Structural Analysis of Rocks and Regions (SARR)

Florian Fusseis & Mikael Attal, School of Geosciences
The University of Edinburgh


SARR aims to reverse the theory-first/application-second approach of most common structural geology textbooks. It confronts students with lectures and practicals on deformed regions around the globe that, combined, represent a wide range of tectonic styles and deformation conditions. The course invites them to learn and explore key concepts of structural geology through the exploration of multi-scale data sets from these regions.

Course URL: []
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

SARR is a compulsory core course for Geoscience undergrads on the "Geology", "Geology and Physical Geography" and "Geology and Geophysics" degree streams. Being delivered in 3rd year, it builds on a background knowledge of the rock cycle in a global tectonic context. SARR is about stimulation much more than ex-cathedra teaching, and student-led learning is at the center of the course. The teaching approach is considered relatively demanding as it includes a significant independent learning component. However, students comment on this aspect very favorably.

Course Content:

The course exposes students to multi-scale data sets from a wide range of structural settings. The course runs over nine weeks, with 5-7 contact hours per week (2-4 lectures, 1 practical, 1-2 tutorials). Each week is dedicated to a particular tectonic setting, which is introduced through one or more case studies. The case studies are chosen so that a) in sum, they represent all important deformation processes and styles, b) the students will/may visit them, c) excellent (teaching) material is available to allow for a true multi-scale and integrated assessment using a wide range of data and d) the lecturers know them well.

Week 1: Structural geology of glaciers; deformation of ice as a geological material, drivers for rock deformation, rheology, deformation mechanisms 1
Week 2: Carboneras fault (Spain); elasticity, Coulomb failure, frictional sliding, rate- and state-dependent friction; earthquake cycle, strike slip faults
Week 3: Cap de Creus shear belt (Spain); crustal rheology, brittle-viscous transition, base of seismogenic zone, deformation mechanisms 2; shear zones, kinematic indicators
Week 4: Basin & Range (USA)/Apennines (Italy)/Corinth (Greece); normal fault geometry, extensional deformation, rifting, fault scaling, displacement distance relationships, faults and folds, balancing cross sections, crustal thinning, orogenic collapse
Week 5: Chaînes subalpines/Jura mountains (Switzerland/France); contractional deformation, reverse fault geometry, thin skin tectonics, fold and thrust belts, folds 1
Week 6: Helvetic Nappe Stack (Switzerland); folds 2, strain concepts and descriptors, kinematic vorticity, strain analysis
Week 7: Nankai trough (Japan)/Engadine Window (Alps); earthquakes in subduction zones, geometry and mechanics of accretionary wedge, pseudotachylites, 3D seismics
Week 8: Himalayas (India/Tibet); continental collision, channel flow, kinematic vorticity, tectonic/climate interaction
Week 9: Iran: salt tectonics, driving forces and mechanics, megastructures: salt diapirs, salt glaciers, deformation mechanisms in salt

Course Goals:

On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
1. Develop an in-depth understanding of the link between plate motions and rock response along plate boundaries both in terms of mineralogy, rock fabrics and fluid transport properties
2. Recognize, describe and conduct simple analyses on deformed rocks
3. Develop skills in synthesizing the geology of an area through the integrated use of maps, cross-sections, diagrams and accompanying reports
4. Learn to link plate tectonic processes with the associated development of topography
5. Develop skills in visualizing map and related field data in three dimensions using appropriate graphical techniques
6. Develop an appreciation of the degree of uncertainty of the data collection methods and the relationship between surface and subsurface data.
7. Get to know tectonically active regions of our planet and get a feel for the frontiers of research in tectonics and structural geology.

Course Features:

In preparation for the thematic lectures and practicals, students are referred to selected chapters in textbooks to pick up the fundamental ideas of structural geology and tectonics, which are then applied in the classroom. Students have access to a selected collection of research papers, from which also the lecture material is drawn. Where possible, we provide maps, cross sections and other relevant data to explore. Students combine all of these materials in the preparation for their talks, which they give in week 10. The learning materials are coordinated through an online platform, which also hosts a discussion forum that is moderated by TAs and monitored by academic staff.

The course is delivered by two academic staff and 2-3 TAs, who assist in practicals. From 2020 onward, the TAs will also run weekly small-group tutorials on the lectures.

Course Philosophy:

The course concept was developed to break away from a relatively linear delivery, where key concepts in structural geology were introduced sequentially, as in most textbooks. The idea was further to, rather than essentially guiding students through well-written textbooks, show them how their content is put to use. The fundamental aim is that students always learn about a particular topic to answer a specific question or understand a particular data set. The course does challenge students by being deliberately vague on "what exactly is necessary to pass the exam", and leaving it up to them to - in self-study - collate the necessary knowledge to understand some parts of the lectures in detail. At all times, they are invited to engage with staff and TAs where they need extra explanations/answers/guidance.


The course is assessed through an independently produced, professional 15-minute oral presentation (50% of the final mark), where students explore pre-formulated research questions on one of the field areas. Students receive the questions and assessment criteria in week 3 and then have until week 10 to prepare a talk. They have access to a wide range of research papers and are encouraged to source further material online. Between week 3 and 10, instructors are available to give them feedback on their progress and the quality of their work. From 2020 onward, students will have to present their progress to their peers and get formative feedback in week 6.

The exam (50% of the final mark) exposes students to five slides taken from the lectures. They have to choose three slides and answer a range of brief questions that probe their understanding of general concepts.

Despite students finding especially the presentations stressful, the grade distribution indicates that this assessment combination works well.


References and Notes:

No specific textbook is used.
Students are made aware that the level of detail in Fossen's "Structural Geology" textbook will suffice to pass the exam with flying colors.