Using Field Lab Write-ups to Develop Observational and Critical Thinking Skills

Kim Hannula
Fort Lewis College
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This adaptation of field labs incorporates writing in the form of "Description" and "Interpretation" sections of a geologic report. It can be used in many types of field labs to improve critical thinking and understanding of descriptive terminology.

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Undergraduate required course in structural geology, could be adapted to other courses involving field labs

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Assignment can be adapted to a variety of levels, although I typically use it after students have learned to use a stereonet.

How the activity is situated in the course

stand-alone field labs


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • descriptive analysis of field-scale structures (may include folds, foliations, lineations, joints, and/or faults, depending on field area available)
  • stereonet plotting and analysis
  • may include any other concepts appropriate to available field area (general discussion of strain, pure and simple shear, kinematic analysis, fracture analysis, etc.)

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • analysis of field data
  • evaluation of competing hypotheses (if field area has appropriate problem)
  • separation of description and interpretation in writing

Other skills goals for this activity

  • writing (particularly writing spatial descriptions and using structural geology terminology)

Description of the activity/assignment

These assignments are adaptations of field labs to incorporate writing. For each field lab, students write a partial geologic report, consisting of a description (or "Structural Data") section, an interpretation section, and appropriate supporting figures (potentially including stereonets, field sketches, maps, cross-sections, etc.).

Handouts given at the beginning of lab list:

  1. the goals to be accomplished in the field (measurement of foliations and lineations, measurement of bedding around a fold, description of structures, field sketches, etc.),
  2. the figures expected in the write-up (stereonets, field sketches, etc.),
  3. a list of information to include in the description section, and
  4. a list of questions to address in the interpretation section.

Depending on the field area, students may be given two or more competing models to test in the field or may be asked to relate descriptive analysis to kinematic or mechanical analysis. This adaptation can be used for field labs at all levels, from labs designed to review field techniques and identify basic types of secondary structures to labs that simulate research experience. This type of write-up improves student writing by giving students practice using terminology and describing spatial relationships, and improves critical thinking skills by requiring written interpretation of structural data.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Grading is divided into three categories:

  1. stereonet data,
  2. description, and
  3. interpretation.

Each student's stereonet plot is compared to his/her table of data collected in the field for the stereonet grade.

The description section is graded based on
  1. completeness of the description (compared to expectations in lab handout),
  2. correct identification of structures,
  3. correct spatial descriptions (compared to field sketches, stereonets, tables of data collected, and instructor's observations in the field area),
  4. correct use of terminology, and
  5. separation of interpretation from description.

The interpretation section is graded based on

  1. reasonableness of interpretation, given the description of structures and the background of the student (i.e., students are not expected to have mastered material not yet covered in class),
  2. completeness of interpretation (compared to expectations in lab handout),
  3. correct use of terminology, and
  4. separation of description from interpretation.

Quality of writing can also be used as one of the criteria for grading. Grades may be adjusted based on inclusion of a "Further Work" section, in which students can discuss observations they should have made in the field in order to be able to complete the interpretation.

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