Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024

Module GEOL2301: Ancient Life and its Environment

Department: Earth Sciences

GEOL2301: Ancient Life and its Environment

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • This research-led module will train students in scientific research methods, critical thinking, communication and evaluation.
  • An introduction to the principles and practice of reconstructing ancient life will introduce students to the interplay between environmental, ecological and evolutionary processes, in modern settings and through geological time.
  • Students will learn to infer interactions between life and its environment from the fossil record, on both ecological and evolutionary timescales.


  • Palaeoecology, and processes that control the diversity and spatial distribution of organisms at the present day and in the past.
  • Systematics: classifying fossils as species and higher taxonomic groups.
  • Taphonomy: the quality and character of the fossil record.
  • Functional morphology: inferring extinct lifestyles from fossil form.
  • Ichnology: reconstructing ancient behaviour from trace fossils.
  • Phylogenetics: placing organisms in an evolutionary context.
  • Research frontiers: student-directed analysis and discussion of current research controversies.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Through research-led learning students will develop a depth of knowledge and research skills in the palaeontology, including palaeobiology and palaeoecology, and of more general applicability. The module particularly emphasizes skills that are relevant to independent research and written communication, preparing students for future dissertation-style learning opportunities.
  • Applications of fossils in understanding Earth history.
  • Statistical tools in quantitative palaeobiology.
  • Palaeontological principles, terms, definitions and classifications.
  • Processes that control the quality of the fossil record.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Taxonomic classification
  • Quantitative palaeoecology
  • Characterising populations and communities
  • Evaluating and understanding the quality of data and research
  • Developing a convincing narrative
  • Writing a scientific report
Key Skills:
  • Discovery, synthesis and understanding of information
  • Communication of novel findings to peers and end-users
  • Structure and clarity in written communication
  • Independent critical analysis
  • Adaptable, flexible, innovative and creative approaches to work and problem solving
  • Ability to set goals, work to deadlines and accept personal responsibility

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The module follows a 'flipped classroom' approach. Asynchronous learning materials are complemented with flexible three-hour classroom sessions that include practical exercises, group discussion and peer presentations.
  • One term guides students through a dissertation-style palaeoecological research project comprising data collection, analysis and interpretation.
  • Assessment comprises: A research notebook (a record of data collected), and A written report, emphasizing research, analysis and communication skills.
  • One term uses student-led presentation, debate and critical analysis of current research controversies to teach students how to interact with and independently evaluate the primary literature.
  • Assessment comprises: Working collaboratively to create a microsite that argues for a position on an active controversy. An evidence-based counterargument to an articulated position, in essay format

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Preparation for teaching and learning sessions (‘flipped classroom’) 20 Weekly 2 hours 40
Teaching and Learning Sessions 20 Weekly 3 hours 60
Independent group work 40
Written assessments 60
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Palaeoecological research project Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Report 18,500 characters 85%
Notebook 15%
Component: Critical analysis Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Group project 40%
Essay 2000 ± 500 words 60%

Formative Assessment:

Formative exercises are structured to support learning with opportunities to apply and develop new skills, and to receive timely and targeted feedback.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University