Principles of Geology

Alan Whittington

University of Missouri (University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs)


Introductory Physical Geology with lab. Three 1-hour lectures per week plus one 2-hour lab per week (taught by TA's).

Course URL:

Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geology
Course Size:

greater than 150

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites, and is one of two possible prerequisites for other Geology courses (the other is "Environmental Geology" which is actually quite similar). Typically, more than 90% of the students take the course to satisfy a general education requirement, and only a handful plan to be Geology majors. The course has a required lab. About 50% freshmen, 25% sophomores, 12.5% juniors and 12.5% seniors. Class size varies with lecture time (two sections taught every semester) but is always more than 200 and sometimes as big as 330, in a single auditorium.

Course Goals:

(1) To learn some geology (how the Earth works)
Geology means "the study of the planet Earth", including the materials of which it is made, the processes that act on these materials, the products formed, and the history of the planet and its life forms since its origin. This is a broad definition, including lots of physics, chemistry and biology in its many sub-disciplines. In this course we take a quick tour of pretty much everything.

(2) To learn how geology is relevant to you
Most of you are not Geology majors. Why should you care about geology? Some examples of why I find geology fascinating, and why it is important to everyone:
- One of the largest earthquakes in recorded history occurred in 1811-1812 at New Madrid, MO. Many small earthquakes happen all the time in this area, but why here? Can we predict them?
- Rocks in the St. Franç•’s that was as profound as Einstein's relativity theory was to physics, or the theory of evolution was to biology. So how does a scientific revolution happen? Find out about the scientific method, and understand the difference between a "fact", a "theory" and a "hypothesis". Understanding how scientists "know" things is at least as important what they claim to know. This leads on to the final course aim.

(4) To encourage independent critical thinking and learning new concepts
If this course was just about learning "facts", we could distill the textbook into lots of definitions, and a few "facts". It would be incredibly dull. Of course we have to learn some definitions, but more important is to constantly ask yourself (and me) "how do we know this?" and "how can I apply this way of looking at things to other subjects?"


75% from two midterm and one cumulative final exam, all multiple choice.
25% from three lab quizzes and one cumulative lab exam, variety of questions but mostly short answer / calculation / fill-in-the-blank type.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 159kB Jun25 06)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Textbook: Earth: Portrait of a Planet (with CD-ROM), 2nd edition, by S. Marshak [W.W. Norton], ISBN 0-393-92502-1
Web site: []
Lab manual: Laboratory Manual in Physical Geology, 7th edition, edited by Richard M. Busch [Prentice Hall] ISBN 0-13-149745-6