Teacher Resource


Observing and Documenting Behavior in a Group of Animals (non-human)

Kathryn Orzech


This lesson provides a structured way for learners to engage in the scientific inquiry process as they research and observe an animal (or animals) in the wild or in a captive setting.

Learning Information

  • ToL Learner Level:
    • Intermediate; Advanced
  • Target Grade/Age Level:
    • High School (Ages 15-18).
    • Can be modified for many age/grade levels
  • Learning Objective(s). Learners will:
    • Develop a simple research design to plan their observation of an animal or animals;
    • Make observations and collect usable data from their observation periods;
    • Analyze the data they obtain and present their analysis both visually a verbally, producing tables or charts as well as explanatory paragraphs
  • Type of Activity
    • Classroom resource; Field resource; Field Trip resource
  • Science Subject / Key Words
    • Biodiversity;
    • Ecology;
    • Life History & Development
  • Suggested Time Frame
    • As designed, requires 3 hours of animal observation time by the student, plus approximately 3 hours spent doing background research, developing data sheets, analyzing data and writing up a short scientific report.
  • Sequence and Context
    • This lesson could be used to introduce students to the research process and/or interest them in conducting a more in-depth investigation of a wild or captive animal. It could be used as a stand-alone lesson or as part of the series of Tree of Life treehouse building lessons.
  • Additional Treehouse Type:
    • Investigation
  • Language:
    • English
  • Teaching and Learning Strategy:
    • Inquiry Learning;
    • Hands-on Learning


In this lesson learners will practice the steps of the scientific method by observing an animal of their choice and writing a scientific report  documenting their observations. 

Before embarking upon an animal observation, some vocabulary is needed.

  • The "Animal Behavior" vocabulary in the Support Materials section helps learners understand concepts of environment, life ways, life cycle, and biobehavioral strategies with reference to their observed animal.
  • The "Kinds of Sampling" vocabulary in the Support Materials section introduces three kinds of sampling useful when observing animals, two of which are utilized in the mini-lesson.

The lesson is structured so that learners walk through the steps of the research process, first choosing an animal to observe and conducting basic background research, then developing a simple research design to guide them in further observations.  They are required to develop an ethogram (list of behaviors and their definitions, see the "Sample Ethogram" in the Support Materials section) and also a data sheet on which they will collect their data (see the "Sample Data Sheet" in Support Materials).  Following their observation period, learners perform simple statistical analysis (see the "Statistical Primer" in Support Materials) and interpret their findings by writing several structured paragraphs.    


Learners should have decided what animal or animals they will observe to complete the assignment. They should also be familiar with the vocabulary introduced in the Support Materials/Learner section.

Physical Materials and Tools

  • Notebooks, pencils
  • Reference materials for gathering background information on animals to be observed
  • Watches or stopwatches
  • Place to observe animals at the zoo, in the classroom/lab, at home, in the park..
  • Calculator

Prior Knowledge

Learners should be familiar with basic steps in the scientific research process.

For the safety of all learners, please avoid direct contact with wild living animals.


Part 1 Ad lib Qualitative Data Collection and Research Design Construction

  1. Observe your selected animal(s) for one hour using the ad lib method of data collection (see the support material "Kinds of Sampling" for definition of this method)
    • Take notes on all observed behaviors. Attach these notes when you turn in Part 1 to the instructor.
    • Write a paragraph that gives the common and scientific names of your selected animal and that briefly summarizes your observations.
  2. Construct a research design based on your ad-lib data. Provide the following information:
    • Research question/hypothesis [Paragraph] State your research question and define your sample for additional study of the same animal(s). State what kind of sampling method you will use. Most questions will probably require focal animal sampling (See "Kinds of Sampling" in Support Materials section for definition of this method), but if you wish to use another sampling method like intantaneous scan sampling (See "Kinds of Sampling" in Support Materials section for definition of this method), state it and explain why here.
    • Context /environment [Paragraph] Describe the environment in which the animal lives with a focus on biological, social and physical contexts that are relevant to your research question. Consider, if the animal is in captivity, how their current environment might differ from their natural environment.
    • Life ways and life cycle [Paragraph]Describe the major life ways (behaviors the animal engages in to survive) and life cycle pattern  of your selected species that are relevant to your research question.
    • Ethogram [Table] Provide an ethogram (list of behavioral and other categories with definitions) that is relevant to your research question and will be used in your research. (See "Sample Ethogram" in Support Materials Section)
    • Data sheet [Usable Data Sheet] Construct a data sheet that is suitable for recording your observations using a focal animal sampling method (unless you have chosen another sampling method). Your data sheet should have places to record information on individual organisms, times, behaviors, and environmental contexts. (See "Sample Data Sheet" in Support Materials section)

Part 1 total to be turned in:

  • 4 paragraphs
  • 1 ethogram table and 1 data sheet
  • Field notes from 1 hour of observation.

The instructor should provide feedback on Part 1 before students embark on Part 2 to make sure they are on the right track with their research design.

Part 2 Quantitative Data collection, Statistical Analysis and Interpretations

  1. Data collection: Observe your animal(s) for two additional hours. Record observations on your data sheet using the ethogram created for part 1.
    • Submit your notes when you turn the final project in to the instructor.
    • HOW TO OBSERVE: Focus on your animal or animals and record everything your focal animal does or has done to it. Make a note of exact times when behaviors change. You will need a watch or stopwatch.
    • This kind of data collection is labor intensive and the observer should take at least one 5-minute break in an hour of observation. Indicate this gap in data collection on your data sheet.
  2. Statistical analysis: Calculate the following items from your 2-hour observation period. Use the Statistical Analysis primer in the Support Materials section to guide you through the calculations.
    • Percentages of time spent in different behaviors [Table]
    • Durations of behaviors [Table]
    • Typical sequences of behaviors [Paragraph]
  3. Interpretations: Answer the following questions.
    • Did you answer your research question? How was the question answered? If you formulated hypotheses, which were supported? Which rejected? [Paragraph]
    • Summarize the biobehavioral strategies used by your animal in this particular environment during your observation period. [Paragraph]
    • What is the significance of your research project? [Paragraph]
    • What new questions emerge from your work? [Paragraph]

Part 2 total to be turned in:

  • 3 types of data analysis
  • 4 interpretive paragraphs
  • Notes from 2 hours of observation.



Learners will be evaluated on their ability to meet the objectives for the lesson, which include developing a research design, conducting observations that yield usable data, and analyzing and interpreting that data as directed in the lesson procedures. For more detail, see "Evaluating the Animal Observation Project" in Support Materials.

Support Materials

Information on the Internet


Morbeck, Mary Ellen, Alison Galloway and Adrienne L. Zihlman, Eds. 1997. The Evolving Female: A Life History Perspective. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ.

Patterson, J.D. 2001. Primate Behavior: An Exercise Workbook, 2nd Edition. Waveland Press. Prospect Heights, Illinois.

About This Page

University of Arizona

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Kathryn Orzech at

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