Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > Describing Fossils

Describing Fossils

Judy Massare
SUNY Brockport
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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


Make a line drawing of a brachiopod from a published description.
Formally describe a brachiopod specimen.
Identify specimens from descriptions written by other students.

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The course is required for geology majors, who normally take it their sophomore or junior year. It is an elective for earth science majors, most of whom are pursuing secondary education certification. Earth science majors make up at least 50% of the class. Class size: 10-15

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

All students have taken Intro Physical Geology and Historical Geology. They can identify brachiopods from other marine invertebrates.
In my class, this is their first exposure to terms used to describe brachiopod morphology. The exercise would go faster if the students were already familar with the morphological terms from a lecture or reading assignments.

How the activity is situated in the course

Stand alone exercise to accompany text material on describing fossils.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learn morphology of brachiopods as an example of the kinds of terms used in species descriptions & diagnoses.
Interpret a written description of a fossil species.
Write a description of a fossil using appropriate terminology.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Experience the formality of fossil description that is the basis for data in paleontology.
Evaluate the relative importance of observations.

Other skills goals for this activity

Develop observational skills.
Convey written descriptive information.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students are given a description of a fossil brachiopod, from the literature, along with a one-page handout describing the basic morphology of brachiopods. Students work independently to make a scale drawing of the fossil described (brachial valve, pedicle valve, anterior view, lateral view). They have access to textbooks (Moore, Laliker & Fisher; Clarkson), the Treatise volume, and the internet to get information on morphological terms. This takes about an hour, after which I display all of the diagrams on the wall along with the photographs from the paper from which the description was extracted. We discuss some of the differences and where problems arose in interpreting the description. I emphasize the importance of an accurate drawing or photograph to accompany a description.

Students are then given a different brachiopod specimen and asked to produce a written description (pedicle-valve, brachial valve, anterior view, lateral view) of their fossil similar to the one that they read–i.e. using all of the appropriate terms. They are told that other students will be trying to match their description to their specimen. I collect all of the descriptions, edit them (remove portions that use incorrect terminology or inappropriate), and produce a handout of all of the descriptions.

At the next class, students are given the descriptions and asked to match descriptions to specimens. They do this independently outside of class. The specimens are made available in the lab room for several days. I add a couple of 'extra' specimens (without description) so that it is not a process of elimination.

Determining whether students have met the goals

At the next class meeting, students are given the descriptions written by the class. Students must match the descriptions to the fossils. Students are graded based on how many specimens they accurately identify AND on how many students accurately identify the specimen that they wrote about.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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