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MUSE | Natural Selection | Research on Student Learning


Research on student understanding and reasoning in evolutionary biology

An extensive literature on student knowledge in evolution exists, most of it documenting student misunderstandings of central ideas. We have provided an overview of this literature in Roadblocks to Understanding Natural Selection. A common finding of these studies is that significant numbers of students hold inaccurate knowledge of evolution before and after instruction (e.g. Brumby, 1980; Clough and Wood-Robinson, 1985; Jensen and Finley, 1996). Summarizing this research, one could say that understanding evolutionary biology is difficult for students, and even instruction specifically designed to address conceptual difficulties has had limited success (see Demastes, Trowbridge, and Cummins, 1992).

We believe that it is important for students to understand and be able to use the natural selection model to reason about evolutionary change. In other words, an ability to correctly identify ideas about natural selection on an exam is insufficient if the ability to use those ideas to formulate explanations for complex natural phenomena is absent. One way for students to achieve this level of understanding is to participate in inquiry that mirrors, in important ways, the practice of evolutionary biology. This includes providing opportunities for students to experience creating and justifying knowledge claims. Our research focuses on students' abilities to construct such explanations.

The general focus of the research in the evolution class parallels the research studies that have been conducted in genetics (reported elsewhere in this site) and those that are underway in the EMS unit (also described elsewhere in this site). That is, our focus is on student understanding of scientific models (in this case, natural selection) and their ability to engage in argumentation about the model as they use and extend it. This occurs while the students construct explanations for diverse types of data. Our research documents student achievement in evolution, achievement of learning outcomes (described within the unit overview section) that are consistent with those in national science education reform documents (see Benchmarks & Standards).

Our research seeks to document the following types of student achievement:
1. Knowledge of Darwin's Model of Natural Selection.
2. Ability to use the model to reason about diverse data in sophisticated ways.
3. Intellectual skills associated with observation, modeling, and defense of models.

Our results are encouraging. They demonstrate that students' understanding of the natural selection model and its many interrelated components change dramatically from the beginning to the end of the unit (Passmore, Stewart, & Mesmer, 2001). Many of the changes stand in stark contrast to reports of student understanding that are in the literature. More significantly, students use Darwin's model of natural selection in sophisticated ways to reason about data that that is clearly consistent with the model (see the Seed Case for such an example). In addition, students use the model as the basis for discussions about "atypical" phenomena such as sexual dimorphism in ring-neck pheasants (see the Pheasant Case for an example).

Listed below are reports of the research conducted in the natural selection unit, Additional reports will be listed as they become available.

  • Passmore, C. & Stewart, J. (in review) "A course in evolution for high school students: The influence of BioQUEST. BioQUEST Notes

  • Passmore, C. & Stewart, J. (in press). "A modeling approach to the teaching of evolution at the high school level". Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

  • Passmore, C., Stewart, J. & Mesmer, K. (2001) High School Students' Understanding of and Reasoning with Darwin's Natural Selection Model. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, St. Louis, MO.