Learning Assessment #1 - Plate Tectonics

Leslie Reid1, Ben Cowie1, Michelle Speta2
1University of Calgary, 2University of Alberta


An in-class activity that tests students' understanding of the basic concepts of plate tectonics.

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Introductory physical geology course that is required for geoscience majors and but open to students in all faculties. No pre-requisite courses required. The course page is available at: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/coursedesign/goalsdb/65489.html

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must be familiar with the different types of plate boundaries, the internal structure of the Earth (asthenosphere, lithosphere, crust, mantle etc.), relevant terminology (e.g. "subduction zone", "spreading center") and the relationship between volcanism and plate tectonics.

How the activity is situated in the course

This assignment is part of a series of in-class activities known as learning assessments. However, it would also be suitable for use as a stand-alone exercise. Students are strongly encouraged to work in groups, however each student must submit their own assignment. Learning assessments are all "open book" and students are encouraged to use their textbooks and other external resources to help them complete their assignments.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Understanding the different types of tectonic plate boundaries and associated plate geometries, the global distribution of earthquakes and volcanoes and the differences between asthenosphere, lithosphere and crust (oceanic vs. continental).

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Synthesis of ideas (e.g. how is the distribution of earthquakes and volcanoes related to tectonic plate boundaries?)

Other skills goals for this activity

Writing, working in groups, using external resources (e.g. internet, textbooks)

Description of the activity/assignment

In Part 1 of this activity, students are provided with a blank topographic profile and an associated tectonic plate boundary map. Students are asked to draw a schematic cross-section on the profile down to the asthenosphere including tectonic plates (with relative thicknesses of crust etc. appropriately illustrated), arrows indicating directions of plate movement, tectonic features (mid-ocean ridges, trenches and volcanic arcs) and symbols indicating where melting is occurring at depth.

In Part 2, students are asked to provide geological and geophysical lines of evidence to support their placement of convergent and divergent boundaries, respectively. A bonus question asks students to predict what would happen if spreading along the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge were to stop. Students are referred to appropriate sections of the textbook to guide them in completing all the parts of this activity. Students are also provided with a checklist of required elements for both parts of the assignment.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Learning assessments are returned to students during a review period where the instructor devotes a class to going over the activity and explaining common errors. Learning assessments are graded using a checklist-style rubric which is a more detailed version of checklist provided to students with the assignment. Using the graded checklist as a guide, students complete a feedback activity during the review period, which gives them an opportunity to reflect on their understanding of the concepts covered in the learning assessment. The feedback activities are submitted, allowing the instructor to determine whether students have met the goals of the activity.

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