Paleontology, AGLY 311

Ralph Willoughby

University of South Carolina - Aiken
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


Paleontology, AGLY 311, surveys all aspects of life on Earth. We will discuss fossils of single-celled organisms, invertebrate and vertebrate animals, microscopic organisms, simple plants, and advanced plants, as well as nonfossiliferous organisms, trace fossils, the origin of life, evolution, taxonomy, paleoecology, biostratigraphy, ecostratigraphy, rudimentary statistics, and more.

Course URL:
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-level course with a required lab. Courses in physical geology and in historical geology are preferred and will be helpful. Some to most students lack those courses. We will review the basic concepts in geology and sediments early in the class.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to:
(1) Determine whether an object is a fossil or non-fossil.
(2) Roughly determine the age of a fossil assemblage.
(3) Formulate a pathway to identify the taxa in a given fossil assemblage.
(4) Interpret the paleoenvironment of a fossil assemblage.
(5) Predict other fossil taxa likely or plausible to occur together with a given fossil taxon.
(6) Predict some fossil taxa likely or plausible to occur in a given sediment or rock type of a given geologic age.
(7) Formulate a pathway to compare, in a taxonomically meaningful way, a given group of related fossil taxa,
(8) Formulate a pathway to determine whether a given fossil taxon is a new species.
(9) Formulate new research questions about a given fossil species, taxon, or assemblage.

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

Students learn fossils in lab. Lectures discuss taxa, apply concepts, and answer problems in paleontology. Writing papers lets students see questions that paleontologists try to answer. Students make weekly lab turn-ins (sketches, notes) and three written reports, two with oral presentations. Students take two lab exams and three class exams. Exam questions merge data-knowledge with imagination in solving and asking questions in paleontology.

Skills Goals

Student writing and oral presentations are a normal part of the course.

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

I grade each student's written paper on content but try to keep editing aside from assigning a grade.
I do not grade oral presentations. Each student should feel comfortable in reporting his or her material.

Attitudinal Goals

Focus is not significant. On one or more lab or class exams, I ask for feedback (opinions, for points) on the class, labs, and field trips.


Lab exercises and field trips are tools to kinetic learning, and in essence I assign points for completion. Lab exams test rote recognition of larger taxa plus naming of some significant body parts.
Class exams mix data-knowledge and paleontological concepts.


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