Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > phenogram construction

phenogram construction

Dan Stephen
Utah Valley University
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: May 21, 2009


This is a simple exercise where students construct a phenogram using a collection of different fossils or random objects.

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upper-division undergraduate paleo course, required for BS Geology degree

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

fundamental concepts regarding systematics and phylogenetic reconstruction

How the activity is situated in the course

stand-alone exercise, very early in the semester


Content/concepts goals for this activity


Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

analysis of data, formulation of hypotheses, synthesis of ideas, critical evaluation of competing models, etc.

Other skills goals for this activity

peer teaching, working in groups, etc.

Description of the activity/assignment

Prior to this exercise, I introduce some fundamental concepts regarding systematics and phylogenetic reconstruction. I do it early in the semester because I like to have the students thinking about these things while we are discussing the major fossil groups later in the semester. The exercise is simple: students construct a phenogram using a collection of objects – could be fossils, or toy animals, or whatever. I use about ten things. At first, students think it'll be easy. They soon realize how difficult it is to identify characters that group some taxa but exclude others. Obviously, the particular taxa you choose can make the exercise more or less difficult. I should also mention that I require the students to produce a dendrogram with strictly dichotomous branching. I explicitly refer to it as a phenogram because I allow students to use whatever characters they wish, and it isn't even necessary that they be able to recognize the organisms. Inevitably, this exercise leads to discussions about the importance of phylogenetically informative characters.

Determining whether students have met the goals

observe students in class

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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