On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
Teaching Paleontology in the 21st Century
Topical Resources
Cutting Edge > Paleontology > Course goals

Example Goals for Undergraduate Courses in Paleontology

What are we trying to accomplish in a paleontology course for majors beyond exposing them to a body of knowledge and providing them with grades on their transcripts? What do we want students to be able to do when they are finished with the course? What value have we added to their future abilities in the field of paleontology as a result of having taken the course? Answering this question is crucial, because a course should be designed not merely to expose students to information, tell them about topics, and show them concepts. Rather, a course should give students first hand experience in what we want them to be able to do when they are done with our courses.



We asked the 60 participants of the workshop Teaching Paleontology in the 21st Century to answer the question, "What do I want my students to be able to do when they are done with my entry-level paleo course?" We also asked the same question of Dr. Allen Curran (Professor Emeritus at Smith College), Dr. Douglas Erwin (Smithsonian Institution and President, Paleontological Society), Dr. Elizabeth Heise (University of Texas at Brownsville), and Dr. Steven Stanley (University of Hawaii, Manoa and Past President, American Geological Institute). We have grouped responses to the question by broad content area in the list below.

If you are interested in ideas for taking goals such as those below and designing a course to help students achieve those goals, go to Choosing Content to Achieve Course Goals and Developing a Course Plan in the Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial. This tutorial provides an outstanding framework for developing a course around a set of goals.

Goals related to biology of extinct organisms

  • Students will be able to reconstruct the biological traits of extinct organisms.
  • Students will be able to interpret the modes of life of fossil organisms.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the accuracy of the portrayal of ancient organisms in the movies.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the evidence for an interpretation of a new fossil as reported in the news.

Goals related to taphonomy and preservation

  • Students will be able to reconstruct the taphonomic history of a given fossil or fossil assemblage.
  • Students will be able to use the principles of taphonomy to predict what an "entire" community would have looked like based on preserved fauna.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the adequacy of the fossil record for tackling a particular question.

Goals related to evolution

  • Students will be able to determine evolutionary relationships among a set of organisms.
  • Students will be able to gather and analyze phylogenetic information.
  • Students will be able to design a phylogeny of familiar objects, imaginary fossils, or real organisms.
  • Students will be able to evaluate competing phylogenetic hypotheses derived from disparate data sets.
  • Students will be able to use patterns of ontogeny, morphology, and phylogeny to formulate hypotheses of evolutionary mode.
  • Students will be able to use phylogenetic information to make predictions about biological and geological processes.
  • Students should be able to make an effective argument for the reality of evolution based on fossil evidence and be able to use a defensible argument against intelligent design.

Goals related to diversity and extinction

  • Students will be able to formulate a hypothesis about the cause of a mass extinction event and propose a test.
  • Students will be able to evaluate changes in diversity through time and how these changes relate to environmental change.

Goals related to paleoecology

  • Students will be able to use the principles of (paleo)ecology to predict what an "entire" community would have looked like based on preserved fauna.
  • Students will be able to predict vertical and lateral stratigraphic sequences using paleoecology and biostratigraphy.

Goals related to paleoenvironment and paleoclimate

  • Students will be able to incorporate fossil data in order to interpret and reconstruct depositional environments
  • Students will be able to use fossils and the characteristics of sedimentary rocks to interpret a depositional environment and assess how that environment changed through time.
  • Students will be able to analyze a fossil assemblage and reconstruct its geological and paleoenvironmental context.
  • Students will be able to analyze the fossil content of a rock and evaluate the age and depositional environment, assess the uncertainties, and use this information to suggest a basic paleogeographic setting.
  • Students will be able to use the environment to predict fossil assemblages..
  • Students will be able to evaluate organisms' responses to past climate change and predict what could happen in the future (or later in geologic time than the basic data set).

Goals related to biostratigraphy and biogeography

  • Students will be able to estimate the approximate age of a sequence of rocks from the assemblage of fossils present.
  • Students will be able to synthesize age data to interpret stratigraphic sections.
  • Students will be able to predict vertical and lateral stratigraphic sequences using paleoecology and biostratigraphy.
  • Students will be able to analyze the fossil content of a rock and evaluate the age and depositional environment, assess the uncertainties, and use this information to suggest a basic paleogeographic setting.
  • Students will be able to interpret (and construct) paleogeographic maps and use them to explain the distribution of fossil and modern organisms.

Goals related to geologic time and major events

  • Students will be able to evaluate data in the context of major events and trends in the evolutionary history of plants and animals.
  • Students will be able to evaluate data in the context of major global events and trends (tectonic, paleogeographic, paleoclimate).
  • Students will be able to articulate what it means to them to "think about time".
  • Students will be able to analyze the relationship between processes and the timescales over which they operate.

Goals related to paleontology skills

  • Students will be able to document field observations and collection of fossils and process fossils in the lab.
  • Students will be able to use field and lab methods common in paleontology to collect and document fossils and data in the field and to analyze collected samples and data to solve a problem.

Goals related to posing and solving problems, designing studies, and dealing with data

  • Students will be able to assess the limitations of, deal with limited data, and defend their approaches.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the quality of hypotheses with limited data and modify hypotheses to incorporate new data.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the limitations of a sparse data set and predict the impact of sparse data on the security of conclusions.

Goals related to scientific questions, methods, hypothesis framing and testing

  • Students will be able to construct interesting questions relating to paleo/bio data.
  • Students will be able to identify and frame good research questions and make a compelling case for their proposed investigations.
  • Students will be able to generate a hypothesis to explain an evolutionary question and design and defend a sampling strategy to test that hypothesis.
  • Students will be able to frame a hypothesis and defend it in a grant proposal.
  • Students will be able to build a hypothesis to explain a set of observations relating to fossil organisms and propose and defend a reasonable method for testing the hypothesis.
  • Students will be able to accurately use concepts of correlation and causality when interpreting data.
  • Students will be able to make appropriate observations and distinguish their observations from their interpretations.

Goals related to connections with other disciplines

  • Students will be able to evaluate historical problems within a larger, integrated context, including stratigraphy, geochemistry, developmental biology, etc.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the role of life as a geologic force.
  • Students will be able to defend the importance of paleontology to other realms of knowledge including biology, other subdisciplines of the geosciences, and climate change.

Goals involving communication skills, analytical, and self-teaching skills

  • Students will be able to engage in informed discussion of BIG IDEA paleo topics.
  • Students will be able to process and manipulate paleo data and write a coherent report based on same.
  • Students will be able to evaluate paleontological research articles and analyze both the strong and weak aspects.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast two or more journal articles.
  • Students will be able to search the scientific literature effectively and develop an accurate perspective on previous work on a topic, the major controversies, and the major unanswered questions.