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 Introduction to Evolution

Surveys, Strategies, Misconceptions
and the ENSI Solution

Randy Moore, et al. How Biology Students in Minnesota View Evolution, the Teaching of Evolution & the Evolution-Creationism Controversy. The American Biology Teacher. May 2006. Vol.68, No.5. Online Article.

This study shows that most high school students want their biology classes to include evolution, while most of those classes do not emphasize evolution, defying state standards. This is associated with a high level of serious misconceptions about evolution (in high school and college). Read further for some notable comments in the article, and how ENSIweb can help.

"Much evidence indicates that what we've described here for evolution education in Minnesota also occurs in many other states." (Moore, et al., 2006)."

"The power of Darwin's theory to explain and make accurate predications about life is why it is 'the most powerful theory within the field of biology' (Rutledge & Warden, 2000) and why the National Academy of Sciences encourages teachers 'to use evolution as the organizing theme in teaching biology' (Alles, 2001, NSTA, 2004)."

"The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly." (David Ausubel, in Ausubel, Novak and Hanesian article cited in the report). This underscores the value of pre-testing, and the Moore, et al. article offers a nice selection of questions used in its survey that could be used in your classes, the results of which could be compared with those in their study.

However, "Colleagues considering the use of surveys to study students' views of evolution and creationism should recognize that they might encounter significant resistance from school officials [as encountered in this study]." (Moore, et al., 2006). If you plan to survey your students' prior knowledge in order to teach accordingly, submit your questions (with your rationale) to your principal for approval, and modify the questions as necessary. Here is an "Evolution Survey" that has worked well for many ENSI teachers. And here is a "Science Knowledge Survey" that focuses on the many misconceptions about science that often distort perceptions about evolution. Give the Science Knowledge Survey at the beginning of the year, and the Evolution Survey before getting into your introductory unit on evolution early in the year.

Evolution-related concepts of first-year university students are similar to those taking beginning high school biology. This is probably "not surprising in light of the fact that biology courses have 'almost no effect' on many of these beliefs (Lawson & Worsnop, 1992). Students beliefs are often extremely resistant to change, and teaching students what we want them to know is often ineffective when students already have their own deeply held ideas."

"State standards for evolution education are largely [de facto] irrelevant to the teaching of evolution in biology classrooms of public schools." "These data [discussed in the present study] are troubling, for they document a dramatic failure of science education in the United States. Scientists do not debate whether evolution occurred; evidence from biochemistry, geology, anthropology, geochronology, biology, medicine and other scientific disciplines shows emphatically that it has. That is why [virtually all scientific organizations] name evolution as a unifying concept of science and note that sciences such as geology, biology and anthropology 'cannot be taught with integrity if evolution is not emphasized.'"

SOLUTIONS?: At ENSI, we have suggested that a matter-of-fact addressing of critical elements in the nature of science and evolution, if done in an interactive and engaging manner (following the revelation of common misconceptions with appropriate pre-testing), should create dissonance in the minds of those holding inaccurate concepts, a necessary first step to replacing misconceptions with scientifically accurate information. Those critical elements that have been found to be associated with popular misunderstandings have been addressed in all the ENSI lessons. If properly presented, without repeatedly denouncing the misconceptions, these lessons should subtly encourage students to voluntarily replace those earlier views with more scientific understandings. As soon as we are told that a deeply held idea is "wrong," natural defensiveness tends to resist any correction, so it's probably best to avoid such direct confrontations. But there is a way...

DEBUNKING MISCONCEPTIONS: A new approach has emerged from more recent studies. It involves strategies shown to be effective in helping students to repair their misconceptions. Pre-testing students for their likely misconceptions prior to introducing the topic is still a good idea. However, according to these strategies, you need to plan just where and how to mention those myths. The sequence and contents of the process is critical. You can learn these steps in the Debunking Handbook that is freely available.

ANOTHER APPROACH: In the same online issue, another way to deal with the evolution-creationism "controversy " is presented. Focused on pre-service science teachers, the study indicated that Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) strategies promoted consensus, enhanced propensity to teach evolution, avoided confrontation, and emphasized scientific thinking.

Claudia Khourey-Bowers. "Structured Academic Controversy: A Peaceful Approach to Controversial Issues." The American Biology Teacher. May 2006. Vol.68, No.5. Online Article. The method might not be appropriate for high school students, but could be worth considering.

STILL ANOTHER APPROACH (added February, 2011)
Natural Selection Diagnostic Assessment- The CINS Test
As a possible alternative to our Evolution Survey, you could consider the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection (CINS) test. This was developed (Anderson, et al, 2002) to effectively learn whether the test takers (college freshmen) accurately understood the essential elements of natural selection. It consists of 20 multiple choice questions that focus on common misconceptions as they pertain to 10 key components critical to natural selection. The CINS test was developed, field tested and revised until it was found that high scores correlate reliably with a high degree of understanding of natural selection (revealed in probing interviews), and low scores reveal poor understanding of natural selection. Subjected to critical analyses with statistical measures, the test appears to be an easy and most effective tool for assessing accurate understanding of natural selection. Click Here for pdf copy of the CINS study (with the 20 MC questions - CINS test in Appendix B, pp. 971-975, and the key above the title).

The CINS test was used in a study to measure the effectiveness of a strategy for effectively teaching the concept of natural selection (Bogiages, et al, 2011). In following the teaching strategy, students gained first hand experience in building conceptual models, creating useful wikis, and generating meaningful concept maps. As a result, the students overcame their misconceptions and came away with a very good understanding of natural selection - and the CINS test confirms that! On average, students rarely score higher than 50-60% on an initial CINS test (ideally administered several days before the natural selection unit begins, allowing time to assess the more common misconceptions, and prepare to focus on those misconceptions - see p. 967 in the Anderson, et al paper). After completing this unit (about 5 days in a 90-minute-period block schedule - or 10 days in a shorter-period schedule), students, on average scored in the 80-90% range!

The ten principle concepts addressed in the CINS were labeled: 1) biotic potential; 2) population stability; 3) resources limited; 4) limited survival; 5) variation within population; 6) variation inherited; 7) differential survival; 8) change in population; 9) origin of variation; 10) origin of species. Test-takers did not need to know those terms, only understand the concepts that those terms represent.

Anderson, D. L., K. M. Fisher, G. J. Norman. 2002. Development and Evaluation of the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 39 (10): 952-978.

Bogiages, Christopher A. and Christine Lotter. 2011. Modeling Natural Selection - Using model-based inquiry and wikis to learn about evolution. The Science Teacher 78 (2): 34-40, February 2011.


Another important recent study about
successful efforts to repair the misconceptions
about natural selection
in Introductory Biology
by B.W. Grant, 2008, 2009
Review / Summary by ENSI Co-Director, Craig E. Nelson
Emeritus Professor of Biology, Indiana University

Grant's Multiyear (2000-2007) attempt to overcome misconceptions re natural selection in 1st-year biology.
Two presentations of same results. Quotes taken from 2008 version.
* Grant, B. W. (2009). Practitioner Research Improved My Students' Understanding of Evolution by Natural Selection in an Introductory Biology Course. Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology. 6(4)
FREE TO ALL Online at http://tiee.esa.org/vol/v6/research/grant/article.html
[Grant is at Widener University]

* Grant, B. W. 2008. Practitioner Research as a Way of Knowing: A Case Study of Teacher Learning in Improving Undergraduates' Concept Acquisition of Evolution by Natural Selection. National Research Council, Board On Science Education, Workshop on Linking Evidence and Promising Practices in STEM Undergraduate Education.
FREE TO ALL using link at: http://www.science.widener.edu/~grant/projects/pubs/grantNAS2008.pdf

2000-2005. More standard approach in lecture classroom:
* Gave Unit Pretests. Directly addressed the misconceptions in class. However: "Many students who presented evidence on pre-tests that they harbored substantial misconceptions in fact remained highly resistant to instruction, and often defended their misconceptions using course appropriate terminology, but incorrectly, on the course final exam. many had hijacked course content in service of their misconceptions."

2006 & 2007: Expanded Approach, still in lecture classroom:
* "For each pre-unit survey, I presented histograms of their survey responses (prior knowledge and misconceptions) at the beginning of the next class. During this time, I specifically addressed the major categories of students' prior correct knowledge AND major misconceptions (why such and such an idea was 'wrong' and why a different concept was 'right').

* "I re-framed the outline of the class conspicuously around sequentially addressing these major misconceptions, and I re-projected the misconceptions slide multiple times on multiple days."
* Also: "a rather substantial content reduction and shifting of emphasis mandated in part by the extra class time that needed to be devoted to increased writing and discourse-based instruction."

* KEY: GROUP ENGAGEMENT RE CHANGING IDEAS: "In addition, I asked them in guided discussions and turn-to-your neighbor activities to visualize and reflect upon the kinds of evidence and arguments I needed to present that would help them to understand the expert knowledge and ways of knowing I wanted them to attain versus those that many exhibited in the pre-tests."

* Big Gains even in college lecture classroom.
* Key innovation: Asking students to work in groups to address what they would require to change ideas.

* POWERFUL RESULTS 2005-2005 v 2006-2007:
* SEE Grant's Figure 6. Simplified "Dino Neck" question scoring rubric on the left (see Grant 2008 for complete rubric), and frequencies of students' scores on the final exams for 2000-2005 and 2006-2007. [From Grant 2009]
* Good answers (8, 9 or 10 of 10 points) from about 3% in 2000-2005 to 54% in 2006-2007!