Paleontology Course Design Approaches

stromatolite fossil

There is no one right way to organize an undergraduate paleontology course. Some courses are organized around taxonomy and sequential consideration of specific phyla. Other are organized around big picture concepts. We asked the participants at a workshop on Teaching Paleontology in the 21st Century workshop (July 2009) to consider the advantages and disadvantages of four different approaches (bold headings below) for achieving a specific set of student-focused course goals (see examples of such goals) and to offer suggestions for successful implementation.

Lecture and lab have a taxonomic organization

Advantages: Taxonomy is the foundation of paleontology, and morphology is closely tied to ecology and environmental distribution. This approach provides students with a strong systematic background. It provides thorough coverage across a broader range of organisms and prepares students well to do tasks related to determining, for example, rock ages and evolutionary trends. This approach allows in-depth exploration of the links between taxonomy and phylogeny. It's also a familiar and easy organization, because this is how many textbooks and digital resources are organized. This option also allows us to train the next generation of systematists.

Disadvantages: The approach places less emphasis on process, context, and real-world relevance. A "march through the phyla" can obscure paleontology concepts and make it harder for students to see the big picture and to understand why paleontology is important. It's harder to achieve integration with goals focused on enabling students to solve geologic problems with a paleontologic component. It's also potentially boring, which stems from the fact that this approach makes it easy to fall into the trap of designing a course that is focused on memorization. In reality, even with a taxonomic approach, you still can't cover everything in one semester – too many taxa, too little time.
Suggestions for implementation: Introduce taxonomic case studies to incorporate broader concepts such as functional morphology, paleoecology, and biogeography. Adopt an organized and explicit strategy for threading concepts through successive sections on different taxa. Use field trips to integrate examination of fossils in a geologic context. Design a series of synthesis assignments that require students to combine what they have learned from several taxa to solve a problem that explicitly integrates/illustrates paleontology concepts.

Lecture and lab have a conceptual organization

Advantages: This approach provides a single organizing theme that allows students to develop an integrated perspective, rather than a perspective that is focused on individual taxa. The approach allows a clear demonstration of the relevance of paleontology and how fossils fit into the big ideas in science. Major concepts can be threaded throughout the semester and reinforced through multiple subthemes. This approach encourages development of courses that help students develop higher order thinking skills in paleontology, rather than ones where students can get by largely with memorization. Students get the big picture.
Disadvantages: Students don't develop a deep knowledge base with respect to different time frames or taxa. How will students gain a strong enough background in the taxonomic aspects of fossils (including the basic language) that they can solve problems involving age determination and evolutionary trends? It's more of a challenge to integrate basic methods and skills (paleo "nuts and bolts") into a course that is focused on concepts.
Suggestions for implementation: Thread basic methods and skills throughout the course. Design assignments that require students to use taxonomic skills/principles to solve problems that also incorporate paleontology concepts. Decide what basic taxonomic aspects need to be threaded throughout the semester, and choose a subset of taxa to incorporate into the course that can illustrate basic taxonomic principles/skills that students can transfer to learning, in the future, about/utilizing fossils from unfamiliar taxa (and give them some experience in learning on their own about new taxa).

Lecture has a conceptual organization, lab has a taxonomic organization

Advantages: Such a course can build and strengthen students' understanding of concepts by applying concepts to each taxonomic group as it is covered in lab. This approach puts the taxonomic aspects into the lab, where it's easiest to have the necessary hands-on component. This approach provides students with a systematic background that is more thorough for the taxonomic groups included in the labs than can typically be achieved when the focus of a course is dominantly conceptual (and taxonomy is the underlying language for solving conceptual problems).

Disadvantages: If lecture is conceptual and lab is taxonomic, it's harder to integrate the lecture and lab, and there's a much greater potential for a disconnect between the big picture concepts and taxonomy. In addition, "boxing critters" may obscure evolutionary relationships. If lab is the place where students are engaged in investigation, and the lab is taxonomic, students will have personal experience with taxonomic aspects but are likely to only "hear about" concepts in lecture. It's hard to achieve student-focused goals related to concepts if students do not work with the concepts directly. Having both taxonomic and conceptual aims in a course means that you have to make hard choices – you can't cover it all.
Suggestions for implementation: Integrate discussion and problem-solving activities into the lecture sessions so that students do more than hear about concepts. A long-term project or capstone assignment can be an effective way of integrating students' lecture and lab experiences and can give students an opportunity to apply both concepts and taxonomy to solve a problem. Integrate a short conceptual component into each taxonomic lab that applies/investigates concepts that have been covered previously in class. Over multiple weeks, have students investigate aspects of an environmental assessment project that has a taxonomically diverse assemblages (e.g., evaluate one taxonomic group in the assemblage each week) and build the full picture over the course of the semester. Have students keep a semester-long notebook to keep track of major concepts while looking at taxonomy in lab.

Lecture and lab each blend a conceptual and a taxonomic organization

Advantages: An integrated approach is exciting and mimics the real world of paleontology research. An integrated approach allows a taxonomic component to provide a tool for understanding the concepts. Lecture and lab reinforce the importance of both taxonomic and conceptual aspects, and integration helps connect the lab and the lecture. The approach works well with goals that require students to integrate knowledge of systematic paleontology with an understanding of paleontology concepts. This approach is well-suited to inquiry-based activities.
Disadvantages: Because of the complete integration of concepts and taxonomy, students might not come away with a coherent sense of the taxonomic aspects of fossils and might know very different kinds of things about different taxonomic groups (rather than similar kinds of things about different groups). Depending upon the classroom and lab set-up, it might be a challenge to integrate hands-on taxonomic aspects equally in both lecture and lab. It's also impossible to cover all taxonomic and conceptual aspects in one course, so hard choices would have to be made about coverage (although this is true of any course with equal emphasis on concepts and taxonomy, regardless of extent of integration).
Suggestions for implementation: Focus on a limited number of examples in depth without trying to cover all the possible content. Focus on topics that specifically help students make progress toward the goals of the course and give them experience with methods, ideas, techniques, and approaches that could be applied to other topics/problems that aren't covered in class. Use a studio classroom approach rather than dividing the course into a class and a lab (i.e., get rid of the lecture/lab dichotomy). If college/university scheduling allows, schedule several two hour time blocks instead of the traditional one-hour lectures with a three-hour lab.