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Introduction to Geology

Kelly Dilliard
Wayne State College
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Physical Geology Online is a traditional introductory course covering minerals and rocks, interior processes, geologic time, and earth surface processes. Online lecture notes and weekly labs give the course a traditional feel. Laboratory includes study of minerals, rocks, topographic maps, earthquakes, and landforms. The course is administered using course management software and follows a specific timeline.

Institution Type
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Size

Desire2Learn and Sakai

Grade Level
College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Course Context

This course is the first course in a series of introductory geology courses mostly for general education, though also taken by majors. There is no pre-requisites for Physical Geology, however it is the pre-requisite for the second course, Historical Geology. As an online course, the course is made up mostly of non-majors satisfying their science general education requirement. Most students are non-traditional, working over 20 hours a week and do not live in the university town. The course is taught to parallel, as much as possible, a traditional face-to-face course.

Course Content

Physical Geology is divided into three major topics. Following the introduction, these topics are: 1) the building blocks: minerals and rocks, 2) plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes and geologic time, and 3) earth surface processes (streams, groundwater, and mass wasting). Students learn to identify common rocks and minerals, plot locations of epicenters, and identify geologic features on topographic maps. They also learn how earthquakes, volcanoes and mountain chains are tied to plate tectonics. In general, the course is very similar in format and goals to a traditional face-to-face course.

Course Goals

As a result of taking this online course in Physical Geology, students will: 1) demonstrate the scientific method by identifying a variety of minerals and rocks and by identifying and interpreting geological features using topographic maps, 2) gather and critically evaluate data using the scientific method by again identifying minerals and rocks through observations of physical properties and 3) demonstrate an understanding of basic geological processes as listed in the syllabus.


There is no formal discussion section for this course, primarily because of the asynchronous format of the course. A chat room is available to students who use it to help each other out on the laboratory assignments and to help each other study for exams.


Students are assessed based on their laboratory exercises, weekly quizzes, and three exams. The weekly quizzes are designed to get the students to actively go through the course lecture notes each week. They are timed (usually 30 minutes), short (10 questions usually), and open book. The hope is that every student earn a 100%, but that is definitely not the case. The laboratory assignments are a combination of multiple choice, short answer, and matching and are designed to take the student over an hour to complete, just like in a traditional face-to-face lab. Lecture exams are a combination of multiple choice and short answer. Homework assignments are also given, mostly points for "classroom" business like posting a bio and turning in their proctor form. The grade breakdown is: laboratory 30%, homework and other assignments 10%, quizzes 10%, and lecture exams 50%.

Teaching Notes

Adaptations have been made that allow this course to be successful in an online environment

I actually wanted to make few changes in content from a traditional face-to-face course because students are required to take a series of two science courses, in this case Physical Geology and Historical Geology. Students may elect to take Physical Geology online, but Historical Geology in the classroom or vice-versa and I wanted to make sure that the students were not at a disadvantage.

The most successful elements of this course are:

The most effective strategy used in teaching Physical Geology Online is organization and repetition. With a set schedule, the students are not getting behind or cramming at the end of a section and they always know when assignments are due, when quizzes and exams are available. Also, each topic has a similar set of webpages associated with it, an overview page, a notes page, a laboratory page, and an extras page. As for repetition, I post the instructions for the course in at least three different spots, in a welcome letter sent before the semester begins, in a welcome email sent with the course management software, and as an individual webpage. The course schedule is posted in a calendar through the course management software, as a downloadable pdf, and a weekly schedule is sent out with the weeks tasks outlined. I was amazed talking with students and learning they who they found information. Not everyone opened their emails, nor did they use the calendar. Posting in multiple places helped to catch each learner. Also, I tried to be consistent in which tools I used in the course management software, the more tools used the more confused the students become. Assignments were always submitted through a homework tool regardless of what type of assignment it was. I know that these strategies helped in making a successful course based on course evaluation, solicited comments, and unsolicited comments. The content does not matter if the student's do not know why they are supposed to learn it and what to do with it.

Recommendations for faculty who teach a course like this:

My recommendations for teaching Phyiscal Geology online is to remember that the students are learning this information for the first time and are not always excited about learning it. An online course requires a significant commitment from the students and I tried to facilitate this by how the course was organized and by being an active participant. I tried to be online in the chat room when students were online (often in the late evenings and on the weekends). I also tried to respond to correspondence as quickly as I could. Students become easily frustrated, especially working on the laboratory assignments, when they have a question and cannot find an answer. I tried to remember that in a face-to-face lab session the students also often get frustrated, but their frustration is shorter-lived since the instructor is there to answer questions. I tried to respond to all correspondence like I was having a face-to-face conversation and with as much encouragement as I could. They like the idea that someone is out there coaching them to the finish line.

Another suggestion that I have is to remember that you must include in your correspondence, whether lecture notes or instructions, everything you would say out loud to a face-to-face class. More instructions and explanation is better.


Spring 2008 Syllabus for Principles of Earth Science (Physical Geology) Online (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Jun13 10)



Essentials of Geology, 3rd Edition, by Stephen Marshak and Geology – Laboratory Manual for Distance Learning, by Ruhle

Example Course Webpages

Example of a topic "Notes" page (Acrobat (PDF) 3MB Jun13 10)
Example of a topic "Overview" page (Acrobat (PDF) 133kB Jun13 10)

Other References

I posted a link to various interactive modules through webGeology ( teaching resources in geology from the University of Tromsø, Norway.
I also found the investigations posted through Exploring Earth ( McDougal Littell ClassZone very useful for laboratories.

Introduction to Geology --Discussion  

One analogy to demonstate the length of geological time is to state that if the 4.5 billion year existance of the planet Earth is represented by one stretching one's arms out full lenght to either side. The distance they span represents the passage of time from the formation of the earth to the present. From the right wrist to the tips of the fingers represents most of the history of life on Earth. The tip of the fingernail represents human presence on Earth.


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