Visualizing Data from a Journal Article: A Critical Thinking Exercise

Jeannette Wolak, Tennessee Technological University
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This is a take-home exercise for junior or senior-level students in a Sedimentation/Stratigraphy course. It may be used to bridge topics of geomorphology, depositional environments and clastic sedimentology.

The exercise focuses on visualizing journal article data in a meaningful way. In addition to defining technical terms, students are asked to use background knowledge of Walther's Law to complete a series of vertical sections. Approximate time to complete the exercise is 4-5 hours. Individual assignment (as opposed to group work) is recommended.

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This activity is designed for use in an undergraduate or graduate sedimentary geology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students are expected to have some general knowledge of the following topics:

  • Sedimentary processes and clastic deposition in a fluvial system
  • Walther's Law of Facies
  • Geomorphology of terrestrial fluvial systems, e.g. channels, point bars, levees, etc.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone exercise. In my undergraduate Sedimentation/Stratigraphy class, I use it to bridge two main course topics: clastic deposition and depositional environments.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

There are three scientific literacy and journal article comprehension goals for this assignment. These align with semester-long goals that encourage students to delve into the scientific literature and become confident researchers.

  1. Students build their own content-specific vocabulary. Jargon and terminology are challenges that students must overcome. This activity requires them to define technical terms using context clues and other resources.
  2. Students extract main points from a review article.
  3. Students reflect on their own learning. At the conclusion of the exercise, students write an essay addressing how they conceptualized fluvial systems before and after reading the assigned article.

Additionally, there are three content goals for this exercise.

  1. Students become familiar with a variety of fluvial architectures, including: sheet-braided systems, channeled-braided systems, meandering channel systems and fixed channel systems.
  2. Students are able to identify unique attributes that are characteristic of each style of fluvial architecture.
  3. Students use Walther's Law to predict how lateral migration of fluvial elements will result in a vertical sequence.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

In order to complete the activity, students must critically think and conceptualize data presented in the journal article.

Other skills goals for this activity

  1. Creative skills: Students create a series of detailed sketches to visualize data.
  2. Writing skills: Students compose a reflective essay at the conclusion of the exercise.

Description and Teaching Materials

There are two materials needed for this activity:

1. Visualizing Journal Article Data - Exercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 271kB Jun4 14) You will need one copy of this exercise for each student.

2. Gibling and Davies 2012 You will need one copy of this journal article for each student.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is a challenging exercise that takes 4-5 hours for students to complete, possibly longer if they have little experience reading journal articles. In my course, I allow students one full week to complete the assignment and recommend that they break it into a few work sessions so they may revisit their answers.

I also require students to complete the exercise independently. In assessment, it is clear if students have shared answers as every solution should be unique, particularly for question Q5.


I recommend using a scoring rubric for assessment. Please don't hesitate to contact me for a copy of the rubric and an answer key for the assignment.

References and Resources

The article used for this assignment is: Gibling, M.R. and Davies, N.S., 2012. Palaeozoic landscapes shaped by plant evolution. Nature Geoscience, v. 2, p. 99-105.

A PDF of the article is available at: (may require subscription)