(e.g., Nehm & Reilly, 2007; Andrews et al., 2011). This literature
review summarizes the specific difficulties students encounter in
learning natural selection. This is particularly useful because the
misconceptions that students invoke as they think about other
topics, such as genetic drift and evolutionary development, are
often rooted in misunderstandings of natural selection (Andrews
et al., 2012; Hiatt et al., 2013; Price & Perez, 2016).
• Gregory (2008) and Meisel (2010). Being able to read phylogenetic trees is a key step in developing understanding of evolutionary relationships. It is also very hard. Without targeted
instruction many students leave college courses unable to interpret even simple trees (e.g., Novick & Catley, 2007). For example, students often think that the order of terminal nodes in a
tree indicates relatedness and so assume that two nodes that
are physically closer to each other are more closely related (Baum
et al., 2005; Meir et al., 2007). Gregory (2008) reviews accurate
and inaccurate ways to read phylogenetic trees and describes
common misconceptions. Meisel (2010) focuses on the two
most common misconceptions and suggests approaches to helping students overcome these challenges.
• Mead & Scott (2010a) and Mead & Scott (2010b). Terms used in
evolutionary biology often have different meanings in everyday
life. For example, scientists use the term random to refer to
unpredictability of a given event but students often interpret
random to mean purposeless or meaningless. In fact, it is common for students to think that random processes are not
important in biological systems (Garvin-Doxas & Klymkowsky,
2008). This two-part essay series highlights problematic terms
in teaching evolution and suggests research-based solutions.
Keeping in mind how the terminology we use might be heard
by students prevents inadvertently promoting inaccurate ideas.
Tip 4: Create Opportunities to Learn
from Your Students
What topics are particularly difficult for your students? Do you know
why they struggle? Pick a topic that you expect to be challenging and
that you would like to rethink in your teaching, and use your students as confidential informants to learn how they think about this
topic. You can learn about student thinking in class by asking all students to write a response to an open-ended question on notecards
(Angelo & Cross, 1993). A quick read through these cards will reveal
a wide variety of thinking and some patterns that you might not
anticipate. You can learn even more in conversations with students.
Invite students with a range of performance to office hours and ask
them probing questions with the goal of uncovering their thinking.
Some prompts that we find useful are “What do you mean when
you say...?” and “Tell me more about that.” It is also informative to
ask students to discuss how one concept relates to another. Try to
get a complete picture of what a student is thinking before giving
any feedback. You may be surprised by how much you learn!
Our work focused on cognitive components of evolution education
rather than work related to students’ beliefs, acceptance, and attitudes
regarding evolution. We recognize that such work can be highly valu-
able to instructors, but it was outside the scope of the research that
produced the searchable file. We recommend a recent essay that
presents a framework, reviews relevant research, and recommends
teaching practices to reduce perceived conflict between evolution
and religion and increase acceptance of evolution among students
(Barnes & Brownell, 2017).
We would like to thank Raheela Charania, Dustin Dial, and Nnaji
Emetu for their assistance with the research that made this essay
possible. Thanks to Allen Moore for reminding us not to make
unnecessary work for ourselves. We would also like to thank the
UGA Biology Education Research Group for constructive feedback
and support throughout this work. Partial funding was provided
by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
awarded to M.A.Z. (grant no. DGE-1443117). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views
of the National Science Foundation.
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sample of college biology courses. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 10,
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K.E., et al. (2012). Biology undergraduates’ misconceptions about
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