Physical Geography

Allison Dunn
, Worcester State College


This is a course introducing physical geography, which examines the processes and features that shape the Earth. We introduce the tools used by physical geographers to understand and analyze these Earth systems. We also investigate the impact humans have had on the Earth and its processes.

Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geography Intro Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory earth sciences class with no pre-requisites, and is the pre-requisite for many of our upper-level courses. Most of our students (~80%) take it to fulfill a distribution requirement. However, this course is also the primary conduit through which we recruit majors into our Geography program. One challenge of this course is keeping it accessible to non-majors while keeping potential majors interested.

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 serves as a broad introduction to the field of earth science. In this course, students study the four major Earth spheres: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, and the biosphere. Through lectures and class activities, students investigate the interactions between these different spheres to gain a deeper understanding of processing shaping Earth's surface.

Course Goals:

Students should have n firm understanding of geologic time, which will allow them to place the processes and concepts learned in class into context.

Students will be able to look at a topographic map and understand what it conveys about a landscape and processes that shape it.

Students will have an understanding of the ways in which humans have affected systems and processes in all four earth spheres.

Most importantly, students should leave this course with a strong grounding in physical science that will allow them to critically think through scientific issues in the future.

Course Features:

Ideas introduced in lecture are constantly reinforced through in-class activities. I have found that this material comes easily to some students, but is very challenging for others. On a weekly basis, we conduct activities in groups, like using topographic maps, conducting flood analyses, etc, that allow students to interact with one another about the subject matter. Two example activities are Net Radiation and Temperature and Google Earth, Streams, and Glaciers.

Course Philosophy:

I chose this approach after analyzing what worked and didn't work in my first semester of teaching (F07). I found that when I assigned homeworks to be done out of class, some students excelled and others were quite lost. The activities we worked on in class together tended to be of a higher caliber.

As a result, during Spring 08 I shifted towards a design that focused on at least starting the assignments in small groups. This gives me the opportunity to "check in" with each group and make sure they're on the right track. It also provides an opportunity for me to get to know them better and help engage with them one-on-one.

I'm still new at Worcester State College, but I think an approach that combines working with peers with quick feedback from the professor helps them grasp the material more effectively.


The class grade is equally weighted between the class activities and exams. In this way, students who are strong on the class work but have trouble with exams are not unduly penalized.

I also give all students the opportunity to correct their activities for up to half credit back. I think this is important pedagogically because it requires them to think about what concepts they missed. It also helps bring up the grade for students who are motivated to do the corrections.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 316kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Introducing Physical Geography, Strahler & Strahler
I have to confess that selecting this text was somewhat random. I had come up with a "finalist" list of three texts and consulted with my colleague to see what she was using for the same course. She was using Strahler, and I thought the consistency across sections would be useful.