Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > Paper dissection

Paper dissection

David Varricchio
Montana State University
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jun 4, 2009


Students breakdown an article from a popular magazine or scientific journal, separating evidence and observations from interpretations. Follow up discussion focuses on the strength of the evidence.

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This is a 100-level science elective with mostly non-science majors enrolled.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students have had some coursework (lecture and exercises) on taphonomy and the stratigraphic record.
Additionally, they have had some background information on the definition of several terms: hypothesis, theory, test, prediction, etc.

How the activity is situated in the course

Students will examine three different papers throughout the semester. But each represents a stand alone exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

> taphonomic concepts of preservation and post-mortem processes

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

> distinguishing evidence from interpretation
> understanding the limitations of the fossil record
> exploring different viewpoints

Other skills goals for this activity

> oral discussion skills

Description of the activity/assignment

Students are provided with a dinosaur article from a popular magazine (e.g. Discover or Natural History) or the journal Science. Their task is to dissect the article distinguishing
evidence from interpretation. They need to recognize the various hypotheses presented and also evaluate the strength of these ideas. Then during classroom discussion, they explore the implications of their dissections. For example they would address some of the following questions: Are other interpretations possible? Where have the authors over interpreted the evidence? What are the strongest interpretations? How could the ideas be further tested?
What type of evidence would be sufficient to falsify or further support the interpretations
of the papers?

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students turn in their "dissections" and we discuss as a class the results of their efforts.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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