World Map of Plate Boundaries

Bonnie Magura (Portland Public Schools) and Chris Hedeen (Oregon City High School)


The plate tectonics mapping activity allows students to easily begin to identify basic tectonic processes on a global scale. As students become aware of plate movements, they begin to identify patterns that set the stage for deeper understanding of a very complex topic. The activity uses a simple "Where's Waldo" approach to identify tectonic symbols on a laminated World Plate Tectonic map.

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It is a classroom activity that is primarily aimed at upper elementary to middle school. Also potentially appropriate for very early high school.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Learners should know what earthquakes and volcanoes are. This can be the introductory activity related to plate tectonics.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is intended to be early in the study of geoscience and plate tectonics. Rather than lecture about plate tectonics first, an instructor can give students a chance to identify patterns between plate boundaries and earthquakes, volcanoes, and landforms.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners will be able to:

  • Determine where different types of plate boundaries are located
  • Explain the different landforms found at different plate boundaries

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Identify patterns between volcano, earthquake, and landform locations and different types of plate boundaries.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Finding places and features on maps
  • Working in groups

Description and Teaching Materials


See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, links to supporting resources, student exercise, and answer key.

Maps are provided in a variety of sizes, resolutions, and with/out tectonics boundaries.

Supporting presentation/audiovisual

  • Presentation: Alaska Plate Tectonics & Geohazards (with some associated animations) - although the specific examples are from Alaska, most of the presentation is relevant to teaching about tectonics anywhere

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Allow time to print out and laminate the map files before starting the exercise. One map per team.
  • Each team will need washable markers in four colors (black, blue, green, and red are the ones mentioned)
  • Making sure the students clean the maps at the end of the lesson will save you time. If multiple classes will be using them in the same day, it can help to have two sets of maps so they can dry between uses.
  • "Great" earthquake can be confusing to students but that is the term scientists use to describe Magnitude 8 or 9 earthquakes. The maps included here show most of the "great" earthquakes of Magnitude ~8.3 and above. A few have been omitted because there were several in the same close region and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was included even though it is only Mag 7.9, just because it is a very important US earthquake.
  • If students are not yet familiar with magnitude, just telling them these are the largest known earthquakes is fine for this exercise. An activity on earthquake magnitude that can be done before or after this lesson is Pasta Quake, which uses spaghetti noodles to learn about the energy release of different magnitude quakes.


Formative assessment of student understanding can be gathered from classroom observation and discussions with individuals or small groups.

The student exercise serves as the summative assessment for the activity. Most questions have clearly correct answers. Teachers can develop a simple grading scheme for the map such as one point per correctly identified area.

References and Resources