Tutorial program

The ‘tutorial’ program in an Australian university class is much like ‘discussion sections’ in the American system: a program of small-group discussions, facilitated by a graduate student or junior instructor, that accompanies the lectures, especially if they are very large. Anth151, ‘Human evolution and diversity’, has a tutorial program page that includes a variety of active learning exercises, including lab-like activities such as examination of facsimile hominid remains, replica stone tools, 3D-printed bones, and a range of other simulated materials.

The goal of the tutorial program is to create learning scenarios in which students will experience first-hand how anthropologists make use of evidence, compare data, and come to conclusions about our ancestors and human development. The tutorial program consists of eleven meetings (a thirteen-week semester with no meeting in the first week or during the week that the instructor has to be away at a conference; we’ll call that ‘reading week’).

This page outlines the tutorial program and provides copies of the handouts that accompany each tutorial. A redesign was necessary in 2014 because, with the growth of attendance in the course, the lectures could only be timetabled on Friday, meaning that tutorials all met prior to the lecture. Previously, labs had followed lectures in the programming, but the new schedule meant that the tutorial program had be redesigned as a scaffolded, free-standing learning activity to teach key course concepts. So in 2014, the handouts were updated to give them a fresh design, the learning goals and key concepts clarified, and two research projects integrated into the design and pedagogy of the tutorials.

Although the change was forced upon me as course convenor, shifting the tutorial-labs to occur before the lectures allowed them to become less like review sessions. They could be redesigned to engage their own, autonomous learning goals. In addition, integrating active learning techniques based on a model of conceptual change meant that we could use preliminary exercises as a way of eliciting evidence of Australian students’ concepts about evolution prior to the course in our research projects.

The two research projects were designed separately to 1) make use of new 3D printing technology, and 2) benchmark learning and teaching performance in Anth151 against actual learning outcomes and conceptual change, rather than just student satisfaction scores. That is, I wanted to test whether my students’ understandings of natural selection improved.

The second project uses a tailored version of the Evolutionary Attitudes and Literacy Survey (EALS; see Hawley at al. 2010) and a more open-ended exercise based on a research technique used by Jensen and Finley (1997). The two research projects are:

  • ‘Australian students’ understandings of evolution: an active learning approach to human evolution’ (MQ Human Research Ethics Committee: HREC#5201400723-R).
  • ‘Innovations in hands-on anthropology: 3D printed bone fragments’ (MQ HREC#: 5201300516).

Below are links to the PDF versions of each one of the tutorial activity sheets for the eleven tutorials in the program:


The tutorial program has been developed over the past six years, borrowing heavily from learning activities designed by other teachers (who I have tried to cite below). These methods have also been shaped by wide reading in the learning and teaching literature as well as exposure to other instructors’ teaching methods (such as through the very active Biocultural Anthropology Facebook group).

Active learning works best to bring about conceptual change when instructors help students to see that their pre-existing ‘common sense’ explanations are erroneous (see Kalinowski et al. 2013). Not surprisingly, learning must often be preceded by a recognition that we have something to learn because we do not already know. One of the ‘key findings’ of a major report on education highlighted this problem for science education:

Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of the test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. (Bransford et al. 2000: 14– 15)

For this reason, tutorial design in Anth151 often starts with an exercise intended to draw out what students already know (or think they know). Sometimes the tutorial is designed to build conceptual knowledge atop that prior awareness, but other times we must clarify precisely how new frameworks for understanding are not intuitive, obvious, or equivalent to what students already think (see also Hammer 1996).

Tutorial One: Evolutionary dynamics and adaptation

For handout, click link to the left.

For handout, click link to the left.

Key learning goals: Understanding the difference between natural selection and other ways of understanding evolution (both historical and contemporary).

The tutorial design is based on an active learning activity described by Jensen and Finley (1997; see also Moore et al. 2002); the activity was modified to feature scenarios from hominin evolution exclusively. The revision made the activity more appropriate for the unit as well as introduced topics to be discussed in subsequent weeks. In addition, the tutorial follows Jensen and Finley’s suggestion that natural selection be taught through a ‘historically rich’ curriculum that uses comparison between students’ misconceptions and accounts of evolution that historical competed with Darwinism (see also Alters and Nelson 2002).

The tutorial leads students through an exercise in which they hypothesise evolutionary explanations; they then self-critique and peer-critique these explanations, analysing them for non-Darwinian explanations of species change (like teleological reasoning associated with Cuvier; the inheritance of acquired traits hypothesized by Lamarck; or the anthropomorphism and implied intentionality of natural theology). After self-critique and analysis of their initial responses, they are led to reformulate their conceptions of evolutionary change. (The same self-critique rubric is used again in Tutorial Eleven in order to assess conceptual learning and improved understanding over the course of the semester.)

Tutorial Two: Our nearest primate relatives: skulls, ‘culture’?

Link to handout is on the left.

Link to handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Clades, cladistics, comparative analysis, loss of traits, definition of ‘culture’

This tutorial is designed to teach comparative analysis and cladistics, including basic primatology and comparisons amongst primates. Comparing human and chimpanzee ‘cultures’ is intended to highlight for students the difficulty of defining a concept like ‘culture’ to categorically exclude other species’ behaviour, in spite of the fact that the two phenomena are quite different. The underlying lesson of the tutorial is that humans are related in complex ways to other animals. The tutorial will also begin to expose them to the practice of observing and analysing material samples acroos different specimens (primate skulls).

Tutorial Three: Traces in the ash: the Laetoli footprints

Archaeological evidence, best available hypothesis, scientific endeavour

Based on an exercise proposed by Steve Randak, ‘Footsteps in Time’, the lesson makes use of full-sized print out topographical map of the Laetoli footprints produced by artist Laurie Grace for Scientific American. (See the website for downloadable printout of the footprints.)  The tutorial is especially designed to allow students to compare the physical remains to their own bodily dimensions. One important learning goal is to help students understand the way that evidence must be interpreted in science, and how new evidence or observations may lead to a reinterpretation of extant data.

Note: Linked to this week’s tutorial is an optional lab session that we do in evening sessions using 3D printed bone fragments from the post-cranial remains of ‘Lucy’ (AL 288-1), an Australopithecus afarensis. This session is open to all students but is targeted at our external students, who do not normally attend tutorials or on-campus lectures. In 2013, the 3D printed lab preceded a shortened version of both Tutorial Two and Four, compressed for external students.

Tutorial Four: Food for thought: evolution, brain & diet

Link for handout is on the left.

Link for handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Skull comparisons, constraint (on directional selection) in evolution, quantification, challenges of defining ‘species’

Many of the questions on the skull comparison exercise are taken directly from Mari Knutson’s exercise, ‘Hominoid skull comparisons’ (see also Gipps 1991 and Martin Nickels’ ‘Hominid cranium comparison (the “skulls” lab)’).  The tutorial involves a quite rigorous exercise of measuring and comparing a variety of hominin skulls, looking at both easily quantified and more difficult to measure comparisons. The exercise is intended to show the variety of ways in which specimens can be contrasted and the degree to which those comparisons are motivated by theoretical or analytical frameworks. The tutorial also exposes students to the anatomical paradox posed by increasing brain size and decreased anatomical mechanisms for attaining calories.

Tutorial Five: Mating strategies: the evolution dating game

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Sexual selection, alloparenting, reproductive strategies, sexual dimorphism

This tutorial session is designed to help students understand the different between mating preference and reproductive strategy, to recognize sexual dimorphism and sexual variation in reproductive strategies, and to consider much more broadly the ways that human reproductive strategies have contributed to our species’ success. The tutorial is more playful than some of the others, but the initial exercise — the evolutionary personal ad — is designed to elicit some basic misunderstandings about how sexual selection functions (and functioned). In particular, I believe that a whole-of-reproduction approach to understanding reproductive strategies differs significantly from a mating-focused view, of the kind often found in evolutionary psychology from an overly restricted understanding of Trivers’ hypothesis on differences in reproductive investment.

Tutorial Six: Stone tools

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Cultural evolution, technology, partitioning ‘intelligence,’ social intelligence and learning

The tutorial uses an examination of lithic technology to ask what these tools can tell us about intelligence, learning, cultural transmission, subsistence, and social relations. The tutorial is intended to highlight the fact that human ‘intelligence’ is not a single characteristic, and that some dimensions of intelligence arose earlier than others (for example, the emergence of highly regular form which is stable for long periods of time suggest that creative problem-solving and design innovation were not strong). The tutorial is also intended to allow students the chance to think about how material culture might be used to hypothesise about the cognitive, perceptual, motor and social conditions required to produce it.

Tutorial Seven: Reinventing language

Key learning goals: Cognitive extension, ‘extended mind,’ symbols, ‘ratchet effect,’ cultural evolution

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

The tutorial focuses on the ways that language, and symbolic processes more generally, affect human cognitive abilities. The tutorial starts with a consideration of the processes that might drive the necessity of creating new symbols and the cognitive-cultural capacities that underwrite this ability. The tutorial also presents the students with examples of changes in English to give them first-hand experience of the sorts of comparative linguistics that are required to understand historical (and pre-historical) linguistic change and development.

The part of the lesson comparing different English versions of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ draws on the lesson plan, ‘A Very Brief History of the English Language,’ by Dave Wilton. Additional samples of Old English can be found on Omniglot (link here).

See also Alex Gendler’s lesson plan at TED-Ed, which is built upon his TED-Ed video, highly recommended (animated by Igor Coric).

To help with the ‘new words’ part of the exercise, we use the Oxford English Dictionary’s page on its recent updates.

Tutorial Eight: Out of Africa

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Understanding types of adaptation (phylogenetic, genotypic, and cultural), variability of ‘fitness’, ecological ‘invasiveness’

The development of anatomically modern humans ushered in a period of rapid technological change, and a hominin that was more widely invasive and adaptable than any previously. This tutorial is designed to highlight the importance of phylogenetic and cultural adaptation in the suite of resources used by Homo sapiens. In addition, this adaptability highlights the contextual dimensions of fitness in evolutionary terms.

Tutorial Nine: Our modern ecological niche

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Niche creation, ‘natural’ selection v. artificial, domestication, foraging-farming transition, other forms of resource management

Like the tutorials on language origins and lithic technology, this tutorial is designed to provoke students to think about cultural evolution including counter-intuitive frameworks for understanding (such as niche creation and alternative ways of understanding domestication and the origins of agriculture).

As a cultural anthropologist, I really wanted a course on human evolution to end with a complex and powerful sense of the profound transformation that happens with domestication, urbanization, increased social complexity, writing, and the increasing pace of technological innovation. That is, a course on evolution cannot end with students believing that they have ‘stone age minds,’ but must consider how the radical transformation of our way of life is itself affecting how our species evolves.

Tutorial Ten: Is race a useful concept?

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Independent assortment, difference between biological diversity and population thinking and ‘race’ as social construct, essentialism as error in thinking, ethnicity

I was originally motivated to propose the course, ‘Human evolution and diversity,’ because of a scandal on campus: a law professor advocated a return to a ‘white’s only’ immigration policy for Australia. This tutorial is especially sensitive because, whereas it’s always helpful in active learning approaches to initial elicit students’ misunderstandings clearly so that they can affect conceptual change, the initial misunderstandings that we are seeking to draw out can be insensitive, hurtful, prejudicial, and racist. This tutorial, however, is essential to the overall learning objectives of the unit, however, as I believe that the biological reality of human diversity needs to be more fully understood to undercut the folk belief that biological variation is conceptually equivalent to ‘race.’

One of the activities (the section on ‘independent assortment’) is based on an exercise in the lesson plan, ‘The Empirical Challenges of Racial Classification,’ developed by Scott Bronson (on the PBS website).

See also the American Anthropological Association’s website, Race: Are We So Different? (Resources) and Race: The Power of an Illusion, the website from the PBS series of the same name.

Tutorial Eleven: Current selective pressures

Link for the handout is on the left.

Link for the handout is on the left.

Key learning goals: Future evolution (re-use of Tutorial One scenario research with future scenarios), testing understanding of natural selection & cultural evolution.

This tutorial, in addition to being a chance for review, is a learning activity based on a model described by Andrews and colleagues (2011). The activity — asking students to discuss current selective pressures and likely future human evolution — reviews the theoretical material addressed in Tutorial One, suggested by Jensen and Finley (1997), applying that conceptual material to entirely new scenarios and theory-informed speculation.

Note: The reason that this sheet says a separate worksheet will be used is that we collect their answers for analysis as part of our research project on Australian students’ understanding of evolutionary concepts (and the effectiveness of the teaching methods in this unit).

Additional resources

The illustrations on the handouts, in most cases, are public domain images from Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, and the Noun Project.


Alters, Brian J., and Nelson, Craig E. 2002. Perspective: Teaching Evolution in Higher Education. Evolution: International Journal of Organic Evolution 56(10): 1891-1901.

Andrews, Tessa M., Kalinowski, Steven T., and Leonard, Mary J. 2011. “Are Humans Evolving?” A Classroom Discussion to Change Student Misconceptions Regarding Natural Selection. Evolution Education Outreach 4: 456–466.

Reverse side of handout for Tutorial 11.

Reverse side of handout for Tutorial 11.

Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L., and Cocking, Rodney R., eds. 2000. How People Learn. Washington, DC.: National Academy Press.

Gipps, John. 1991. Skulls and human evolution: the use of casts of anthropoid skulls in teaching concepts of human evolution. Journal of Biological Education, 25(4): 283-290.

Gregory, T. Ryan. 2009. Understanding natural selection: essential concepts and common misconceptions. Evolution: Education and Outreach 2:156–75.

Hammer, David. 1996. Misconceptions or P-Prims: how may alternative perspectives of cognition structure influence instructional perceptions and intentions? Journal of the Learning Sciences 5: 97–127.

Jensen, Murray S., and Finley, Fred N. 1997. Teaching Evolution Using a Historically Rich Curriculum & Paired Problem Solving Instructional Strategy. The American Biology Teacher 59(4): 208-212.

Kalinowski, Steven T., Leonard, Mary J., Andrews, Tessa M., and Litt, Andrea R. 2013. Six Classroom Exercises to Teach Natural Selection to Undergraduate Biology Students. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12: 483–493.

Moore R, Mitchell G, Bally R, Inglis M, Day J, Jacobs D. 2002. Undergraduates’ understanding of evolution: Ascriptions of agency as a problem for student learning. Journal of Biological Education 36(2): 65–71.

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