How well do grad students grasp evolution?

In my recent article on Understanding natural selection in E:EO, I reviewed a large number of studies that examined conceptions of evolution among students from the high school to undergraduate level, as well as among teachers. However, almost nothing seemed to be known about how graduate students in science perceive evolution or how well they understand it. At least, until a student and I did a study at our own university, which is now out in the journal BioScience.

Here’s a press release on it:

Science Students Could Brush Up On Darwin, U of G Study Finds

October 01, 2009 – News Release

Even students pursuing advanced degrees in science could brush up on their knowledge of evolution, according to a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

The finding reveals that there is room for improvement in how evolution is taught from elementary school up, said Ryan Gregory, a professor in Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology, who conducted the research with former student Cameron Ellis.

The study was published today in BioScience. It’s particularly timely, given that this year is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of publication of On the Origin of Species, which underpins understanding of the diversity of Earth’s organisms and their interrelations.

“Misconceptions about natural selection may still exist, even at the most advanced level,” Gregory said.

“We’re looking at a subset of people who have spent at least four years, sometimes even six or seven years, in science and still don’t necessarily have a full working understanding of basic evolutionary principles or scientific terms like ‘theories.’”

Many previous studies have assessed how evolution is understood and accepted by elementary, high school and undergraduate students, as well as by teachers and the general public, Gregory said. But this was the first to focus solely on students seeking graduate science degrees.

The study involved nearly 200 graduate students at a mid-sized Canadian university who were studying biological, physical, agricultural or animal sciences. About half of the students had never taken an evolutionary biology course, which is often not a prerequisite.

The researchers found that the vast majority of the students recognized the importance of evolution as a central part of biology. Overall, they also had a better understanding of evolutionary concepts than most people.

“That was encouraging, especially because it was across several colleges — it wasn’t just the biology students,” Gregory said.

But when the students were asked to apply basic evolutionary principles, only 20 to 30 per cent could do so correctly, and many didn’t even try to answer such questions. Of particular interest to Gregory is the finding that many students seem less than clear about the nature of scientific theories.

“This is telling us that traditional instruction methods, while leading to some basic understanding of evolution, are not producing a strong working knowledge that can be easily applied to real biological phenomena.”

Gregory has studied evolution-related topics for years and recently co-organized a workshop designed to improve how the subject is taught in public schools. He is also associate editor of Evolution: Education and Outreach, a journal written for science teachers, students and scientists. He recently created Evolver Zone, a free online resource for anyone interested in evolutionary biology.

He is also helping bring an evolution-inspired art exhibit to U of G this month. “This View of Life: Evolutionary Art in the Year of Darwin, 2009” highlights diverse artists’ views of Darwin’s ideas and evolution in general. It runs Oct. 9 to 30 in the science complex atrium.

Overall, the students did well on multiple choice questions, and their acceptance of evolution was very high. But it seems we could do a better job at providing students with the capability to actually use evolutionary concepts to explain phenomena.

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