An Effective Strategy for Teaching Evolution
The Natural Selection:
Identifying & Correcting Non-Science Student Preconceptions
Through an Inquiry-Based, Critical Approach to Evolution

Jennifer R. Robbins, Pamela Roy

The American Biology Teacher, vol.69, no.8, October 2007, pp. 460-466.

Reviw and Links by Larry Flammer


How would you like to see your students increase their accurate explanations of evolution from 6% before the unit, to 92% afterwards? Likewise, wouldn't it feel good if the number of your students accepting evolution as a viable explanation of diversity went from 59% before your course to 92% afterwards? These are the kinds of results obtained from a closely monitored approach to teaching evolution. The students were 141 college non-majors in a course that devoted about 7.3 hours (4 weekly 110-minute labs) to the assessment and teaching of evolution.

Their technique followed this sequence:
1. Identification of existing preconceptions. All students were simply asked two questions:
a. Explain the theory of evolution, and
b. Do you believe it? Why / why not?
2. Brief lecture and laboratory exercises designed to challenge the misconceptions.
3. Interpretation of data with peer instruction to synthesize the principles that ground evolutionary theory.

In the pre-test survey (unannounced), students were allowed to write only 10 minutes on the two prompts. This allowed for identification of misconceptions not foreseen by multiple-choice surveys in other studies. [However, a pre-unit survey, if well conceived and structured, could probably be just about as informative, especially if the misconceptions identified in this study were included. An example of such an Evolution Survey can be found on the ENSI site at] "Believe" in the Robbins/Roy pre-test was purposely included, and a few students did distinguish between "belief" and "accepting" in their answers.

The authors chose to use the data from fossils, comparative anatomy and comparative biochemistry to develop students' understanding. Guided discussion within small groups was thought to be a most critical component, as it has in other studies. For example, the authors found that "allowing students to discuss their understanding with one another increased acceptance of evolution" The kinds of prompts used and other thoughtful strategies form a key part of this article, strongly recommended for any teacher contemplating this or a similar approach." Recent research has reinforced how much more effective guided discussion between students is to increase deep understanding of concepts, certainly more so than lectures, and even more effective than writing about the concepts. Most of the ENSI lessons were designed to provide such opportunities in comparative studies of fossils, anatomy and molecular biology. Check the index at