Structural Geology with Field Geology lab

Phil Resor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Wesleyan University


In this majors-level course students learn how to 1) collect data for structural and tectonic analyses, 2) synthesize and analyze these data to generate and test hypotheses, and 3) apply these structural and tectonic analyses to problems in a variety of geoscience disciplines. The course is arranged around a series of modules that address applications of structural geology to topics of societal interest: volcanic hazards, earthquake hazards, mountain building and planetary science, with an emphasis on field data collection and analysis. By adding real-world problem solving I hope that students are more engaged and better able to use the knowledge and skills of structural geology throughout their careers.

Course URL: []
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a majors-level course that is designed to be taken immediately after one introductory course in Earth or environmental sciences. In practice, students in the class range from sophomores to seniors and have a wide range of previous experience in the geosciences. This course is one of several that students may take to complete a major requirement of two upper-level courses in the thematic area of Earth and Planets. Enrollment varies depending on student interest and competing departmental offerings.

Course Content:

The course is arranged around a series of 2-3-week modules that address applications of structural geology to topics of societal interest: volcanic hazards, earthquake hazards, mountain building and planetary science. The topics are chosen to gradually build students' knowledge of the core content of structural geology: stress, deformation, fracture and flow along with an understanding of the development of many common structural features. The content is thus similar to that of a typical structural geology course, but it is introduced using a spiral approach where the core content is revisited, adding additional depth as the course progresses. The course includes a mix of field trips, analysis of geologic and geodetic data, and analog and rock deformation experiments.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to approach an unfamiliar outcrop, ask appropriate questions, make observations and collect data, analyze and interpret their data, and make decisions about how to proceed in order to infer the geologic and deformational history of an area.

Students should be able to synthesize observations from hand samples, outcrops, and geologic maps of unfamiliar geologic structures, generate hypotheses to explain the formation of the observed structures and test these hypotheses using physical or numerical models.

Students should be able to evaluate the significance of an unfamiliar geologic structure to problems in volcanology, hydrology, energy resources, earthquake hazards, and planetary science.

Course Features:

Students learn and practice the skills of structural geology through field, lab and classroom activities. They synthesize their observations and analyses in the context of the published literature in a series of bi-weekly reports. The course capstone is an independent study of a geologic structure (active or ancient) of the student's choice that requires data collection, presentation and analysis presented in poster format to their instructor and peers.

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed around the philosophy that students learn best by doing. Our location within a Mesozoic rift basin cutting the Appalachian orogen affords easy access to an impressive variety of geologic structures that students can visit during an afternoon lab period. By placing the students' own observations within the context of addressing societally-relevant problems I hope that they better appreciate the relevance of structural geology to a broad range of problems in the Earth and environmental sciences and will be able to apply the knowledge and skills they attain to whatever field of study they choose.


Students are assessed in three ways: 1) Through lab/field reports turned in every other week. The format of these reports varies depending on the individual project. All lab/field work is done in assigned small groups (2-3 members), but reports are written and assessed individually. 2) Through two problem-based midterms. And 3) through a final poster presentation describing the geometry and formation of a geologic structure that interests them. Students present their posters to the instructor and their peers during a final exam poster session.


Resor Structural Geology syllabus (Microsoft Word 1.4MB Aug16 19)

References and Notes:

Processes in Structural Geology and Tectonics, Ben van der Pluijm and Stephen Marshak
Selected papers from the primary literature.