Photo observation & interpretation

Sarah Titus, Carleton College

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Each week in Structural Geology, I assign students the task of sketching, describing, and interpreting an image. The images are chosen to match the relevant course material for that week. There is a specific form for this assignment, which is designed in part to physically separate their observations from interpretations on the page. In class, we spend 10-20 minutes discussing their different observations/interpretations.

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I use this in a 300-level Structural Geology course, which typically only has undergraduate junior and senior majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

How the activity is situated in the course

I use it as a weekly homework assignment as well as a weekly in-class discussion opportunity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal is to begin to recognize, describe, and interpret geologic structures. This is critical because we can't always go see these structures in the field first-hand.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For me, learning the difference between an observation and an interpretation is probably the most important point.

Other skills goals for this activity

Developing some sketching skills is a side benefit.

Description and Teaching Materials

I have uploaded the form that I use for this activity, in addition to a couple of useful photographs.

Form for the sketch (Acrobat (PDF) 73kB Apr30 12)
Example image (a 1879 by 2862 pixel WebP)
Example image (a 600 by 800 pixel WebP)

Teaching Notes and Tips

For the first week, it's a good idea to have a discussion about the difference between observation and interpretation. Often, we practice with some familiar object - like a cell phone or a stapler.

For the in-class discussion, it can be fun to have a colleague who has never seen the photo-for-the-week come in and describe what they see in the image. Students are often amazed by these visitors and their abilities to interpret geologic structures.


Each week I collect the students' forms and grade them based on their sketch (how well does it resemble the image?, did they capture the most important features?), their observations (are they really observations?, are they useful observations?), and their interpretations (did they use their own observations?, are the interpretations reasonable?) It's not about getting the right answer, but about being able to articulate their ideas clearly.

References and Resources