What is it?

Geoffrey Pignotta, UW-Eau Claire

Author Profile


This classroom activity involves students interpreting geologic structures presented in photos during lecture. Photos are shown either after topics or towards the end of class and one student is called upon to interpret the photo. Students may come to the screen to point out features if they choose. At the beginning of the course more basic structures are presented for interpretation and as the course progresses more complex photos are used after more advanced topics are discussed.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This is an activity that I have modified from a graduate level advanced mapping field class taught by Greg Davis at USC, who called this "What see you?". I use this in my undergraduate structural geology class.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

As this is an evolving activity, the activity is adjusted after new skills/concepts are introduced as the course progresses.

How the activity is situated in the course

I introduce this activity on day one of lecture and try to have "What is it?" slides most lecture days. They are often included at points in the lecture where there is a topic shift or at the end of lecture.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal of this activity is to help students become better observers and interpreters of geologic structures. I also require that students accurately describe the structures using appropriate geologic terminology and classify structures in as much detail as possible. For example, after folds have been introduced and a picture of a fold(s) is shown students must classify the fold and describe its geometry, not just say "It's a fold.".

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This activity requires students to quickly analyze real geologic scenarios and come up with a reasonable interpretation to present to the class. All of their previous skills and knowledge come into play.

Other skills goals for this activity

Other skills include becoming more comfortable with oral presentation of original ideas. This is on the fly interpretation and presentation.

Description and Teaching Materials

For this activity I use my own photos and photos available on other websites that are put onto a powerpoint slide with the title "What is it?" at the top. I have also recently started using Google Earth locations in my "What is it?" repertoire for large scale structures. Some website sources I obtain images from include:

Examples of What is it? slides (Acrobat (PDF) 4.9MB Apr30 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is a tremendously flexible activity and can be tailored to suit what materials you cover in your class.


Students are required to interpret and present on the spot. Assessment is instantaneous. I also make sure that everyone in the class agrees or understands the interpretation of the photos. If there is confusion or there are questions I make sure they are addressed immediately using the What is it? presented.