High School Biology Teachers Weaken Oklahoma Students' Grasp of Evolution

By Gabrielle Jonas on May 2, 2014 2:07 PM EDT

High school students feel more confident about their knowledge of evolution after completing their Intro Biology classes, but their confidence is misplaced.  Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc Copyright: Robert Kneschke
High school students feel more confident about their knowledge of evolution after completing their Intro Biology classes, but their confidence is misplaced. Courtesy of Shutterstock , Inc Copyright: Robert Kneschke

Oklahoma high school students had more misconceptions about evolution after they completed their intro biology courses than they did before they took them, a new study reveals. The teaching of creationism side-by-side with evolution may be the culprit, they said. The study, which appeared Wednesday in the open access journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, places much of the blame on the shoulders of teachers who bring creationism into the classroom.

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"Analyses revealed that students typically exit the Biology I classroom more confident in their biological evolution knowledge but holding greater numbers of misconceptions than they initially possessed upon entering the course," the authors concluded.

Tony B Yates, of Oklahoma Baptist University, in Shawnee, Oklahoma and Edmund A Marek, of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, surveyed 35 "Biology I" teachers and their 536 students from 32 Oklahoma public high schools during the 2010-2011 academic year. They administered a survey posing 23 biological evolution "misconception statements." Of the total, 259 students increased the number of their misconceptions; 216 decreased the number of their misconceptions, and the remaining 61 students kept the same amount of misconceptions. The students, in short, had 5.2 more misconceptions after the course than before, for a total of 5,072 misconceptions.

Another "disturbing" finding, Drs. Yates and Marek wrote, was that some students possessed a more accurate understanding of biological evolution before the biology classes than did their own biology teachers: Some students who entered their Biology I courses did so earning  a higher score than did their own teachers on the same survey.

"When biology teachers teach creationism, they often present creationism as an alternative to evolution," Yates told the International Science Times in an email interview. "There is little doubt that teachers may serve as sources of biological evolution-related misconceptions." These can last all the way to college, he said.

The study has implications for beyond Oklahama. "The results are consistent with other researchers who reported results from other states," Yates said. Indeed, other researchers have found that about one-fourth of Oklahoma public school life-science teachers place moderate or strong emphasis on creationism. And, a nationwide survey designed to test the understanding of evolution of more than 700 high school biology teachers in 2009 showed that the average teacher answered less than half the questions correctly.

Yates said he began his passion for identifying errors in the teaching of evolution began as a child on a farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle, becoming "intrigued by the seemingly endless adaptations these creatures possessed which gave them obvious survival advantages in their environments; the elongated ears of the Jackrabbit; the camouflage pattern and rattle of the Prairie Rattlesnake; the shape of the Cottonwood leaf." Later, he discovered Darwin's writings and became "fascinated by his theory of natural selection; such a beautiful, simple concept that explained how and why these marvelous adaptations had come to be abundant within the various populations."

As a former high school biology teacher, Yates said, "I discovered that students possessed what I thought to be an inordinate number of misconceptions concerning the subject." He began testing high school and college students' evolution knowledge base before and after coursework at his own institutions. "I continued this early line of research in order to attempt to determine the number and types of misconceptions of biological evolution students possess upon entering and exiting a Biology course," he said.

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