BEACON Researchers at Work: Discussing evolution is fruitful: Or, Why I don’t shut up about evolution

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU graduate student Emily Weigel.

southAs a woman raised in the South, and now returning to it as I finish my dissertation, I am reminded of a gem I have heard come out of more than one Southern mother’s mouth: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”

As I always interpreted as “Just don’t be mean,” I found wiggle-room in this statement: If it has to be ‘not mean,’ it could also be neutral. I could say things that described a process that were neither mean nor nice, merely factual.

Taking the approach of neutrality, I’ve had a host of fruitful, meaningful discussions. Talking about things has helped me to uncover the framework of my thoughts, my misconceptions, and my assumptions in real-time. I believe we can grow, individually and as a society, through examining our thoughts, and those of others, through such conversation.

However, despite the benefits of discussion in everyday life, do these benefits extend to classroom discussion, particularly for tricky topics, like evolution?

In the case of evolution, some might shy away from discussing it at all; after all, various misconceptions about evolution run rampant, originate often from first encounters with the topic, and can even be instilled by teachers. Given the additional, resistant religious and political climate toward evolution in certain regions, it can be intimidating for teachers to bring up evolution in the classroom. If you find yourself in that position, I urge you: discuss it anyway.

Not only is the teaching of evolution supported by several national science education standards, tons of evidence also shows classroom discussion to have many benefits. Among them, classroom discussion helps expose students to importance of team work and cooperation, foster the inclusion of under-represented groups, and facilitates knowledge exchange between students. These discussions are helpful in exposing common misconceptions which students may later challenge as a first step in gaining new knowledge. And now, we have evidence to support that discussion (*not* debate) of the science of evolution can be used as a tool to increase student understanding of evolution and experimental biology.

I was privileged to work with Dr. Mark Tran (formerly MSU Zoology; now new faculty at Blue Ash College in Cincinnati- go Mark!) and Dr. Gail Richmond(Teacher Education, MSU) on a project that addressed how upper-level college biology student’s evolution knowledge and misconceptions changed after a discussion-based course. The overall theme of this particular course was physiological adaptation to the environment, thus evolution was critical for students fully understand the course topics.

As a baseline, first we tested students to see what they knew about evolution prior to the discussion course. We asked open-ended questions of varying complexity to test their understanding of evolutionary processes both generally and with respect to the specific topics to be covered in the course.

Then, for the duration of the semester, the class met weekly for 50 minutes. Each class session was designed to foster peer-to-peer dialogue about course topics and related weekly readings. Students met in small groups and convened as a class answer previously constructed discussion questions as led by graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and fellow students (under TA guidance). Finally, at the end of the semester, we re-tested the students.


An overused, but classic, example

Here’s what we found: Students consistently struggled with adaptation and how it is connected to evolution (namely, adaptation and evolution do not occur in a single organism over its lifetime, and evolution is not always adaptive). These misconceptions were widespread, even among students who *had* previously taken an evolution course (talk about a let-down!). However, improvement after discussion was apparent for certain topics, in particular for students who had yet to take an evolution course.

In short, students increased in their ability to define evolution, as well as to distinguish that populations can evolve without adapting, but not the reverse. Students also showed a greater ability to distinguish between observational and manipulative research methods.

Thus, discussing evolution can be used as an effective tool in evolution education. Our results stress the need for instructors to address their students’ preconceived ideas on evolution and dispel misconceptions at the start of courses, if not at the start of student’s classroom exposure to evolution. Furthermore, our results also show that students found discussions to be intellectually stimulating, and increased their interest levels in science. And, given that students who had not taken an evolution course made greater gains in knowledge (compared to students previously enrolled in an evolution course), discussions on evolution may actually work best for early-career students before they take courses specifically covering evolution.

So, I beg you, discuss evolution with students. Discuss evolution with friends, family—anyone that wants to learn about the science that connects us all. And if you need help, see some of the resources below or ask a friendly BEACONite to help you out. Just drop us a line, and start the discussion. 

For more, see our paper here:

Tran, M.V., Weigel, E.G., and Richmond, G. (2014). Analyzing upper-level undergraduate knowledge of evolutionary processes: Can class discussions help? Journal of College Science Teaching 43(5): 80-90.


See also these fantastic evolution education materials, including games, comics, cool videos designed to engage students: 

For more information about Emily’s work, you can contact her at weigelem at msu dot edu.

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