Initial Publication Date: August 25, 2019

What should be taught in an undergraduate structural geology course?

The survey

In order to find out if a consensus exists on what should be in a structural geology course, we asked the 70 participants at the 2004 On the Cutting Edge workshop on Teaching Structural Geology in the 21st Century to fill out a survey. We chose 80 topics taken from the table of contents of a typical structural geology textbook, and, for each topic, respondents chose one of the following three options: 1) This topic is crucial, a "must"; 2) I teach this topics but would consider shortening or eliminating it; or 3) I never teach this topic.

Three key points from the survey results are summarized in the bullets below. To see the full survey and results, you can download a graphic compilation of all topics in the survey as a 2-page Word doc (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.5MB Aug26 19) or as a 7x16" single-page graphic (Acrobat (PDF) 1.3MB Aug26 19). You can also download the original survey data as an Excel spreadsheet (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 30kB Aug25 19).

  • Only 15 of the 80 topics were considered crucial by more than 75% of respondents. These top 15 topics, along with the percent responses, are shown in the figure at right.
  • Of the 80 topics, only about half were considered "crucial, a must" by more than 50% of the respondents. The other half of respondents either do not teach these very same topics at all or would consider shortening or eliminating them.
  • ~15 topics were not covered at all by more than half of the respondents but were listed as crucial by 7-20% of respondents, depending on the topic.

The survey results are very liberating

The comprehensiveness of textbooks gives a misleading impression of the topics that faculty actually cover. Textbooks have to be comprehensive because they need to include all of the topics that a variety of faculty might choose to include in a course. We should not feel compelled to try to "teach it all" – no one does (at least not effectively in terms of student learning!). This leaves us free to design courses around what we as individual faculty members want our students to be able to do in structural geology as a result of having taken the course.

And structural geology is not unique in this. The 68 faculty members at the 2005 workshop on Teaching Hydrogeology in the 21st Century filled out a comparable survey on hydrogeology topics, and the results paint a similar picture. And, curiously enough, their survey results also show that only about 15 hydrogeology topics were considered crucial by more than 75% of the participants.

Are the 2004 survey results still relevant?

We have not repeated either of these surveys since the mid-2000s. Although the individual survey items might differ now (e.g., the 2004 survey asks about air photo interpretation in a pre-Google Earth time....), we have no reason to believe either that a tighter consensus has since emerged on crucial topics or that faculty are now placing a greater emphasis on "covering it all".

  • Discussions at the 2012 workshop on Teaching Structural Geology, Geophysics, and Tectonics in the 21st Century suggest that many faculty are adopting approaches focused on better student learning, rather than on faculty presentation of topics.
  • Teaching with a "less is more" approach (covering fewer topics but doing each more deeply to improve student learning) or including topics that emphasize the relevance of structural geology to other disciplines not only makes choices of topics more diverse but also makes "covering it all" even less important.