The study of relationships between organisms and their past, present and future environments.

Members of the Ecological Society of America have worked with CourseSource to create a Learning Framework for the Ecology Course. The table below lists the learning goals and objectives that the Society agrees any undergraduate biological sciences major should know about Ecology by the time they graduate.  


The following people worked to develop this society-approved Ecology Learning Framework:

Jennifer Doherty (University of Washington); Diane Ebert-May (Michigan State University); Bob R. Pohlad (Ferrum College)

Download the Ecology Learning Framework
Ecological Society of America
Ecological Society of America

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of scientists founded in 1915 to: promote ecological science by improving communication among ecologists; raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of ecological science; increase the resources available for the conduct of ecological science; and ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communication between the ecological community and policy-makers.

Ecology Learning Framework

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Society Learning Goals


Biological Diversity

How can you explain the change of biodiversity over short and long (geological) timescales?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Develop an argument that there has been a change in global biodiversity over the last 100 years.
  • Explain why there are multiple species of finches in the Galapagos.

What is biodiversity at the genetic, species and functional (niche) level within an area, a biome or on Earth?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Create a morphological key to identify taxa.
  • Use molecular biology techniques identify functional groups of organisms (e.g., soil, stream, human microbiome, ocean water).
  • Conduct a biological inventory of a specific habitat.
  • Develop and use a biotic index to show the quality of an environment.
  • Predict and justify where you would find a specific species in a particular habitat.

What is the relationship between phenology and biodiversity?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Collect data and create a phenophase representation for selected species.
  • Predict the implications at the local and global scale for observed changes in phenology.
  • Relate changes in phenology to local and/or global disturbances.
Species-Habitat Interactions

How do species interact with their habitat?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Compare and contrast a species with a broad range and one with a narrow range.
  • Give an example of an environmental gradient, and explain the changes that one would expect to see from one end of the gradient to the other.
  • Explain how somebody would depict a gradient graphically.
  • Give an example of an indicator species, and explain the practical benefits of knowing that information.
  • Provide two explanations for that fact that most species have clumped distributions.

How can populations be distinguished from one another?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Census a population and describe it in terms of: distribution, size, density, demographics and variation in characteristics (e.g., color, size, amount of pollen, type of prey, or susceptibility to pathogens).
Matter and Energy in Ecosystems

How does matter and energy move in an ecosystem?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Compare and contrast matter and energy movement in an ecosystem. (or model)
  • Predict the consequences to changes in primary production due to perturbations (e.g., drought, fire, flood, temperature, nutrient changes).
  • Generate and interpret carbon cycle models at ecosystem and global scales.
  • Evaluate the claims in a current research paper on how a given carbon sequestration method will impact the global carbon cycle.
  • Construct a model of the nitrogen cycle in an ecosystem to predict the impact of changes in the microbial community on the system.

How do organisms mediate the movement of matter and energy through ecosystems?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Explain the mechanisms by which microbial saprobes, parasites, and mutualists influence nutrient cycling.
  • Use a model to predict the impact of the loss of a keystone consumer species on the energy flow through an ecosystem.
  • Construct an argument that defends the idea that eating lower on a food chain is better for the environment.
  • Explain the role of microorganisms in the loss of soil carbon after deforestation or agricultural tillage.
Interactions within Ecosystems

How are living systems interconnected and interacting?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Compare biodiversity among microhabitats (e.g., phylosphere v. rhizosphere, human microbiome, coral reefs)
  • Predict the abiotic and biotic characteristics of new habitat over the short and long term (e.g., glacial stream, post-fire, old field).
  • Choose and use multiple representations (e.g., explanation, graphs, equations, diagrams) to explain how systems are interacting (e.g., Lyme disease system, Isle Royale system, Rabbits in Australia).
  • Choose and use multiple representations (e.g., explanation, graphs, equations, diagrams) to explain how organisms are constrained in the number and types of interactions in which they can engage by their evolutionary history (genetic factors) and circumstance (location, temporal variability in environment).

How do systems change over time?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Construct a model to explain how the interactions among the biotic and abiotic factors of a system can vary (direction, magnitude, frequency) in space and time.
  • Predict and explain the response of disturbance by: -individuals (e.g., acclimation, death, migration) -populations (e.g., adaptation, migration, extinction) -communities and ecosystems (e.g., resiliency, functional redundancy, large changes to ecosystem structure)
Impacts of Humans on Ecosystems

What impacts do humans have on ecosystems?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Using a long term data set (e.g., biodiversity, NPP, dissolved organic matter), examine historical and current trends for a particular habitat and explain how humans have impacted the area.
Impacts of Ecosystems on Human Health and Well-being

How do humans depend on ecosystems for their health and well-being?

Sample Learning Objectives
  • Pick a human health issue and construct an argument tying it to the environment (e.g., water-borne disease, food poisoning, air quality, dioxin, UV radiation).
  • Evaluate the claims in a recent paper about the relationship between biodiversity and human disease risk.
  • Create a sustainability plan for a managed ecosystem (e.g., agro-ecosystems, forests, urban park).