Principles of Geomorphology

William Locke

Montana State University-Bozeman
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs


The study of geomorphology provides a working understanding of the terminology of landforms and a basic understanding of the processes and history of landscape evolution.

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Course Context:

This is a lecture/lab course at the 300-level with 100-level prerequisites. It is required in curricula of geologists, physical geographers, soil scientists, construction engineers, and others for whom an understanding of the Earth's surface is essential. It also serves as a captone course for secondary education (broadfield science) students. Three-hour labs are split between field trips (4-5), spreadsheet modeling exercises (4-5), and topographic map-based activities.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to observe the landscape around them with an aim towards recognition of anomalies.
Students should be able to describe those landscapes using appropriate terminology that recognizes both description (e.g., "diamict") and genesis (e.g., "till").
Students should be able to interpret landscape evolution as a function of time, space, and process.
Students should be able to use topographic maps to recognize landforms and to measure, analyze, and interpret process from landforms and landscapes.
Students should be able to apply the basic physical and chemical equations that govern earth surface processes as well as recognize the confounding effects of biological agents (including humans).
Students should understand [sorry!] the strengths and weaknesses of basic modeling and should be able to apply a basic model to address a research question.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

This class is often the first in the discipline with a major field component. Student assessment shows strong support for and appreciation of that part. The modeling activities have a mixed result; students love, hate, grow to love, and/or grow to hate it! All returning students cite its value to their subsequent careers. The lecture part is not generally favorably reviewed, including comments such as "too much jargon" and "aimed over my head".

Skills Goals

Topographic map interpretation
Spreadsheet modeling
Team (2 or 3) interactions

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

"Learners learn." I find that those students who bring motivation with them are often thrilled by what they can accomplish. They create new knowledge, go beyond the letter of the assignment, and express their pleasure. Those for whom the class is viewed as peripheral to their true interests often retreat to the back, make negative comments on individual submitted exercises, and earn poor grades.
Because I do not assign teams and mix them throughout the course, the team component is of variable value.


Two midterms and a final exam and graded lab exercises. Discussion outside of class with perhaps a quarter of the clientele. Post-graduation discussions with perhaps 2% of the students. Qualitative observations in-class of attitudes and behaviors.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 50kB Apr11 08)