Identifying Plate Boundaries, an Inquiry Lab

Revising Authors: Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College; Michelle Harris, Centralia College

Original Authors:Alyssa Abbey, California State University - Long Beach; Liang Zeng, University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley; Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College; Michelle Harris, Centralia College

Initial Publication Date: August 18, 2021 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


Average inquiry level: Guided inquiry

Students working in groups will examine and discuss earthquakes, volcanoes, topography, faults, and seafloor ages and use those features to identify the boundaries of tectonic plates and specific features and processes associated with specific types of plate boundaries. This lab is designed for face-to-face instruction.

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This is designed for a college-level introductory geology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Understanding of basic geologic phenomena - faults, earthquakes, volcanoes, topography
Basic map reading

How the activity is situated in the course

It is best situated in the lab portion of a course (2-3 hours), but it could take place over the course of several 50 or 75-minute lecture periods.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Link surface features and activities present on the Earth's surface to tectonic processes (includes features of plate boundaries and evidence that supports plate tectonic theory).
  • Identify the type of plate boundary based on the features and activities present.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Recognize patterns of geologic features.
  • Use the patterns to infer plate boundaries and tectonic processes.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Interpret maps/images and identify patterns/features.
  • Enhance their communication skills and group-working skills.

Description and Teaching Materials

The suggested sequence for the lab is as shown below (as written here this should take ~2.5 hours):

  • Pre-lab: Each student is given a Student Handout for Plate Tectonics Inquiry Lab (Acrobat (PDF) 116kB Jul27 21) and one of four pre-lab reading passages on evidence related to one of the following features: Earthquakes (Acrobat (PDF) 161kB Jul27 21), Volcanoes (Acrobat (PDF) 574kB Jul27 21), Topography and Seafloor Age (Acrobat (PDF) 4.6MB Jul27 21), Faults (Acrobat (PDF) 548kB Jul27 21). (Estimated time 30-45 min. - outside of class)
    • Same reading for each student in an 'expert group'
    • Students are asked to write down their thoughts or ideas about their reading. Prompts given to guide student thinking are included in the Student Handout.
  • Beginning of the lab, students come together in their 'expert' groups and discuss their pre-lab reading. (~10 min). (a link to information on Jigsaw activities is provided below)
    • Students in each group should come up with group shared ideas. Students write down their shared ideas on their 'student handout' to be shared with their mixed group and to be turned in at the conclusion of the activity.
  • Expert Groups examine Global Map Set (Acrobat (PDF) 8MB Jul27 21). Students discuss within the group and will record their observations individually on their 'student handouts' (~15 min)
    • Prompt: what patterns do you see in the provided global maps?
    • Activity: create a bullet-point-list of the patterns and observations seen (e.g. patterns between the locations, depths, and magnitudes of different earthquakes)
  • Mixed Groups (~15 min). Groups assign a reporter, students will record their observations individually on their 'student handouts' and the reporter will share the groups ideas with the class in the following discussion
    • Students reform into groups with one member from each expert group; experts report their findings on the global maps to a group and share insights with each other
    • Prompts: do the patterns overlap? How do you explain what you see?
    • Students add to their notes of these ideas.
  • Full-class discussion (optional if short on time) of plate boundaries: reporter from each group share the patterns of their data and the comparison notes instructor can comment on points that need further clarifications (~15 min)
  • Mixed groups are given regional data sets to study (at least three unique sets representing transform, divergent, convergent boundaries) - these data sets include the more detailed maps with multiple features (i.e. depths of quakes/magnitudes, volcano compositions/types, fault maps/aerial photos showing offsets etc.) Links to files with regional map sets are provided below. (~20 min).
    • Students should assign a reporter for the group AND should record personal observations and conclusions on their own worksheets.
    • Students make more observations and find more patterns (e.g. deep quakes, and certain volcanoes, majority reverse faults, etc..)
    • Goal is to come up with a list of characteristics of surface features that exist in different plate boundary types
    • Questions: What do you think is happening at this plate boundary? What is the evidence? What type of boundary do you think this is? What other information would you like to better confirm this hypothesis?
    • Conclusion: provide students with GPS data - does this support your hypothesis or do you need to revise your hypothesis?
  • Full-class discussion: the idea here is to bring together the identifying characteristics for each boundary (~15 min)
    • Each group reports their observations and hypothesis
    • Class creates a class list of observations and hypotheses on the whiteboard
    • Class can also create a list of ambiguous characteristics - i.e. exists in two/all boundary types, or not consistent for different boundaries, etc.
  • Lab assessment activity: (New Groups) students are given a new regional map/set of data (~10 min)
    • Group has 2 min per-map set to make quick observations and come up with a hypothesis for the type of plate boundary - rotate maps between the groups -- multiple 2-min rounds (this can be adjusted with more time per set and fewer sets)
  • Entire class
    • Quick "popcorn" discussion of the hypotheses for each set (~5 min)
    • Watch (or share for later viewing) some Attwater animations or McConnell videos (links for videos below in References and Resources) to show plate motions - (~10 min)
  • Final activity with original 'expert' group - assign a group recorder to write down these thoughts and questions for the group (to be turned in at the end of class) (~15 min)
    • Students now return to the evidence they read about in their pre-lab and use the information/knowledge they have gained to come up with more thoughts, revised theories, more questions, etc.
  • End the lab with a minute paper surveying students' with prompts such as clearest/muddiest point, favorite thing, new things learned, and/or new thoughts and questions. (~3 min)

Optional exercises (could be homework or lab exam questions too):

  • Describe surface features from your hometown (i.e. mountains, faults types, etc.) and hypothesize what type of plate boundary exists/existed to create such features. And why?
  • Given all of the global maps (quakes, volcanoes, faults, topo, gps) students draw over a blank world map with where they think the plate boundaries are and what type, then provide a map of the correct plate boundaries and have them note where they were wrong and either explain why or write down any questions if they are confused about the actual boundary type
  • Given a tectonic map labeled with the plate boundary type - mark a few regions and have students identify and explain a few key features they know to exist there (either prior knowledge or a bit of research on the spot) - use those features to explain the obviousness of the boundary type or to show the confusing part about that particular boundary.
  • Provide post-lab readings with more details describing how the features we looked at support the Plate Tectonic Theory and have students reflect again
  • Provide reading in support of the new theory called Convection Tectonics and have students compare the two theories and use the earning we did to support one over the other or show how the PT theory was preliminary and now with our new observations how scientists can make and support this new CT theory
  • Provide biomarkers/fossil data/maps and have students explain how this further supports or confounds the plate tectonic theory.
  • Provide Yellowstone National Park and Hawaii Islands volcano data (age, location) and have students answer the following questions:
    • What is happening here? Is it a plate boundary?

Detailed Instructor Notes with links to original source materials: Instructor Notes for Plate Tectonics Inquiry Lab (Acrobat (PDF) 158kB Jul27 21)
Student Handouts:

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Many of the maps used in this exercise use colors to convey information; this may pose a barrier to students with color vision deficiency (CVD). The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD) has resources including links to free software that can transform color displays into forms more useful to students with various forms of CVD. Students should be offered digital versions of the maps provided and links to transformative software.
  • IAGD CVD Information and Resources:
  • Pedagogy in Action
  • Assigning students to expert groups with assigned readings in a prior class section is preferred.
    • It is important to stress to students that preparation is critical to this exercise; participation points may be given to students who show evidence that they have prepared.
    • Some "experts" may be absent; this can be addressed by determining the mixed group assignments at the beginning of the class session (some groups may have more than one "expert" on a topic).
    • Some "experts" may not have prepared (read the assigned reading &/or taken notes to share). This can also be addressed by emailing students a reminder one day prior to the lab and via their discussion within the "expert" group at the beginning of the lab.
    • Some students may not have attended the class session when "experts" were assigned; they can be assigned to an expert group at the start of class and the other members of that group can bring them up to speed.
  • For the video portion: Instructor can show all videos to the class or a few Attwater animations then each group that worked on a specific type of boundary watches their specific video (McConnell videos on divergent, convergent, transform) and all videos can be linked on the course page of the rest of the students to view later


Students share findings in class and complete worksheets provided which includes space for notes, conclusions, and reflection. An instructor key for the activity can be downloaded here:


References and Resources