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Earth processes

Earth processes is an innovative on-screen module presenting an appealing set of societally relevant earth science topics: events in earth history (e.g. Noah’s flood and death of the dinosaurs); mountain building, oceans, volcanoes and remote observation, sediments and sea-level, and earth science in society (e.g. hazards, climate change, strategic science). You will be supported in the development of practical and investigative skills in addition to collecting and interpreting your own earth science data for a project. There will also be the opportunity to engage in scientific discovery and debate directly with the academics. 

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Module code


  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.
Study level
Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Entry requirements

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What you will study

This module will use an appealing set of societally and internationally relevant earth science topics to teach and assess fundamental OU level 3 science graduate skills and prepare you for science graduate employment. 

You can expect this module to provide you with a supportive, exciting and engaging learning environment in which to develop your scientific skills and earth science interests. The module was put together using a new production methodology developed by the academic team so it has a fresh style. Some of the module material was piloted during preparation to specifically help improve the student experience. 

The module is divided into the following six equal parts:

Events in earth history 
This part comprises a series of study topics each of which is about eight hours long. These topics explore either an interesting event in earth history or introduce techniques for measuring geological time. The topics include: the geological evidence for ‘Noah’s flood’, radiometric dating, global warming, geological time, the diversification of animals during the Cambrian, fossils, mineral deposits and the debate on the cause of the death of the dinosaurs.

We will teach you how science is communicated to the media and give you the opportunity to practice this skill using topics that particularly interest you. This part of the module also includes an introduction to the short independent project that you will undertake in weeks 26-28 so that you can plan ahead.

Mountains fashion the most spectacular regions of our planet, harbour the evidence of colliding continents, drive climate change, and provide a unique environment for cultural and linguistic diversity. The material examines the forces that cause mountain building and explores the consequences of large mountain belts such as the Himalayas for regional climate change, and the prediction of hazards including earthquakes, landslides, flooding and glacial outbursts. We will teach you how to read and analyse primary scientific literature, including scientific papers as well as giving you practice in using the Open Science Laboratory virtual microscope and digital kit.
The oceans represent vital and highly sensitive components of the earth system. As organisms die, they sink to the seafloor, thereby continually contributing a major component to seafloor sediments; this forms our most important archive of the variability of earth’s climate, its drivers and its consequences. Modern ocean processes, such as biogeochemical cycles, the carbon cycle, the biological pump and ocean circulation are explored in the context of earth history. This part will help you develop skills in analysing data and uses real data sets recently collected from international scientific expeditions across the earth’s oceans.
Volcanoes and remote observation
Volcanoes play a significant role in fashioning the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and can profoundly affect local, regional and even global environment and climate. This material considers mantle plumes and their role in plate tectonics. You will also examine evidence for massive, prolonged volcanic events that have generated large igneous provinces on Earth, the Moon and Mercury. Deductions that can be made from observations at a range of different spatial scales are a special focus in this part of the module. In particular, remote observation techniques are used to examine large-scale features and the relationship between them. 
Sediments and sea-level 
The sedimentary record provides us with the most complete record of earth surface processes. It is from this record that we gain information about the carbon cycle, climate change and the history of life. Sedimentary deposits also provide us with water, fossil fuels and soil to produce food. Sea-level change is the most important process controlling the nature of the sedimentary record both on land and in the sea. ‘Sequence stratigraphy’, an analytical technique that is used throughout industry and academia, is taught and applied. You will learn how to predict where and when different sediments are deposited and taught how to use and integrate different types of sedimentary data. 
Science and society
In the first part of Science and society you will have about 50 hours to complete your short independent project. The project can be on a topic of your choosing allowing you to explore something of interest and which suits your unique skills. Your project can be based on fieldwork, analysis of primary scientific data at your desk, or research in another suitable place such as a museum, workplace or urban area. The project will give you an opportunity to develop scientific research skills that will be useful for a project-based module and the workplace. The final part provides you with study materials on some short topics of particular relevance to society including: climate change, how science is funded and natural hazards.
This module uses a commentary to guide you in your study of selected extracts from text books including some used in former courses (e.g. S369, S339, S269, S330) scientific papers, video, animations and multimedia. The commentary includes academic concepts together with questions to allow you to test and reflect on your learning.  If you are studying the BSc (Honours) Natural Sciences, this module forms an ideal transition between Stage 2 and the final 60 credits at Stage 3 including the project module (SXG390 or equivalent). Alternatively if you are on the Open degree, the module can be studied at any time during Stage 3.

You will learn

This module covers earth science knowledge, theories, concepts and terminology. The module examines how interpretations are made based on a wide variety of observations and datasets and the uncertainties associated with these together with the relevance of earth science to society.  You will learn how to: apply knowledge and understanding, construct and test hypotheses, carry out and report on investigations, access and critically assess sources of information, together with the collection, application and communication of earth science information in the form of text and graphics. This module will also cover effective time management, collaboration and practical earth science techniques.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


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

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

Future availability

Earth processes (S309) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2021.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.


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

    Course work includes:

    5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
    End-of-module assessment
    No residential school

    Entry requirements

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

    While this module has no formal entry requirements, it builds directly on Earth science (S209) (or the discontinued predecessor modules S260 or S276). Before starting this module, we therefore recommend that you have studied S209, S260 or S276 (or have equivalent earth science knowledge/skills) and that you have studied another OU level 2 science module.

    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. We have produced further guidance Are You Ready For S309? 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.

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


    Start End England fee Register
    02 Oct 2021 Jun 2022 -

    Registration now closed

    This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2023.

    Additional Costs

    Study costs

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

    If your income is not more than £25,000 or you are in receipt of a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

    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.

    Joint loan applications

    If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

    As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

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

    Employer sponsorship

    Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. 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 module 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 module.  

    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, Mastercard, Visa 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).

    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 2022. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

    This information was provided on 21/09/2021.

    What's included

    You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

    • a week-by-week study planner
    • course-specific module materials and activities
    • audio and video content
    • assessment details and submission section
    • online tutorial access
    • module discussion area.

    Where possible, the materials will also be available in Microsoft Word and as PDFs. However, some materials and activities will be unsuitable for these formats.

    This module has been specially selected for presentation in a different online learning platform to other undergraduate modules that you may have studied with The Open University. We are using this new learning platform because we wish to enhance your learning experience. We developed the presentation style with students, and the overwhelming feedback indicates that it is easy to navigate, provides excellent presentation of the learning materials and allows the module team to better support your learning.

    You will need

    You are likely to need to draw diagrams or to annotate by hand diagrams that you download, and then use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of these diagrams for inclusion in your assessment.

    Computing requirements

    You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

    To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

    Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

    Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

    It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

    If you have a disability

    The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S309 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

    To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our Disability support website.