David Kendrick

Hobart & Wm Smith Colleges
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


This course provides an overview of the kinds of questions we ask using the fossil record and the types of data and methods we apply to these questions. We examine the fossil record from biological and geological perspectives and explore the contributions fossils can make to a variety of other disciplines, including evolution,
paleoclimatology, paleoenvironmental reconstruction, resource exploration, and geology.

Course URL:
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-division course for geology majors and minors, however, interested students from all disciplines who have satisfied the prerequisites are welcome. The prerequisite is the introductory physical geology course; having the earth history course is desirable but not required. The course has a required three-hour laboratory and two weekend field trips.

Course Goals:

There are many discipline related goals; I list a primary one and a sample of the sub-goals

Students should be able to formulate new research questions in a variety of areas -- for example in character evolution, extinction mechanisms and rates, and changing clade histories

Sample of sub - goals:
Students should be able to gather and analyze phylogenetic data
Students should be able to synthesize taphonomic and geologic data
Students should be able to analyze palynological unknowns and provide an age-date

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

I approach these goals in two ways -- with exercises that model the process and with targeted reading/writing assignments. Assessment is based on short papers that require synthesis of material from projects and primary literature.

Skills Goals

Using writing as an integral part of critical thinking
Synthesizing multiple readings from the literature
Improving observational powers

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

Writing well, expressing thoughts clearly and cogently, and arguing persuasively are hallmarks of all educated people. In addition, writing can be an integral part of learning critical thinking, rather than just a way to communicate thoughts to others. I use a series of targeted reading/writing to advance critical thinking skills and to show students how to synthesize information from multiple sources. In these exercises, each student (or a group of two, if there are many students) is assigned a particular paper from a sequence of related papers examining an issue -- the development of the Bug Creek problem or the evolution of whales, for example. Students discuss the papers in class in order of publication. This presents the problem, how workers have approached it, blind alleys, and resolution. Careful choice of papers is key. Students are assessed based on their mastery of the paper they're assigned and on a follow-up writing assignment based on the complete set of readings that requires the students to integrate and evaluate the disparate material to answer a particular question.

Attitudinal Goals

increasing sense of wonder about life's remarkable history -- we are "those endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" that Darwin was talking about.

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

I rely both on my presentation and on frequent inclusion of topical or remarkable discoveries.


In-lecture quizzes – Daily quizzes are typically short essays designed to allow student reflection and self-assessment. Value per quiz is low (2 points) and so they are low-stress; however, they add up over the semester.

Labs — There are 13 laboratory exercises. Four labs are traditional marine invertebrate material; the remainder are hands-on exercises ranging from performing a phylogenetic analysis to two-week palynological sessions in which students determine the age of an unknown sample.

Reading Discussions – Three discussions revolving around a particular topic. Each student is responsible for an article chosen by the instructor. See Achieving Skills Related Goals above.

Essays — Four essays used as a tool for understanding some of the concepts that we investigate. Most are based on the Reading Discussions above.

Lab Practical – Assessment of general fossil ID, modes of preservation, and biological concepts.

Final – The final is an integrative take-home exam consisting of essay questions that will require some research and some analysis. We meet during scheduled exam period to discuss student answers.

Field Trips— There are two mandatory one-day weekend field trips with write-ups.


Syllabus and Schedule for Paleontology Course (Acrobat (PDF) 165kB Jun4 09)

Example Essay Assignments (Acrobat (PDF) 126kB Jun4 09)

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