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Understanding the continents

This wide-ranging module develops your knowledge of the continents: its theme is crustal evolution in contrasting environments. It revises and extends your knowledge of plate-tectonic processes and looks at the East African rift system and Iceland as examples of extensional regimes. You will study subduction zone processes; consider the Tibetan mountain range; examine the Himalaya and the Scottish Highlands as examples of collisional processes; and analyse the tectonic and magmatic framework of Britain. This module is intended for those with an understanding of the essentials of igneous and metamorphic rock-formation processes, plate-tectonic theory and structural processes.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Am I ready?

Student Reviews

This is a level three course and there is a lot of material in it. Most of it is readily...
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Strongly recommend S276 and S279 before starting this tough course which is based on 5 blocks and 600 pages! I...
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We concur with the overall view of many of these comments that S339 is a rewarding but challenging module. This...
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What you will study

The module consists of five blocks, with associated online activities that include exercises based on the home kit, the DVDs, maps and offprints from the scientific literature.

Block 1 reviews and revises plate tectonic processes, how heat moves within the Earth, and the consequences for deformation and the production of magmas. It sets the context for more detailed studies in later blocks.

Block 2 examines how continents behave during rifting and break-up, taking the Red Sea, the East African Rift and Iceland as examples.

Block 3 investigates how continental growth and continental evolution occur at subduction zones. Case studies of volcanic and tectonic activity at selected plate boundaries (including the Andes, and Santorini volcano in the Aegean Sea) illustrate the key processes.

Block 4 presents examples from the Alps, the Moinian and Dalradian rocks of the Scottish Highlands, and the Himalaya to illustrate the principles of mountain-building.

Block 5 describes how the crust’s architecture beneath the British Isles is revealed by geophysical data, and covers the tectonic and magmatic history of the British lithosphere in the context of the history of plate tectonics and continental drift.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials or day schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above. 

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015 when it will be available for the final time. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is a OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably with the OU. 

You are expected to understand the essentials of igneous and metamorphic rock-formation processes, including igneous and metamorphic rock classification and geochemistry (e.g. three-component phase diagrams), structural processes and geophysical techniques, as well as the main features of plate tectonic theory. 

If you are not familiar with those topics, you are advised to have first studied our OU level 2 Earth science modules, such as Geology (S276) and Our dynamic planet: earth and life (S279) (both now discontinued), which cover them. You might also find those study materials useful as revision. Your regional or national centre will be able to tell you where you can see reference copies, or you can buy selected materials from Open University Worldwide Ltd. 

The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For S339? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation. It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £1350.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

October 2015 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 31/07/2015.

What's included

Module books, DVDs, small home kit containing rock specimens, online study calendar, a website holding other essential study materials, e.g. activity instructions and assignments, which you may choose to print out.

You will need

You will need broadband access to the internet as some components that are used in assessment cannot be accessed via a dial-up connection.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

Most of the study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader, and mathematical and scientific equations, technical language terms and graphical materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Written transcripts and subtitles are available for the audio-visual material.

You will occasionally be required to observe and interpret small-scale features of rocks from the home kit, as well as material on the DVDs, so good visual acuity and, preferably, the ability to distinguish colours are required to fulfill the learning outcomes. Alternatively, use of a sighted assistant may be appropriate. You will need to spend considerable amounts of time using a personal computer and the internet. 

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.