The hourly exams will consist of about 6 to 8 short essay questions. It is definitely necessary to know some geological terms and ‘facts’. However, we try to minimize the terminology you need to know. We believe it is more important for you to learn to think clearly about geological processes and how they can be analyzed using simple but fundamental physical and chemical concepts. In most cases your answers on the exams only need to be a few sentences in length, the simplest answer that is logically complete and consistent. The most important thing is to show your line of reasoning. (On Monday we will hand out a guide to taking the exams.)


The exams will be based on all components of the course. The book provides important background material, with important figures and diagrams, on most of the topics. Lectures provide a discussion of the major ideas in the text, but they often go beyond the text in the level of explanation or in using different examples; handouts are provided when this new material involves complex diagrams or relations. The labs provide hands-on experience with geological materials and tools, the homework exercises provide practise in working with some of the important concepts, and the field trips give you an idea of how one interprets the ‘real’ geologic record. The level of explanation that we expect on the exam will vary from one topic to another; the level of discussion in lecture should be your main guide for this.


There is a big difference between passive and active knowledge; you should aim for the latter! You really do not know whether you understand something until you try to write it in your own words, or draw a diagram to illustrate it, or describe it to someone else.

Thus, we strongly advise that you study together with a friend.  Take turns asking one another to say ‘why’ such and such is the way it is, or to draw a diagram illustrating the relation between A and B; in part you might use the text study questions.

Another suggestion is to try writing down in your own words the several major ideas or points concerning each topic, and then check these against your class notes and the textbook. An additional benefit is that writing out explanations of geologic processes in full sentences can help you to find the gaps in your understanding; identifying what you don’t know is a very important step.

Make sure to practise drawing diagrams of important relations that have been discussed in class, before the exam. Some questions may require you to draw a diagram, and for other questions it may help (and save time) to use a simple diagram as part of your answer. Make sure that you label the important parts of any diagram, especially if you are not sure you have gotten the proportions or relations clearly or correctly drawn.

When you are reading the text, or reading over your class notes, do it in an ‘active’ mode. For the text, do not just underline, because that encourages passive memorization. Frequently ask yourself ‘How do geologists know this? What is the evidence? How does this process work? Why is it important?’ For your notes, re-copy portions that were messy or incomplete when you first wrote them. With a colored pen fill in the ‘logic’, and note questions or relevant text sections in the margins.


The exam questions will ask for more than memorization and definition of terms. In most cases we will ask you to explain your reasoning, and we will expect you to be clear and precise. This is the nature of science! The depth of understanding you will gain by studying in this way will have far more lasting value to you.  You can practise by writing out answers to some of the study questions, or to last year's exam that we will hand out Monday.

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