lab, only by exam.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 137kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Earth: Portrait of a Planet by Stephen Marshak
I like the way it is set up with plate tectonics at the beginning, setting the stage for interpreting other features on and in Earth.
Laboratory Manual for Physical Geology by Norris Jones and Charles Jones
This is the text that has been used for years (the author is emeritus at Oshkosh) and because we often teach two lecture sections for Physical Geology, it is easier for those teaching labs to have the same lab manual for both sections.

New TTE Logo Small