Lesson Plan: Asking Questions About Animal Behavior

This lesson is the first of a three lesson series developed by the Ethogram. All three lessons are targeted for middle school students and adaptable for online or in-person instruction. Lessons 2 and 3 will be published over the upcoming weeks on Young Explorer’s Animal Adventure Thursdays.

Title: Asking Questions About Animal Behavior

Grade level(s): 5–8

Time: 45 minutes

Materials/preparation: Interactive google slides with links to animal videos; choose which animal behavior clips to show (tailor to location/student audience)

Learning Outcomes

  1. Make observations about animal behavior
  2. Distinguish between the 4 categories of animal behavior questions: cause, development, function, and history
  3. Write a scientific question about an animal behavior for each of the 4 categories


  • Observation – description of something you see or measure with a tool
  • Development – process that answers the question “how did it get that way?”
  • Learned behavior – a behavior an animal develops through experience, practice, or watching others do the behavior
  • Innate behavior – a behavior that develops without learning or experience; a behavior the animal is born being able to do
  • Function (of an animal behavior) – how the behavior helps the animal survive or reproduce
  • Evolution – the process of gradual change that forms new species and alters characteristics of species over long periods of time
  • Hypothesis* – a possible answer to a scientific question that can be tested (or, a proposed explanation that answers a scientific question) (optional; definition not included in slides)
  • Proximate* – Explanations describing how a behavior is gained or works (optional advanced vocabulary)
  • Ultimate* – Explanations describing why animals historically gained a behavior; explanations describing why animals gained a behavior through evolution (optional advanced vocabulary)
This slide from Lesson 1’s slideshow outlines the lesson’s learning outcomes. It also features one of the Ethogram’s contributors and Animal Behavior Graduate Group PhD students, Kirsten Sheehy, as she collects some data.

Lesson Sequence

  1. Hook: Show a video clip (~2 min) of an interesting animal behavior
  • Possible videos:
  • Teacher: ask students to list observations about the animal in the video (specifically, observations about its behavior—what it is doing)
    • Define observation (if necessary)
    • Emphasize that observations are the starting point in science; before we can ask scientific questions, we need to make an observation
    • Students brainstorm observations as a group or “think, pair, share”
  • Next, ask students to come up with curiosity-based questions about the behavior (any questions are fine, just to get them thinking and curious)
    • Do this as a group or “think, pair, share”
  • Introduce learning outcomes: (1) Make observations about an animal behavior; (2) Distinguish between the 4 categories of animal behavior questions: cause, development, function, and history; (3) Write a scientific question about an animal behavior for each of the 4 categories
  1. Sandwich eating behavior:
  • Teacher introduces: Let’s investigate a behavior that we (humans are animals!) have all done in our lives: eating a sandwich (or spam musubi, or poke bowl . . . Choose an example that will most resonate with students.)
    • Goal: introduce the 4 categories of behavior questions using sandwich eating analogy. Teachers ask the questions one by one and have students think of possible answers, guiding them toward an appropriate answer.
  • Cause: What caused the behavior? (Optional advanced terminology: proximate causal questions)
    • Ask students: What caused you to eat a sandwich?  What happened that made you go and make yourself a sandwich and eat it?
    • Possible answers: I was hungry; it sounded good (had an appetite for it); I like sandwiches; it was lunch time; it was there
    • Explain: hunger is most often the cause for the behavior of eating.  We feel hungry, and that’s our cue to eat something
  • Development: How did the behavior develop? (Optional advanced terminology: proximate developmental questions)
    • Ask students: How did you develop the ability to eat a sandwich?  Have you always known how to eat sandwiches since you were a baby?  Or did you learn over time?  If so, how did you learn? (optional: you can also talk about making a sandwich as part of this behavior)
    • Possible answers: my parent taught me how to make and eat a sandwich; I started by eating soft baby foods, and eventually I learned how to eat harder foods like sandwiches; I just knew how (instinct/innate behavior)
    • Explain: two main ways that animals develop behaviors: learned vs. innate behaviors 
  • Function: What is the function of the behavior? (Optional advanced terminology: ultimate functional questions)
    • Ask students: What is the function of eating sandwiches?  What is the purpose for your body of eating sandwiches; what is this behavior for? (If students need additional prompting, ask “What would happen to your body if you did not eat anything?”)
    • Possible answers: to provide the body with energy/calories; to stop me from feeling hungry; to provide nutrients so the body can run/walk/grow/think; to obtain carbs/protein/fat; I eat sandwiches so that I don’t starve
    • Explain: the function of a behavior is how it helps the animal survive and reproduce, so the function of eating is to provide your body energy (so that you can breathe, pump blood, walk, think, etc.).  Animals do various behaviors because those behaviors help them get food, avoid predators, survive, or reproduce
  • History: Do other species have the same or similar behaviors? / Which species evolved the same or similar behaviors? (Optional advanced terminology: ultimate historical questions)
    • Ask students: Do you know of other species that eat sandwiches?  What do other organisms do that is similar to eating sandwiches?  (If students have already learned about photosynthesis, can ask: “What do plants do instead of eating food?”)
    • Possible answers: yes, my dog/cat will steal people-food or sandwiches and eat them; other animals eat grains, meat or plants, but not sandwiches; other animals might mix foods together to make them taste better; all animals eat, but different types of food; plants don’t eat but they get energy from the sun instead
    • Explain: the behavior of eating is shared with other species of animals, but eating sandwiches is probably unique to humans. Other animals eat food to get energy, like humans, but plants make their own sugar using energy from the sun. Humans are more similar to other animals than they are to plants.
    • Alternative phrasing for classes that have covered evolution and relatedness between species already: Are there other species that evolved the behavior of sandwich eating or similar behaviors?  Animals that are closely related to humans, like primates, also eat food using their hands and eat a mixture of plant foods and meat. Can discuss evolutionary history of behavior and how more related species are more likely to share similar behaviors rather than just comparing between species. 
This slide from Lesson 1’s slideshow depicts the 4 types of questions we can ask about animal behavior. The other columns reword these question types based on the behavior of eating a sandwich and an empty column for students to input questions about the behaviors of green anoles.
  1. Show another animal behavior video clip. Have students generate questions in the 4 categories about the behavior (fill in chart in the slides comparing sandwich questions to animal questions generated by students)
  1. Wrap-up/conclude
  • Briefly review learning outcomes
  • Ask students to recall the 4 categories of questions
  • Following the wrap-up: If students are interested, there is a slide of possible answers to the lizard questions we posed earlier.
  • If there is extra time, show the alternate videos of animal behaviors. Can ask students to come up with questions using the 4 categories for these different animals and their behaviors.
Lesson PartTeacher(s)StudentsTime
1 – HookPlay clip of animal behavior and prompt observations and curiosity questions; explain learning objectivesGenerate observations and questions about animal behavior in the video (as a group or think, pair, share)10 min
2 – Sandwich example illustrating the 4 categories of questions in behaviorPose questions about sandwich eating for each category (cause, development, function, history), explain what each category means; fill in chart with questions, and student answersGenerate answers to the questions posed by teacher about sandwich-eating (based on their experience)15 min
3 – Animal example illustrating the 4 categories of questions in behaviorPrompt students by listing each category one by one; record student questions and possible answers in chart (or, have students fill in themselves)Generate questions for each category individually, in break-out groups (optional), and as a classOptional: students brainstorm answers to their questions15-20 min
4 – Wrap-upReview learning outcomesRecall what an observation is and the 4 levels of questions5 min
This chart shows a condensed version of Lesson 1. It provides information on how much time each section of the lesson should take and what both the teacher(s) and students will be doing during each section.

If you would like to view or print out a pdf version of this lesson plan and the slideshow associated with this lesson plan , click the Download buttons below. You can also find all of the lesson plans and slides for this animal behavior lesson series in the Google Folder linked below.

Lesson Plans and Slides Google Folder

If you do use any of these lesson materials, we ask that you fill out this survey. Through this survey, we can monitor the impact of these lessons and determine ways to improve future lessons.

Main Image [Source]: A green anole (Anolis carolinensis)

[Written and edited by Jessica Schaefer, Nicole Korzeniecki, and Cassidy Cooper]

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