How to Explain Taxonomy to Basic Biology Students

Taxonomy is one of those subjects that seems very straightforward.  Almost all students start by learning the classification system –  Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.    You can give them a mnemonic to help them remember it – King Phillip Came Over For Great Soup).

Ater your students can list the words (kingdom, phylum…etc) ask them this simple question.  “Which group would have more species, phylum or class?”   

Chances are, you’ll look out to a bunch of blank faces or a few of them wildly guessing.  Knowing the taxonomic structure does not mean they understand how organisms are classified.

Student Activities to Learn Taxonomy

So, how do you solve the problem?   First, start with an analogy. Ask students to imagine going into a grocery store to get a list of items:  eggs, milk, cereal, grapefruit, and apples.   Are there items on the list that you’ll find closer than others?  Students will quickly understand why grouping things helps with organization.

The second activity involves asking the students to make a list of all the flying organisms they can think of.  I usually have them work in pairs and give them a time limit to list all the things they can (like a game).   Then, ask them to divide their organisms into 2-4 groups.   Pick a few to show as examples on the board and point out that not everyone has the same exact groupings.  

Ask them if there is more than one way you can group the organisms.    In this way, you are showing the students that taxonomy is a dynamic discipline, biologists often group and then regroup when new information is found.  A hyena was once classified in the same group as dogs (canines), but DNA evidence now suggests it is more closely related to cats (felines).

Finally, to explain the system itself, another analogy is useful.  I use a computer analogy.  Ask students why computers have folders.  Ask them to describe how they organize their files or tunes.  The idea is that you’ll show how one folder can have subfolders in the same way that we group organisms into groups (such as Kingdoms) which have subgroups (Phylum).   Overall, the main idea here is for students to understand not just the list of groups, but why and how organisms are grouped within the system.

 One my favorite activities with freshman is to compare dogs, wolves, and coyotes. Students underline similarities and differences between the groups. They examine a phylogenetic tree showing many canid species.