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Durham University

Faculty Handbook 2022-2023

Module Description

Please ensure you check the module availability box for each module outline, as not all modules will run each academic year.

Department: Earth Sciences

GEOL2301: Ancient Life and its Environment

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2022/23 Module Cap Location Durham


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • This research-led module will train students in scientific research methods, critical thinking, communication and evaluation.
  • Participants will be introduced to the principles and practice of reconstructing ancient life, and will learn to infer interactions between life and its environment from the fossil record, on both ecological and evolutionary timescales.


  • Systematics describing the classifying fossils as species and higher taxonomic groups.
  • Taphonomy processes that control the quality and character of the fossil record.
  • Palaeoecology, and processes that control the diversity and spatial distribution of organisms at the present day and in the past.
  • Functional morphology elucidating the function of structures in extinct organisms.
  • Ichnology reconstructing ancient behaviour from trace fossils.
  • Phylogenetics placing organisms in an evolutionary context.
  • Research frontiers student-directed analysis and discussion of current research.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Through research-led learning students will develop a depth of knowledge and research skills in the palaeontology, including palaeobiology and palaeoecology, and of more general applicability. The module particularly emphasizes skills that are relevant to independent research and written communication, preparing students for future dissertation-style learning opportunities.
  • Applications of fossils in understanding Earth history.
  • Statistical tools in quantitative palaeobiology.
  • Palaeontological principles, terms, definitions and classifications.
  • Processes that control the quality of the fossil record.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Taxonomic classification
  • Quantitative palaeoecology
  • Characterising populations and communities
  • Evaluating and understanding the quality of data and research
  • Writing a scientific report
Key Skills:
  • Discovery, synthesis and understanding of information
  • Communication of novel findings to peers and end-users
  • Structure and clarity in written communication
  • Independent critical analysis
  • Adaptable, flexible, innovative and creative approaches to work and problem solving
  • Ability to set goals, work to deadlines and accept personal responsibility

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The module follows a 'flipped classroom' approach. Asynchronous learning materials are complemented by flexible three-hour classroom sessions that include practical exercises, group discussion and peer presentations.
  • One term will guide students through a dissertation-style palaeoecological research project comprising data collection, analysis and interpretation culminating in an assessed written report, which will primarily evaluate research and communication skills.
  • One term will centre on student-led presentation, analysis and debate on current research, with an emphasis on interaction with and evaluation of the primary literature.
  • A final examination will primarily assess knowledge, understanding and independent learning

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Teaching and Learning Sessions 20 Weekly 3 hours 30
Preparation and Reading 170
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Examination Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
two-hour unseen written examination 100%
Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Laboratory Report 85%
Laboratory Notebook 15%

Formative Assessment:

<enter text as appropriate for the module>

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University

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