How can paleontological data be used to address a hypothesis? An exercise in critical thinking.

Deborah K. Anderson
St. Norbert College
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Initial Publication Date: June 4, 2009 | Reviewed: June 24, 2014


Students are assigned two readings from primary source journals. Prior to class, students answer questions that accompany each reading in preparation for a classroom discussion. This particular set of readings was selected to illustrate the fact that in science we use new findings to readdress "old" questions.

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Introductory paleobiology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Basic knowledge about the topic of the papers, in this case, the Paleocene/Eocene Boundary, biostratigraphy, index fossils, law of superposition, and taxon range zones. Experience reading/interpreting graphical information; identifying hypotheses and evaluating them in light of data presented.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is an end of unit classroom activity. I have used it after a unit on biostratigraphy.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Experience applying knowledge about concepts in biostratigraphy such as index fossils, the law of superposition, and taxon range zones.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Critical reading of a scientific paper, including hypothesis identification, data analysis, and interpretation (i.e. determining whether or not the hypothesis is supported or refuted based on data presented).

Other skills goals for this activity

Writing: describing hypotheses, summarizing data, describing basic paleobiological concepts. Discussion: Collaborate with others, communicate and defend an interpretation of the paper.

Description of the activity/assignment

In preparation for a classroom discussion, students read two primary source journal articles that discuss similar concepts at two distinct points in time, an early study and a follow-up study. Both studies are focused on addressing similar hypotheses with the latter using more sophisticated types of data collection and analysis. In class, students receive the articles and a set of specific questions for each article. They are instructed to read the articles and answer the questions fully, using complete sentences. Students are expected to explain their analysis to others during the classroom discussion. This activity gives students practice identifying hypotheses, analyzing data, and making interpretations and conclusions. The two papers chosen in this example highlight the fact that new information and methods of data collection make it possible to reevaluate previously answered questions. The first paper also clearly illustrates the fact sometimes the results are inconclusive and fail to support or refute the original hypothesis. I found that this activity works best in the second half of the semester, once students are more comfortable with basic concepts and reading scientific literature.

Determining whether students have met the goals

During the classroom discussion students use their answers to explain what they have discovered about biostratigraphy, hypothesis testing, and data analysis and interpretation. Students hand in their answers to the questions and receive feedback. Finally, students answer questions on the next unit exam directly related to the concepts applied and/or skills developed in this exercise.

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Supporting references/URLs

Wing, Scott. 1984. A new basis for recognizing the Paleocene/Eocene boundary in Western Interior North America. Science Vol 226:439-441.
Boen, G. J., W. C. Clyde, P. L. Koch, S. Ting, J. Alroy, T. Tsubamoto, Y. Wang, T. Wang. 2002. Mammalian dispersal at the Paleocene/Eocene Boundary. Science vol. 295:2062-2065