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Apr 22 2014

OK Students Less Knowledgeable About Evolution After Class

I reported recently on the study of Oklahoma science teachers, which found that a sizable percentage of them don’t understand evolution well enough to teach it accurately and effectively. Here’s the result: Oklahoma students actually know less about evolution after taking a biology class than they were before.

A study published in the latest edition of Evolution: Education and Outreach demonstrated “the average student…completed the Biology I course with increased confidence in their biological evolution knowledge yet with a greater number of biological evolution misconceptions and, therefore, less competency in the subject.”

The study, conducted by Tony Yates and Edmund Marek, tested biology teachers and students in 32 Oklahoma public high schools via a survey the pair called “the Biological Evolution Literacy Survey.” The survey was administered to the teachers first, to get a benchmark of their grasp of evolutionary theory. The survey was then administered twice to the students — once before they took the required Biology I course, and once after they had completed it.

Yates and Marek found that prior to instruction, students possessed 4,812 misconceptions about evolutionary theory; after they completed the Biology I course, they possessed 5,072. Of the 475 students surveyed, only 216 decreased the number of misconceptions they believed, as opposed to 259 who had more of them when they finished the course than before they took it.

“There is little doubt,” they argued, “that teachers may serve as sources of biological evolution-related misconceptions or, at the very least, propagators of existing misconceptions.”

A perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect as the kids think they understand it when they don’t. Creationism, at least partly explained.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    eric

    The teachers were self-selected (i.e. they took volunteers) first, then their students were used in the survey. So I would not necessarily trust that these results reflected “average” OK HS biology class performance. All it would take to produce a big skew would be for creationism-friendly teachers to have more desire to participate in the study than good biology teachers.

    I can believe that’s exactly what happened. The survey data itself seems to support that the volunteer cohort consists of teachers that didn’t spend much time learning evolution and don’t spend much time teaching it: only about 9% of them say their college biology heavily emphasized evolution, and over half of the participating teacher say they spend less than 5 hours per semester (!!!) teaching it.

    Table 6 also seems to indicate that the teachers increased their ignorance after the course about as much as the students did. Which is a somewhat nonsensical result (unless they were all first year teachers), and proably means that the evolution questions were not worded in a way that was easy to understand.

  2. 2
    corwyn

    a greater number of biological evolution misconceptions and, therefore, less competency in the subject.

    This seems like a really terrible measure of knowledge. for example If everyone started with a single misconception (say, the son goes around the earth) and ended with a number of different ones (say, the the earth went around the sun in 364, 366, and 367 days). They could well be more knowledgeable, but have more misconceptions. Not all misconceptions are equally bad, nor is a diversity of them more harmful than a single (shared) one.

  3. 3
    abb3w

    @2, corwyn

    Not all misconceptions are equally bad, nor is a diversity of them more harmful than a single (shared) one.

    Arguably, a shared is worse, since that would seem to tend self-reinforcing, while diverse incorrect views would seem to increase the chance of reflective reexamination.

  4. 4
    Minestuck

    I went to school in Oklahoma and I have an interesting experience. My teacher didn’t deny evolution; rather, she espoused that evolution is true and is part of the Lord God’s plan. As far as what she actually taught about evolution, I remember very little. We learned about mutations and we read about the case study of peppered moths in London. I don’t recall any of this being incorporated into a larger framework of evolutionary theory and so I wouldn’t doubt it if the students in my class left less educated.

  5. 5
    dmcclean

    @2 and 3

    Reading the methods, it doesn’t seem to be the number of distinct misconceptions that at least one student had, but rather the number of student-misconceptions.

    Also the earth does go around the sun in 366 sidereal days, so maybe that hypothetical student just misinterpreted the question. :) (Lopping off the same fractional part that you lop off to get 365 solar days.)

  6. 6
    lofgren

    A perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect as the kids think they understand it when they don’t. Creationism, at least partly explained.

    As non-expert in the Dunning-Kruger effect (and therefore trying to avoid its pitfalls to some extent), I’m pretty sure that your mention of Dunning-Kruger here is actually a perfect example of Dunning-Kruger, since this study doesn’t seem to actually present an example of it.

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