Physical Geology

Jessica Smay
, San Jose City College


This course is a physical geology course covering basic geological principles emphasizing how plate tectonics has shaped the face of Earth. The course is lecture based, and includes several different types of activities throughout each class.

Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geology Intro Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only, optional lab

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory course that fulfills the physical science requirement for students. There is an optional lab and no prerequisites.

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:

This course covers the big idea of plate tectonics, and then continues on to show how Earth has been shaped by this process. Students also learn about the formation of the different types of rocks, the environments they form in and why humans are interested in them. Processes such as earthquakes, volcanoes, mass movements, groundwater movement, climate change, glaciers and floods are covered. One field trip is included in the course which has a focus on map reading.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to explain why certain locations on Earth, including California, look the way they do.
Students will be able to determine plate tectonic settings and predict the types of environments and rock types will be there.
Students will analyze the types of geologic hazards a given region is likely to experience.

Course Features:

Every day students work in small groups discussing geological concepts while working on worksheets or to answer posed questions. Often the worksheets or questions posed focus on large-picture ideas, such as plate tectonic settings and how rock types or geologic hazards relate to those settings. A field trip gives the students some practice in the field.

Course Philosophy:

I have found that students that focus on learning terminology easily memorize the terms, and then very quickly forget them once the class is over. I want to give the students knowledge that they will not easily forget. Discussing the big picture has helped the students retain information as well as enthusiasm for the material. In order to hold the students interest, I try to keep the length of my lectures short, and often include some short activities, such as Lecture Tutorials to break the time up. The field trip often is the most memorable part of the class for my students.


Students are assessed based on exams, in-class activities, homework quizzes, and a field trip.

References and Notes:

Earth by Tarbuck and Lutgens
It covered the topics I wanted in the depth I needed, and was clearly written with simple diagrams.
A workbook of Lecture Tutorials written by Karen Kortz and myself is required in this course.

Pedagogic References:
Adams, J.P., Prather, E.E., and Slater, T.F., 2003, Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy (Preliminary Edition), New Jersey, Pearson Education, Inc.
Prather, E.E., Slater, T.F., Adams, J.P., Bailey, J.M., Jones, L.V., and Dostal, J.A., 2004, Research on a Lecture-Tutorial Approach to Teaching Introductory Astronomy for Non-Science Majors, The Astronomy Education Review, v. 3, p. 122-136.
Kortz, K.M., Smay, J.J. and Murray, D.P, 2008, Increasing Learning in Introductory Geoscience Courses Using Lecture Tutorials, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 56, in press.