(Introduction to) Physical Geology

John Leland
, Glendale Community College


Physical Geology is a course in which students will learn about earthquakes, volcanoes, Earth's history, the processes that shape Earth's surface, and about Earth's resources. Students will witness and participate in demonstrations, examine physical specimens, see footage of disasters, see computer simulations and animations, attend optional field trips, and sketch images drawn by the instructor. Students write tests that are based on homework questions discussed in class. Multiple choice-type testing is never used in the course.

Course Type: Intro Level Earth Science
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

Physical Geology is an introductory course with no prerequisites. Nearly 100% of the students taking the course do so to fulfill a physical science general education requirement to either transfer to a 4-year school or to attain an Associates degree. Students may take a separate Physical Geology Lab for which the Physical Geology lecture course is a co- or prerequisite. Students wishing to major in geology upon transfer are required by the transferring institutions to take both the lecture and the lab (but not necessarily during the same semester).

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? no

Course Content:

The Physical Geology course follows a non-traditional pattern of topics that begins with structures, earthquakes, and plate tectonics. It then progresses to igneous rocks and volcanoes. Minerals (with an emphasis on the atom and radioactivity), metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks are taken together prior to the topic of geologic time and Earth history. Finally, the last portion of the course is devoted to resources such as ground water, glaciation and its effect on the landscape, and climate change. Students learn through interactive lectures, demonstrations, in class exercises, coaching on how to take notes, optional field trips, and in-class quizzes that require they do their homework and actually use the textbook. A friendly, humorous atmosphere is encouraged whenever possible. The course is set up so that strong students should find it straightforward--homework questions are actually repeated, word for word, on exams. Exams are written, so each student's understanding (or ability to memorize) can be evaluated. For weaker students, the design of the course rewards good notetaking and follow-through on homework assignments with quizzes and tests that directly reflect their effort without any tricks or surprises. Student integration and synthesis of information occurs in class and is really rewarding to me when it does occur.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to articulate a simple difference between science and religion.
Students will understand the difference between evidence and theory.
Students will be able to discuss the theory of plate tectonics.
Students will be able to discuss why earthquakes occur and how they are measured.
Students will be able to discuss the formation of the three rock types.
Students will be familiar with the main rock-forming minerals.
Students will be able to discuss why partial melting of rock occurs inside the earth.
Students will be able to appreciate the depth of geologic time and know some of the big events in the history of our planet.
Students will be able to think about climate change in the context of long spans of geologic time.
Students will be able to identify some aspects of the landscape that are created by uplift and erosion.

Course Features:

Homework assignments consist of a list of vocabulary for each chapter and a list of questions that I have written for each chapter. An in class quiz is given on each homework assignment approximately one week later. Quizzes consist of fill-in-the-blank questions for vocabulary and one or two of the written questions from the homework. Sometimes, a visual ID of a rock, structure, or landform is included for which I have prepped them in previous meetings. Larger tests (of the same format) are given about every four weeks as we finish one "module" of the course, such as structures and earthquakes. A final exam at the end of the semester is comprehensive, testing on the large learning goals identified above. Honors students are required to research a topic of my choosing, prepare a PowerPoint presentation, present it to me and be able to answer questions about it.

Course Philosophy:

The majority of my students speak English as a second language. Emphasizing basics such as vocabulary, and skills such as doing homework are really necessary. Many of my students also work or have other obligations outside of their academics, so I provide a very clear-cut set of expectations for what they need to learn and do to succeed in the course. Also, because the majority of my students are non-science majors with varying degrees of interest in the subject matter, I wish to make the content of the course as accessible and friendly as possible.


For each individual student, I get to see their written responses on quizzes and tests. I can differentiate those individuals who are struggling with language as an issue, those who are not studying, those who might have learning issues (a more difficult challenge), those who are simply memorizing, and those who are studying and understanding the material. Success rates in my courses (defined as completing the course with a C or better) are around 70%, slightly above the college-wide average for credit classes of 67%. I recently added the quiz as a tool to the course and do not know if it has had a measurable affect on success rates. It certainly has elevated discussions in class.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 76kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

Homework assignment (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 28kB May7 08)
Quiz on homework assignment (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 29kB May7 08)
Larger test (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 36kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Earth: Portrait of a Planet by Stephen Marshak
Clear illustrations, a highly readable text, good online resources linked to Google Earth, and good price.