Evolution & Behaviour

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Evolution and Behaviour provides a broad base for further study across the whole spectrum of biology, from molecular and cellular disciplines, physiology, psychology, to ecology and evolution. It is especially useful as a grounding in genetics. The lecture material is generally quite concept-based, often looking in detail at specific examples and encouraging you to think and read about the topics further. As you progress through the year, you will notice recurring themes that come up in several lecture blocks, and it is often very interesting to link all of these together as E&B is a very holistic science.

Lecture handouts (which are provided at the beginning of each block) for E&B are, on the whole, extremely detailed. Most people don’t find it necessary to take detailed notes themselves if they annotate the handouts and review them afterwards, but often spend more time researching more examples and pursuing the suggested further reading lists. Lecturers deliver content in a variety of different ways, but all of them are willing to discuss any questions or problems you may have either at the end of the lecture or by email.

The lecture series titles are listed below:

  • Introduction to Evolutionary Biology
  • Evolutionary Genetics
  • The First Few Billion Years
  • The Origin and Evolution of Plants
  • Diversification of Angiosperms
  • The evolution of Animal Diversity I: Origins and Relationships
  • The Evolution of Animal Diversity II: Natural Selection, Plasticity and Adaptive Radiations
  • Evolution of Behaviour
  • Human Evolution
  • Human Population Genetics and Pathogens
  • Global Change I: The Green Extreme
  • Global Change II: The Past, Present, and Future of Biodiversity
  • Four Billion Years in One Hour


Supervisions offer the opportunity to discuss the course content and iron out problems, and aim to help you develop discussion skills out loud and in writing. This means they’re often informal, discussion-based sessions where you have a chance to really explore the ideas you may have covered in lectures and practicals. Your supervisor will set you work, mostly essays and essay plans, to prepare you for the types of essay you will need to write in the exams. Don’t let writing essays scare you off from taking E&B: your supervisors will definitely help you (they know most NatScis haven’t written essays since their GCSEs!) and lots of physicists and chemists find it’s a welcome change from solving problem sheets all day. Their feedback on this work can often provide the basis for discussion in the supervision.


The course provides hands-on experience of basic techniques and experimental approaches and an opportunity to see a wide range of organisms, as well as access to the University Museum of Zoology. Practicals are four hours every other week, and all except the first one are formally assessed, so there is no final practical exam – they must be written up and handed in during the practical, and together make up 25% of your total E&B mark. Each practical is led by the current lecturer, so they provide useful and interesting insight into the lecture material, as well as the opportunity to see how some useful results are obtained first-hand. E&B practicals tend to be quite relaxed and they’re very much treated as simply an opportunity for you to explore ideas and techniques further. It’s made clear which parts are actually assessed, and there are demonstrators who will help you out if you get stuck.

You also have the opportunity to attend one of the one-week field courses in the Easter Vacation, to Devon or Pembrokeshire. These aren’t compulsory but are usually the highlight of the year; you can design and carry out your own research project, get to know department members and spend some quality time with your course-mates! If funding is a concern (keeping in mind that the trip is already heavily subsidised by the department), many colleges are happy to provide subsidisation and make sure to ask your DoS if you’re not sure.


The E&B course is largely concept-based, so once you’ve understood those, the main thing you need to do is practise exam essays. Your supervisor will give you plenty of guidance on how to plan and write them so you’re making the best use of your time, and will often give you a bank of questions you can use to practice. Whole past papers are also available online. Supervisors will usually be happy to give feedback on essay plans and essays throughout the year, although it can be best to start sooner rather than later as they often have a lot of essays to mark just before exams start! At the end of each term it’s a good idea to spend some time making a set of general essay plans or templates which you can learn, so then all you need to do in the exam is adapt them to the specific question. It’s also really useful to make sure you have a few examples of all of the key concepts so you can discuss them in exams – it’s even better if you can find different examples to the ones you are given in the lecture notes, as this will make your answers stand out. For extra examples, Google Scholar is a good resource!


As the practicals are continuously assessed, there is no practical exam so the year ends with one theory paper worth 75% of your overall E&B grade. This is 3 hours long and contains 10 questions, of which you pick 5. Most of these will be essays, but there will also be at least one broken down into short-answer questions if you want a different choice. It works out around 35 minutes per question, but each answer is only expected to be 1-2 sides and you’re assessed on the content, not the writing style. The element of choice means you can commit to memory a few general essay plans and elaborate on them more specifically in the exam. Timing is crucial in this exam; remember that 5 mediocre essays is better than 4 good essays and 1 unanswered question.

Useful resources

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