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Teaching the “E” Word

May 5, 2009

Charles Darwin. Image by Armin Cifuentes.

English naturalist Charles Darwin. Image by Armin Cifuentes.

By Diane Ballard

Teaching the “E” word is a constant challenge, with the challenges coming from unexpected places.

That’s what Dr. Andy Kramer has found in his 10-year study of student understandings of evolution.

For a decade, Kramer asked students in a large, introductory anthropology course and smaller classes of advanced students four true-false questions having to do with evolution.

He was puzzled by many of the results, which were verified by the UT Knoxville Statistical Consulting Center. Among the many surprising findings was that among students in the introductory class, there was no significant difference in the percent of correct responses between freshmen and seniors. Neither was there any significant difference between those who had only a high school biology background and those who had taken college-level biology.

“I intuitively expected that both the upperclass students and those with more biology would demonstrate better understanding and fewer misconceptions about evolution, but the analyses showed that this was not the case,” Kramer says. “One possible explanation is that upperclass students taking an introductory course late in their college career may have an attitude of simply satisfying a requirement and may not be that motivated to be in the class in the first place. Since the introductory anthropology course satisfies a basic natural science credit, this may indicate that these upperclass students did not have much more of a science background than their freshman and sophomore classmates.”

Surprising Results

The survey also showed no significant difference in the percentage of correct responses between Tennessee residents and non-Tennessee residents, between urban and rural Tennessee residents, or between students age 17 and those age 21.

“I was surprised at all these results, particularly that students from rural areas of Tennessee and those from urban areas would have practically the same attitudes about evolution,” Kramer said.

Where Kramer did detect a difference was among students from different regions of the country. Those from the Northeast scored significantly more correct answers than those from the Southeast.

“This seems to make sense in the context of widely reported national trends in which the urban Northeast is much less resistant to evolution in their public school classrooms than in the Southeast or in most rural districts around the country,” Kramer says.

Adult students—those age 30 and above—also recorded more correct answers than their 17- to 21-year-old counterparts.

Key Words

When he compared responses from students in advanced classes with those from the introductory course, Kramer found the advanced students scored more correct answers.

Kramer also asked students to define evolution. He judged responses by the frequency of key words (in bold) that occur in the “classic” definition of the term: change in gene frequency within a population over time.

More than one-third of the students included none of the key words in their definitions. About 60 percent included one or two of the key words, and less than one percent included all of them.

Kramer watched for words that he says imply a basic misunderstanding of evolution—words such as “progress,” “supernatural,” and terms that suggested evolution applies only to humans. More than 60 percent of the students included at least one of the red-flag words. Again, students in advanced classes performed better by including fewer of the incorrect terms.

Kramer has also administered the survey when he visits high school honors biology courses. He analyzes and compares those responses later, along with responses from students at other universities.

Why has Kramer undertaken the study? Why does he think understanding evolution is so important?

“It’s necessary for students to understand what science can and cannot do,” he says. “They need to know that science is not all-powerful. Science can’t prove anything; it can only disprove. But science still provides the best naturalistic explanation for our universe, and evolution comprehensively explains how life developed and diversified over the past four and a half billion years of earth history.”

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