Research and Teaching
Student Misconceptions About Evolutionary Theory as Assessed on the First Day of Class
Evolution is not a particularly difficult topic to understand; organisms that are well suited to their niches thrive compared to those who are less so. To illustrate this point, Charles Darwin (1859) explained the mechanism of natural selection proposed in On the Origin of Species to Victorian audiences by dedicating dozens of pages relating it to artificial selection and the selective breeding of pets and livestock, a familiar and relatable concept to many nonscientists of the era. Evolution is the rare scientific theory that does not require mathematical competence to understand. It should be a simple topic to address in the classroom.
However, despite its near universal acceptance among scientists, convincing the general public to accept evolutionary explanations for life can be difficult (Wiles, 2010). Evolution is not consistently taught in public high schools and is often taught alongside nonscientific ideas such as intelligent design (Bowman, 2008; Berkman et al., 2008).
Part of this lack of acceptance can be attributed to its rejection by some widely practiced religious traditions. In the faiths that interpret their respective religious texts literally, evolution is considered to be incompatible with their religions’ teachings (Pew Research Center, 2014a). In Arkansas, approximately 46% of the adult populace identifies as an evangelical Christian, one of the largest American religious groups that tends to reject scientific explanations that conflict with their interpretations of the Bible. This is appreciably higher than the national rate of 25.4% (Pew Research Center, 2014b). The same study found that 73% of Arkansans report attending church at least a few times a year, with 41% attending weekly. Assuming that children are accompanying their parents to religious services, this results in a significant early exposure to the idea of rejecting evolutionary science.
In Arkansas, 46% of adults surveyed rejected evolution, saying that humans have always existed in our present form (Pew Research Center, 2014b). Nationally, a Gallup poll from 2017 showed that 38% of Americans believed that God created the world within the past 10,000 years. The remainder either accepted evolution outright (19%) or that humans evolved with some divine guidance in the process (38%). Those with less education, Protestants and self-identified nonCatholic Christians, and those who attended church regularly were more likely to agree with a strict Creationist explanation of the world (Swift, 2017).
These numbers suggest that college-level instructors in the evolutionary sciences across the country have to actively work to undo previous misconceptions about the process of evolution and the nature of scientific inquiry. There are several questions that we, as instructors, need to address before we start this work:
This study provides a tool that can be used to assess a class’s prior knowledge and misunderstanding of the subject. It evaluates several years’ worth of accumulated data, from 2012 to 2019, from a sample of introductory-level Biological Anthropology students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a public university located in Arkansas’s largest metropolitan area. The fall 2016 enrollment at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was 11,665 students, 88.7% of whom were Arkansas residents. The average age of our undergraduate students was 26, indicating that many of our students are considered to be nontraditional with regard to age (UALR, 2019).
The sample used in this study mirrors the age structure of the university as a whole, with an average age of 24.8 years. The slightly lower average age of the sample is likely due to the data collection occurring in a lower-level, introductory course.
The survey used in this study was written by Dr. Andrew Kramer, professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee. He generously shared this teaching tool with the author as she began her own career of teaching college-level biological anthropology. This study is largely modeled off a previous study by Kramer et al. (2009) in which they deployed this survey among a largely traditional college-age population at the University of Tennessee. This current study, while using the same survey and similar metrics, examines responses from students at a regional, urban university. In comparison to the populations in Kramer et al. (2009), the student body at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is more racially and ethnically diverse, nonresidential, and has a larger percentage of first-generation and nontraditional students.
The survey is designed to be delivered on the first day a class meets, before beginning any discussion of the course material or distributing the syllabus. The aim is to help the instructor better understand the mindset that students are beginning the class with in order to help them better design lectures, assignments, and other instructional materials to address misconceptions and educational deficiencies.
The survey consists of four statements that students are asked to identify as “true” or “false,” all of which are false:
Students are also asked to define “evolution” using their own words. In addition to these content statements, students are asked their age, gender, their academic progress (freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior), in which city and state they attended high school, and how much previous exposure to biology they have had.
The survey data were collected from a sample of 153 students in the author’s Physical Anthropology courses over several semesters. The sample was 70% female and 89.6% were between the ages of 18 and 24. Most students (86.9%) attended high school in the state of Arkansas and 54.9% had taken at least part of a semester of college-level biology previously.
Statement 1: Science has proven that evolution is true
Correct: 39.2% (N = 60)
Incorrect: 60.8% (N = 93)
In the discussion that occurs after the survey is collected, many students report that they find this statement misleading. The correct answer is false; those students who admitted to answering true during the class discussions that followed the survey reported that they either failed the see the semantic nuance of the term “proven” as it refers to scientific methodology or because they believe that evolution is not settled science. It is difficult using this statement alone to differentiate between those who are not well versed in scientific terminology with those who truly disagree with the concept of evolution.
Statement 2: Evolution is not science, it is just a theory.
Correct: 56.2% (N = 86)
Incorrect: 43.8% (N = 67)
Like statement 1, this statement demonstrates the difference usages of words in a lay context compared to an academic one. Twenty six more students correctly answered this statement compared to statement 1, suggesting that they were more familiar with the different usages of the word “theory” than with the concept of scientific “proof.”
Statement 3: Creationism is a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution.
Correct: 56.9% (N = 87)
Incorrect: 43.1% (N = 66)
The third true/false statement directly addresses the confusion that many students have about the origin stories they have heard from childhood compared with the generally accepted secular explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. This statement also emphasizes the definition of “scientific.” In the accompanying discussion, the role of science as the interpreter of natural phenomena that are observable and testable is emphasized. Thus, any explanation that invokes the supernatural is not a scientific one. Students are then asked to reword the sentence to make it a true statement. Most commonly they present solutions that substitute the word “scientific” with “religious” or “faith-based,” though some choose to remove the words “legitimate” and/or “scientific” from the statement altogether.
Statement 4: If you believe in evolution, you cannot believe in God.
Correct: 91.5% (N =140)
Incorrect: 8.5% (N =13)
Most students interpreted this statement to be false. While Arkansas ranks among the highest states for religious participation, there are a variety of faiths and denominations, especially in the metropolitan areas from which University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s students mostly derive. While many of the evangelically oriented faiths only consider a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis as a valid explanation for the existence of life, many others allow for the coexistence of scientific explanations and Biblical ones. Some explanations students have presented during postsurvey discussions include that the Big Bang was a supernaturally guided event; that the “rules” of evolution were divinely authored; and that divine intervention occurs, but is not an ongoing process.
The fifth task of the survey asks students to define the term “evolution” in their own words. The simplest correct version of this is “biological change over time.” The responses were scored using two methods. In the first, the author read each response and awarded a point for the inclusion of each of the three key concepts (“biological,”, “change,” and “over time”) in the above definition. Synonyms and related terms were also considered to be correct responses (i.e., “genetic” for “biological”; “adapt” for “change”; “gradually” for “over time” were all graded as acceptable answers).
Number of key concepts included in the definition of “evolution,” percent of students:
3 = 20.9%
2 = 28.8%
1 = 26.1%
0 = 20.3%
No response = 3.9%
Thirty-two of the 153 respondents gave acceptable, complete definitions of “evolution.” Another 44 identified two of the three key concepts identified above. Seventy one students (46.4%) gave inadequate responses, most of which demonstrated little to no understanding of the concept (i.e., “Evolution is when things evolve.”). Six students provided no response.
Among the 44 students who correctly identified two of the three key concepts, 38.6% (N = 17) omitted the biological component from their definition, such as “Science that explains how something changes over time.” The remaining 61.4% (N = 27) stated or implied a biological aspect, but omitted the time component (i.e., “How nature adapts to changes in the environment.”).
The second scoring method for the definition task looked for common misconceptions of evolution. While there was no one wrong answer, the following concepts were interpreted as mistakes:
Number of misconceptions in the definition of “evolution,” percent of students:
2 = 8.5%
1 = 32.7%
0 = 52.4%
No response = 3.9%
Not one student made three or four mistakes and only 13 made two misstatements. Another 50 made one misstatement only. While this seems like a positive result, it is more likely that most students did not think it was politically astute to commit to embracing Creationism in a class whose course description includes that students will study the human fossil record, even if anonymously. (Though, as seen in the response to statement 4, the vast majority of students do not see a conflict between religious belief and accepting evolutionary theory.) Just more than half of the students (N = 83) did not make any of these mistakes.
Interestingly, every student who invoked creationism or intelligent design also included a second misconception, either applying their answer to humans only (N = 4) or using Lamarckian explanations or logic (N = 2). This suggests that those who came into the class rejecting the idea of evolution had other faulty ideas about the nature of biology.
The highest possible point total on this survey is seven. To earn this score, all four true/false answers would be correct and the definition of evolution would include all three key concepts and no misconceptions, which would negatively impact the score. The average score for the whole sample is 3.42 (N = 153). The median and mode scores are both 4 and the range is to -2 to 7.
Spearman’s rank correlations were calculated using SPSS v.25 to compare the demographic variables collected with the total number of correct responses students gave for statements 1 through 4 and the quality of the definition of evolution they provided. There were only two statistically significant correlations with the survey scores: sex and previous biology courses taken.
Of the 151 students who reported their sex, 47 were male and 102 were female. For the statistical analysis, males were coded as “0” and females as “1.” There was a significant negative correlation between the score and sex (ρ = -.180, p = .027), meaning that males answered more statements correctly than females did. The mean score on statements 1–4 was 2.66 for males and 2.36 for females. There was no statistical difference in the quality of the definitions of “evolution.”
There was a significant negative correlation between a student’s previous exposure to biology and their ability to define “evolution.” Scoring poorly on the definition of evolution through invoking one or more of the common misconceptions about the topic was negatively correlated with the amount of previous biology courses a student had taken (ρ = -.256; p = .002). Those students with no previous biology or high school only averaged .676 misconceptions in their definitions (N = 67) and those who had at least one partial semester of college-level biology averaged .383 misconceptions (N = 84). There was no statistical difference in score for the four true/false statements.
There were no statistically significant correlations between age, college class, urban versus rural high school location, or in-state versus out-of-state students and the scores on this survey.
The only two statistically significant results hint to established trends: preferential male education in science and the lack of exposure to evolutionary concepts in high school.
The statements asked by this survey address concepts in about the Nature of Science (NOS), as discussed by Binns and Bloom (2017). That these data shows significant differences between students with exposure to college-level biology and those without suggests that these students had not adequately studied the process of science: that science relies on evidence; that it is constantly being revised and reworked; that, in being a human cultural product, it strives to be objective, but cannot be completely value-free. This pattern of misunderstanding appears to be consistent regardless of whether or not the high school was in Arkansas, out of state, in an urban area, or in a rural setting. Whether this is a curricular issue, a cultural issue, or the result of some other process is outside the scope of this study. Regardless of the reason, the deficiency exists and it would be wise to address it early in the course. Once a student had begun a college-level biology course—regardless of whether they completed the course or not —they greatly reduced their chances of mischaracterizing evolution.
That the males somewhat outperformed the females is not, unfortunately, surprising given the American education system’s nondeliberate tendency to push boys toward science and technology fields and to direct girls to other areas. Factors that contribute to this process include using rote-based pedagogy, inspiring students to compete rather than collaborate, and venerating to the point of mythologizing the (mostly male) scientists of the past, and ingrained cultural biases toward seeing science as a more “masculine” pursuit than liberal arts (Brotman & Moore, 2008; Nosek et al., 2009). Statements that emphasize supposedly universal differences in male and female cognition (i.e., Summers, 2005, as discussed in Halpern et al., 2007) send a strong cultural signal that scientific discovery is best left to only a select group of individuals, typically high-achieving males.
Students in this study performed comparably to other studies of university undergraduates in the United States who took surveys and pretests on evolutionary concepts at the beginning of the semester (Gregory, 2009; Kramer et al., 2009; Knight & Smith, 2010). The percentage of students who answered the true/false statements correctly closely mirrored the percentages in Kramer et al., suggesting that students at a regional university did not have an inferior understanding of evolution compared to those at a state flagship university (2009). Students beginning college-level evolutionary science with little correct information about evolution and the nature of science is not an Arkansas-specific phenomenon or even restricted to some regions of the country.
This study found that overall, students are entering college-level introductory Biological Anthropology courses with an incomplete understanding of evolution and the nature of scientific inquiry. Out of a possible seven points, this sample average 3.42 earned points. It should be noted that there is a significant degree of self-selection in this sample as well; at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, this course is among over a dozen options that satisfy the university core science requirement. Its description in the course catalog clearly states that the course involves “…the study of past and present human and nonhuman primates as biological organisms” and that topics to be covered include, “the human fossil record” (UALR, 2019). Students who are strongly opposed to evolution rarely take the course, as they have other options available to fill the requirement that do not emphasize this process. As a whole, this sample probably outperforms students who were not individually motivated to take a class that centers on human evolution.
The lack of understanding of evolutionary processes in this study cannot be easily attributed to demographic differences within the sample. This lack of understanding could be multifactorial and interrelated. Cultural and individual resistance to understanding the scientific process in general and evolution specifically, reinforced by some religious traditions, is a likely factor (Alters & Nelson, 2002); limited exposure to evolution in the K–12 classroom is possibly another. The National Center for Science Education reports that high school biology teachers spend an average of 13.7 hours per year on evolution, which accounts for less than 10% of the total class time in a course in which it should be the underlying theoretical basis upon which the course content is built. Also of concern is the approximately 12% of science teachers who agree that creationism or intelligent design are legitimate scientific alternatives to evolution (Berkman et al., 2008).
Regardless of the origins of the problem, it seems that being exposed to evolution in a college-level biology course has a strong positive effect on the ability of students to avoid the common misconceptions about the topic. However, as only part of the populace attends college and only a portion of that group takes biology courses, improving the public’s understanding of this important topic cannot take place in the college classroom alone. ■
Thank you to Dr. Andrew Kramer for introducing me to this assessment method, permitting me to use his survey freely, and for encouraging me to analyze and publish about the data I had gathered.
Kathryn King (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The survey form.
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