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This wide-ranging course explains the key concepts of evolutionary science and investigates how these account for the characteristics of living organisms and the history of life on Earth. Using information from the living world and from fossil records, you'll learn how natural selection and other evolutionary processes produce changes in genes and populations over different timescales; how new species originate; and how large-scale evolutionary patterns are generated. Other topics include the reconstruction of evolutionary relationships and the ways in which humans influence the evolution of other species.

Modules at Level 3 assume that you are suitably prepared for study at this level. If you want to take a single module to satisfy your career development needs or pursue particular interests, you don’t need to start at Level 1 but you do need to have adequately prepared yourself for OU study in some other way. Check with our Student Registration & Enquiry Service to make sure that you are sufficiently prepared.

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No current presentation - see Future availability

This course is expected to start for the last time in February 2014.

What you will study

This course gives a broad treatment of both the biological and the palaeontological aspects of evolution, and so will be particularly rewarding to anyone who has an interest in life, earth or environmental sciences.

In particular, the course demonstrates how small genetic changes within populations (microevolution) can occur both through natural selection (including sexual selection) and as a consequence of other effects, and how such processes can lead to adaptive and other differences between populations. It considers how new species can arise; how evolutionary relationships are reconstructed; and how evolutionary changes in the genetic controls on development – and variation in the rates of speciation and of extinction – can lead to large-scale evolutionary patterns (macroevolution). It also looks at how humans have been (and are) affecting the evolution both of themselves and other contemporary organisms.

The course is based on the book Evolution by Douglas J. Futuyma (Sinauer, 2009), which is provided. A full colour Companion Text guides the student through the course books. It provides links to the additional components, including exercises and assignments designed to develop and test mastery of the learning outcomes of the course. Computer-based work involves interactive learning packages, video presentations, analytical software on DVD and a tutor-group wiki activity. You’ll also have access to a website and both tutor-group and course-wide online forums. For practical investigations, you’ll use a home kit of replica fossil specimens, supported by a Practical Booklet. The outcomes of these investigations are assessed in the tutor-marked assignments. Other supporting material includes an Introduction and Guide to the course (with included Glossary), and a Specimen Examination Paper.

Following introductions to the scientific basis of evolutionary theory and the key phenomena of adaptation and organised biological diversity, the methods for reconstructing evolutionary relationships are addressed with the aid of an interactive learning package and tree-building software. Patterns of evolution, as inferred from comparative studies, the fossil record, and the distributions of organisms are considered next. Supporting material includes a multimedia case study on the evolution of plumage in dinosaurs and birds (which is revisited in later parts of the course). There is also an exercise based on a set of plaster replicas of fossil shells supplied in the Home Kit.

The focus then moves on to the sources of genetic variation, how it affects the growth and form of organisms, and the investigation of genetic diversity within populations, all of which prepares you for the project work. Sexual selection and the issues of conflict and cooperation within species are explored next.

Then follow explorations of species concepts, how new species evolve, and life history evolution and its implications for the diversity of reproductive modes. These topics are supported by multimedia activities. The rapidly expanding field of developmental evolution is also considered, with a return to the plumage case study by way of illustration.

Finally, after considering some general broad issues, the course finishes with a look at the impact of humans on the evolution both of themselves and of other organisms.


This is a Level 3 course. Level 3 courses build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at Levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably with the OU. We advise against choosing S366 as your first Level 3 course.

To study this Level 3 course you need:

  • a background in science such as you would get from our Level 1 science course Exploring science (S104)
  • a pass in at least two Level 2 biology, earth science or environmental science courses such as Geology (S276) and Environmental science (S216) (or the equivalent)
  • to be competent at mathematics, to approximately the level of Maths for science (S151)
  • to be able to interpret graphs and tables of data
  • to be able to carry out some practical investigations involving measurement of specimens and analysis of the results.

Your regional or national centre will be able to tell you where you can see reference copies of the Level 1 and 2 courses. 

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis from which to tackle the course, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty have produced a booklet, Are You Ready For S366? It will help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the course or whether you need a little extra preparation. This can be viewed or printed from the Are you ready for science? website. 

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

In general, students with disabilities may find the practical work in the kit exercise and the project challenging. Those with impaired sight or manual dexterity may need an assistant. There is an option of a computer project for students who are unable to complete the other project options. The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Components may not be fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Transcripts of video material will also be available. The books are available in a comb-bound format. Any queries on this subject should come to our Student Registration & Enquiry Service in the first instance. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

Two main texts, supplementary texts, DVD-ROM, a website and a home kit containing two real fossil specimens and a set of plaster replicas.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this course. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some course software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2007 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device is not suitable for this course – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this course by running Windows on it using Boot Camp or a similar dual-boot system.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information including the details of the support we provide.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and who you can ask for advice and guidance. You will also be offered online tutorials, led by your tutor.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this course can be found in the facts box above.

You can choose whether to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) on paper or online through the eTMA system. You may want to use the eTMA system for some of your assignments but submit on paper for others. This is entirely your choice.

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that starts in February 2014 when it will be available for the last time.

Students also studied

Students who studied this course also studied at some time:

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Student Reviews

“As several people have noted in their reviews, this is a very intensive course, but ultimately rewarding also. I personally ...”
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“I thoroughly enjoyed this course. The books look quite daunting when they first arrived but the course is well structured ...”
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Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code S366
Credits 30
OU Level 3
SCQF level 10
FHEQ level 6
Course work includes:
4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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