Causes of Mass Extinction Lesson Plan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

With this lesson plan, your students will learn about the causes of mass extinctions. They will examine how multiple factors combine to create immense ecological pressure and conduct a basic research project on specific extinctions.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Define mass extinction and distinguish it from normal rates of extinction
  • Understand how multiple factors compound to create extreme ecological pressure on species
  • Identify and describe the five mass extinctions in history


60-90 minutes

Curriculum Standards

  • MS-ESS3-4

Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems.

  • MS-LS4-1

Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.


Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 9-10 texts and topics.


  • Printed copies of Mass Extinctions: Causes & Theories and Lesson Quiz
  • Student-supplied notebooks and pencils/pens
  • 25 medium-sized, shallow, rectangular boxes in the rough shape of domino tiles painted white or covered in white paper, such as pizza boxes, flat-rate shipping boxes, etc.
  • Basic craft supplies (optional)


  • Begin class by discussing extinctions with the following questions:
    • What does it mean for a species to go extinct?
    • What species do you know of that are extinct?
    • Why do species go extinct?
    • What ecological pressures might lead to extinction?
    • How are some animals able to survive extinction?
    • What does this tell us about evolution?
  • Start by reading the first question of ''Mass Extinctions'' to the class and ask them to vote on the answer by raising their hands. Record the results of the vote on the classroom board.
  • Distribute copies of the lesson Mass Extinctions: Causes & Theories. Instruct the class to read the rest of that section and discuss it with the following questions:
    • Does it surprise you to learn that over 90% of all species that have ever lived are extinct? Why or why not?
    • What is a mass extinction?
    • What do you think could cause more than half of life to go extinct within a relatively short time period?
  • Read the rest of this lesson as a class with one student reading aloud at a time and switching the reader with every paragraph. Using this method, read ''The First Three Mass Extinctions.'' Pause and create a basic timeline on the board and ask students to do the same on a sheet of paper or in their notebooks. As you discuss this information, add each extinction event and a few facts about each, including possible causes, to the timeline.
    • What was the first mass extinction in history?
      • Why do you think there weren't any mass extinctions before this?
      • What was life like in this time?
      • What does this tell us about mass extinctions?
    • What trends do you see in all three of these first mass extinctions?
      • What sort of factors caused these extinctions?
      • What species died, and why?
    • Consider each of the factors that caused these mass extinctions. Why would each have such a negative impact on life around the globe?
  • Continue reading the lesson and complete section ''The Next 2-3 Mass Extinctions.'' Add these events and corresponding facts and causes to the timeline and discuss the following questions:
    • How do the Triassic-Jurassic and Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions compare to the three we've already discussed?
      • How are they similar?
      • How are they different?
    • If a sixth extinction event is occurring, how is it similar or different from the previous five?
    • What sort of evidence do you think scientists look for to determine whether we are living through a mass extinction?
  • Complete the lesson, using the ''Lesson Summary'' to review the timeline on the board. You may test student understanding with the Lesson Quiz.

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