Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Course Descriptions > Principles of Paleontology

Principles of Paleontology

Pennilyn Higgins

University of Rochester
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs


This course is designed to introduce the basic principles of paleontology - the study of fossil organisms in the geological record. Topics to be covered include: Taphonomy and the processes of fossilization; Principles of evolution as evidenced by the fossil record; Taxonomy and the recognition and naming of fossil species; Biostratigraphy as a means of dating a rock and/or learning about ancient environments; Geochemistry of fossils as a means to understand ancient habitats and behaviors. The course will include an overview of important fossil groups with hands-on experience and a field trip.

Course URL:
Subject: Geoscience:Paleontology
Resource Type: Course Information:Goals/Syllabi, Course Information
Grade Level: College Lower (13-14)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Paleontology
Course Size:


Course Context:

This is an introductory course for paleontology. It has prerequisites of Physical Geology or Historical Geology, but this requirement is usually waived for students interested enough to enquire. This course is required for students following the 'Geobiology' track of the Geology Major. This course is a prerequisite for advanced paleontology courses.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to read and follow most technical papers and talks in invertebrate paleontology.
Students should be able to identify in hand specimen invertebrate fossils at least to the level of phylum.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Through the course, I do occasionally hand out recently published papers that relate to topics discussed in class. I discuss these papers with the students by pointing out where class topics are being used and what the conclusions being drawn are. I also encourage students to attend paleontologically related departmental seminars and write up for me a list of concepts included in the lecture that they had learned about in class.
Toward the end of the semester, we take a fossil-collecting trip where students must apply what they've learned in order to identify the fossils they collect. For students unable to attend the field trip, I also have an in-class exercise.

Attitudinal Goals

Though it is not explicit in my syllabus, I certainly make it a goal to teach students the process of science (specifically of paleontology). I try to put a human face on it, and discuss the nature of scientific disagreements and ethical problems that arise along the way. I want to make it clear that paleontology, as portrayed in the media like Jurassic Park, is not that way at all, but that it is still worthwhile, interesting, and exciting. Plus, I feel it is necessary to make sure students realize that, NO, not all the fossils have been found yet!

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

When lecturing I enjoy pausing to give anecdotes about disagreements and ethical issues that have come up. I also like to lighten the class by telling them about the silliness that has been an important part of paleontology historically. I assess this by simply noting how students respond to exam questions related to these topics. Students will point out related controversies when I ask them to define certain terms. This makes me smile.


I use four exams as the primary means to assess learning. My exams are all short answer/essay, with a part on defining terms. Some questions require students to put together concepts in a way that I may not have discussed in class. Performance on these questions really helps me assess the depth with which students have learned and understood course materials.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 9kB Apr27 09)

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