Initial Publication Date: October 10, 2012

Faculty Survey Results: A Snapshot of Teaching Paleontology

Participants at the Teaching Paleontology workshop in 2009 submitted surveys that provide information on how paleontology is taught at the undergraduate level. The results provide demographics on paleontology courses, as well as information on student misconceptions, topics that students find particularly difficult, and recent advances that should be incorporated into paleontology courses.

Paleontology in the Classroom

Elective or Requirement

The majority of paleontology courses taught by workshop participants are electives for geology majors; just under 32% are required courses for geology majors. A handful of courses are required for biology, environmental science, or earth science education majors. Over a quarter of the courses are cross-listed in another department, mostly Biology.

Elective or Requirement
Paleo elective course for geo majors3561.40%
Paleo required for major in geoscience1831.60%
Paleo required for major in bio/environ35.30%
Paleo course cross-listed in another department1327.10%

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Integrated into Courses

Nearly three-quarters of participants noted that paleontology concepts are integrated into one or more introductory courses in their department, while almost half said that paleontology is integrated into one or more courses for majors. On the other hand, only 17.5% of respondents indicated that paleontology is a component of a departmental field course.

Integrated into Courses
Paleo integrated into intro course4273.70%
Paleo integrated into course(s) for majors2849.10%
Paleo part of a field course1017.50%

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The majority of paleontology courses taught by participants are targeted to upperclassmen in Grades 15-16 (72%) and enroll less than 15 students (58%).

Course Design


When asked to identify the orientation of their paleontology course, a slim majority (62.3%) described their courses as concept-oriented or some combination of concept-oriented plus one or more other categories. A large minority (32.1%) identified their courses as taxon-oriented.

Concept + skill-oriented59.40%
Concept + taxon-oriented35.70%
Concept + other combination35.70%
Time interval-oriented23.80%

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Course prerequisites were diverse, with most courses requiring at least one prerequisite. Historical Geology, with or without Physical Geology, was common, as was the option to use a biology course instead. Much less common prerequisites were Sedimentology/Stratigraphy, a research or field methods course, or a writing course.

Both Historical and Physical Geology1225.00%
Can choose Biology only1225.00%
Physical/General Geology714.60%
Either / Any Geology714.60%

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The great majority of paleontology courses (86.8%) include a lab.

Paleontology - Lab or No Lab


Prothero's Bringing Fossils to Life McGraw-Hill, 2003) and Foote and Miller's Principles of Paleontology (W.H. Freeman, 2006) are the most commonly used textbooks, although nearly 10% of participants do not use a textbook and an additional 13.5% are undecided on which textbook to select.

Paleontology Textbooks
Prothero - Bringing Fossils to Life1630.80%
Foote and Miller - Principles of Paleontology815.40%
Benton & Harper - Introduction to Paleobiology & the Fossil Record47.70%
Benton - Vertebrate Paleontology35.80%
Clarkson - Invertebrate Palaeontology & Evolution23.80%

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Lab Text

Few participants identified a separate lab text, with those who did mostly specifying a text used as a "supplement," "lab resource," or "recommended" reading:

  • Boardman et al.Fossil Invertebrates
  • Clarkson - Invertebrate Palaeontology & Evolution
  • Hammer and Harper - Paleontological Data Analysis
  • McKinney - Exercises in Invertebrate Paleontology
  • Milsom and Rigby - Fossils at a Glance

Key Concepts and Skills, Challenges and Misconceptions

Key Paleontological Concepts

Evolution and phylogenetic concepts were by far the most commonly cited by participants when asked to list the three most important concepts that students should master in an undergraduate paleontology course. Geologic time and biostratigraphy, the nature of the fossil record, and taxonomic knowledge of major fossil groups were also popular choices.

Key Paleontological Concepts
KEY CONCEPTS that students should master:N%
1. Evolution and natural selection / phylogeny and the tree of life5730.20%
2. Geologic time and biostratigraphy, evidence of "Deep Time"3116.40%
3. Nature, fidelity, and biases of fossil record2010.60%
4. Biodiversity past to present (including taxonomic knowledge of major groups)189.50%
5. Earth systems / biosphere interactions126.30%
6. Paleoecological community composition and structure, how communities change over time126.30%
7. Use of fossils to determine ancient environments/climates105.30%
8. Scientific method, philosophy of science, uniformitarianism and its limits52.60%
9. Contributions of paleontology to geosciences and to biosciences, interdisciplinary nature of the field42.10%
10. How life (individual lineages and entire ecological communities) has changed in response to environmental change over its 3.5 gy history42.10%
11. Major events in the history of life on Earth (extinctions, evolutionary transitions)42.10%
12. Types of data, tools, and analytic approaches that paleontologists use42.10%
13. Functional morphology, basic biology of taxonomic groups31.60%
14. How paleontological concepts and techniques can be applied to contemporary environmental problems31.60%
15. Species concepts21.10%

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Note: The N and % in this table and those that follow in this section represent the number of times that item was mentioned, not the number of participants who responded. Since each participant listed multiple concepts, the total N is much larger than the number of workshop participants.

Most Important Skills

Participants were clearly challenged to identify important paleontological skills that students should master. Numerous respondents lapsed into citing concepts or topics to be learned, or provided vague statements like "data analysis". Describing and identifying fossil taxa was cited by the majority of participants.

Key Paleontological Skills
KEY SKILLS - Students should be able to…N%
1. Describe and identify fossil taxa.4227.30%
2. Synthesize data to reconstruct ancient environments and paleocommunities.1912.30%
3. Conduct a phylogenetic analysis (e.g., assess homology, reconstruct relationships).127.80%
4. Compile, graph, statistically analyze, and interpret data.117.10%
5. Date and correlate rock units using biostratigraphic principles.117.10%
6. Observe carefully and in great detail.63.90%
7. Collect field samples and data (including relevant sed/strat data).53.20%
8. Communicate with others.53.20%
9. Describe and interpret the depositional setting of a sedimentary unit.53.20%
10. Assess the taphonomic state of a fossil or assemblage.42.60%
11. Read, understand, and critique a scientific paper in paleontology.42.60%
12. Synthesize data to reconstruct the biology of a fossil organism.42.60%
13. Assess morphological variation and identify its sources.31.90%
14. Test hypotheses.31.90%
15. Conduct a morphometric analysis (e.g., quantify and compare form).21.30%
16. Develop a valid question and a process for answering it.21.30%
17. Recognize biofacies, assemblages characteristic of specific time periods.21.30%
18. Think critically.21.30%
19. Visualize fossils in 3D when they are not completely exposed.21.30%
20. Ask higher-level questions.10.60%
21. Assess the quality of scientific data / ideas.10.60%
22. Infer process from pattern.10.60%
23. Make interpretations based on incomplete data.10.60%
24. Process / prepare field samples in the lab.10.60%
25. Reason inductively.10.60%
26. Recognize individual taxa that index particular time periods.10.60%
27. Think interdisciplinarily.10.60%
28. Visualize 2D drawings, maps, etc. in 3D.10.60%
29. Visualize/conceptualize geologic time.10.60%

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Recent Advances

Participants were asked to list three recent advances in paleontology that should be incorporated into courses. Their responses are summarized here:

  1. Discoveries of new fossil evidence of major evolutionary transitions (e.g., Tiktaalik, feathered dinosaurs, mammals at PETM, humans)
  2. Modern phylogenetic techniques, computational systematics, combined analyses of morphology and genes, molecular clocks
  3. "Evo-devo", developmental regulatory genes, epi- and paragenetics
  4. Quantitative morphometrics
  5. New applications of biomechanics to fossils
  6. New data on timing, extent, causes, etc. of key events (e.g., Ediacaran-Cambrian Explosion, invasion of land, Permo-Triassic and Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinctions, evolution of humans)
  7. New data on Archean and Proterozoic conditions and events
  8. Renewed appreciation of the role of paleoecology in the history of life on Earth
  9. New (bio)geochemical techniques in paleoecology, paleoenvironment, paleoclimate studies (e.g., isotopes, trace elements, biomarkers)
  10. Micropaleontology in climate studies
  11. Earth system science, atmosphere-lithosphere-biosphere interactions, chemical cycles
  12. Application of paleontology to modern climate change, human impacts on climate/ecosystem function, ecosystem conservation and restoration
  13. Ongoing debate about the fossil record of biodiversity
  14. Taphonomic studies, including how preservation happens and the analysis of megabiases
  15. Geomicrobiology (including taphonomy and the search for life on Mars)
  16. New sites with exceptional preservation; recovery of fossil DNA, proteins
  17. Advances in dating methods, improved resolution of biostratigraphic records
  18. Integration of biostratigraphy with sequence stratigraphy
  19. New paleogeographic and sea level curve reconstructions
  20. New fossil imaging technologies (e.g., CT scanning, synchrotron X-ray fluorescence)
  21. Advances in digital microscopy, digital imaging, animations, 3D pdfs
  22. Compilation and use of large, online databases
  23. Use of geospatial technology (GPS, GIS, remote sensing) in fieldwork
  24. New data from previously inaccessible areas (e.g., China)
  25. Shift to multi-disciplinary, global, team-based projects
  26. Widespread access to electronic paleontological journals

Most Difficult Concepts

Interestingly, while phylogenetics was identified by participants as a key concept, key skill, and important recent advance, it was also singled out as an especially difficult concept for students to grasp. The large number of terms and fossil taxa to learn was also commonly mentioned by participants as difficult for students. A diverse array of other concepts were also cited by one or more participants.

Most Difficult Concepts
1. Phylogenetic analysis / cladistics / phylogenetic classification2123.90%
2. The quantity of information and terms to learn / number of taxa to memorize1011.40%
3. Deep time - the scale of geologic time78.00%
4. Macroevolution - hierarchical levels of selection, punctuated equilibrium, origin of higher taxa55.70%
5. Evolution by natural selection44.50%
6. Species concepts44.50%
7. Recognizing which fossils are useful for what questions44.50%
8. Genetics, including developmental genetics, role of random drift33.40%
9. Integrative thinking (connecting ideas, linking data to analyses to interpretations)33.40%
10. Biostratigraphy33.40%
11. Preservation potential - what does and does not fossilize, taphonomic biases33.40%
12. Quantitative approaches22.30%
13. Absence of directional progress in evolution11.10%
14. Exponential vs. logistic models of biodiversity increase11.10%
15. Paleoecological concepts11.10%
16. Rarefaction11.10%
17. Allometric growth11.10%
18. Functional morphology11.10%
19. Morphological disparity11.10%
20. Seilacher's three constraints on morphology (function, growth, phylogeny)11.10%
21. Variability in fossils11.10%
22. Telling brachiopods from bivalves11.10%
23. Nature of trace fossils11.10%
24. Visualizing 3D shapes from 2D data11.10%
25. How data are collected in field11.10%
26. Interpreting sed/strat data11.10%
27. Rocks & fossils are not continuously recorded but represent a series of overprinted processes11.10%
28. Importance of the "exceptional event"11.10%
29. Basic biology and chemistry concepts11.10%
30. Geochemical proxies11.10%
31. How science really works11.10%

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Strategies for Addressing Difficult Concepts

  1. Identify misconceptions and explore them.
  2. Repeat a concept in multiple class sessions/contexts/applications.
  3. Break down complex connections into simpler pieces.
  4. Provide plenty of practice – opportunities to apply a concept, practice a skill.
  5. Introduce quantitative techniques early and often, with lots of opportunities to practice (for quantitative skills).
  6. Use simulations (of time scale, of rocks, of fossil assemblages).
  7. Use directed reading of articles to show chronological development of an idea, how new evidence is integrated into the story (for integrative thinking).
  8. Use a graphic correlation exercise in which students work through all the steps involved, then answer various geologic questions based on results (for biostratigraphy, integrative thinking).
  9. Use an exercise in which students pick and SEM a microfossil, then draw it and compare their drawing to the SEM (for taxonomic practices).
  10. Use an exercise in which students draw their own timeline with characteristic groups (for learning time scale).
  11. Use exercises in which students create and/or use cladograms, do the entire process step-by-step themselves (for cladistics).
  12. Use an exercise in which students reconstruct the environment of a local outcrop (for linking fossils to environment).


Participants identified various misconceptions / preconceptions with which students arrive in a paleontology course, and offered suggestions for how to address them. In addition to the conceptual issues listed below, participants mentioned misconceptions about the nature of paleontology or the course, e.g., that paleontology is not important or relevant, hasn't progressed in many years, and is merely descriptive (an idea reinforced by other faculty); or that it will be an "easy" course requiring only rote memorization.

Students ...

  1. Think that "fossil" = dinosaur.
  2. Hold a simplistic view of the fossil record.
  3. Have an inaccurate view of the completeness of the fossil record‚ either a "we can't know anything" attitude or overconfidence that we can typically resolve events down to human timescales.
  4. Don't understand how organisms are preserved and what information is lost.
  5. Think that every individual of a fossil species will look exactly the same.
  6. Think they can't possibly identify, understand, or interpret complex anatomies.
  7. Are ignorant about modern biodiversity, animal types.
  8. Think that taxonomy, systematics, phylogeny is unimportant and boring.
  9. Don't understand cladistics, identifying derived features.
  10. Hold a host of misconceptions about evolution: mistaken notion of linear replacement of ancestor by descendant; evolutionary progress; the typical rate of evolutionary change; conflating species-level change with the origin of higher taxa / lack of understanding of hierarchies; a Lamarckian view that evolution changes individuals during their lifetimes; relatedness of particular groups; creationist views.
  11. Think that the Earth, or their specific locality, and life on it haven't changed much over time.
  12. Don't understand functional morphology.
  13. Think that multicellular life arose at the base of the Cambrian.
  14. Have trouble with the age of the Earth: geologic time in relation to evolution; radiometric dating methods; conflation of time intervals (e.g., mammoths lived with dinosaurs); "young Earth" views.
  15. Don't grasp the challenges, importance, and limitations of getting information from field sites.
  16. Don't understand that strata, rather than bedding contacts, represent the bulk of geologic time.
  17. Don't grasp that limestones are offshore of muds and sands in facies models.
  18. Have fuzzy ideas about the scientific method, what science is.
  19. Display dualistic or black-and-white thinking; think that science has single, "neat" right answers.
  20. Think that hypotheses cannot be tested in the historical sciences.

Strategies for Addressing Misconceptions/Preconceptions

  1. Draw out misconceptions in class and discuss them.
  2. Discuss practical relevance of course material, recent paleontological research, including your own research projects.
  3. Include exercises with direct relevance to Pleisto-Holocene paleoenvironmental analysis and change.
  4. Emphasize that asking quality questions is more important than memorization.
  5. Show as many different kinds of fossils as possible.
  6. Use an activity with household objects that explores variability and classification schemes.
  7. Use exercises that force students to confront the anatomy of specimens logically, with an eye to developing hypotheses about function, etc.
  8. Ask questions about the meaning of phylogeny, interpretation of phylogenies.
  9. Have students explain what information is being conveyed by examples of evolutionary trees.
  10. Start unit on evolution with a cartoon full of misconceptions about evolution, which students must critique; then they create their own, better cartoon.
  11. Discuss evolution in its historical / social framework.
  12. Present evidence of evolution without calling it evolution – let students realize what it is they are seeing.
  13. Use a range-through chart exercise to demonstrate that ancestors and descendants can co-exist.
  14. Assign Stephen Jay Gould essays on lack of evolutionary progress.
  15. Use a palynology activity showing how vegetation has changed locally over the last 100,000+ years.
  16. Discuss the evidence for multicellular life in the Proterozoic.
  17. Explain the process by which we arrive at knowledge, not just what that knowledge is.
  18. Cultivate an appreciation for "grayness" vs. black-and-white thinking.
  19. Use activities incorporating real paleontological data, to show the level of uncertainty.
  20. Use exercises in which students must develop testable predictions.