Changing student misconceptions about evolution in introductory biological anthropology courses

Project No.
PI Name
Susan Johnston
West Chester University


Abstract 1

Changing student misconceptions about evolution in introductory biological anthropology courses

Presentation Type
Susan L. Johnston, Department of Anthropology & Sociology; Maureen Knabb, Department of Biology Josh Auld, Department of Biology Loretta Rieser-Danner, Department of Psychology All at West Chester University


There is considerable evidence documenting significant misconceptions about evolution among college students before and even after instruction in the life sciences, including biological anthropology. A number of factors appear to affect these misunderstandings, such as influences of alternative concepts about evolution, lack of understanding of genetics and its role in evolution, and inadequate pre-college education about evolution. A variety of pedagogical approaches to changing misconceptions have been tried, with mixed success; effort is still needed to determine modes of instruction that are most effective.


This projectメs goals are: 1) to design and implement a novel, lab-based curriculum, fully integrated with the lecture, to help students learn and apply evolutionary and bioanthropological concepts, with a major focus on addressing misconceptions about evolution; 2) to design and implement inquiry-based laboratory activities that will motivate and help students understand how to use the tools of biological anthropology and to apply them to solving problems of human evolution and variation using the scientific approach; 3) to disseminate successful approaches to the wider bioanthropology discipline and to other evolutionary sciences.


Students in introductory biological anthropology at West Chester University take pre- and post-course surveys that assess their understanding of evolution and level of confidence about the scientific process. Labs are structured with inquiry-based challenge activities that address key misconceptions and that engage students in using the scientific method. Three other institutions with more traditional instructional formats are also administering the evolution concepts survey pre- and post-course, as a comparison. This same survey was administered in the WCU course prior to implementation of the new curriculum and is being used as an internal ムcontrolメ.


Results to date suggest that, while students demonstrate significant improvement in understanding of evolution from pre- to post-course across the four curricular contexts, WCU post-course scores during the semesters of grant implementation were significantly higher than scores for the other institutions (p<.001 to p<.01 depending on semester). In the most recent semester, there was a significantly greater amount of change from pre- to post-course at WCU (p<.001). There is also clear improvement in post-course scores over time when comparing the grant implementation phase to the pre-grant phase at WCU (p<.001). We are in the third year of this project and continue to analyze formative and summative assessment data from the first two years. A lab manual has been drafted, and a website is planned through which laboratory activities with demonstrated success can be made readily available to instructors at other institutions.

Broader Impacts

To date we have given several presentations at professional conferences. Students in the WCU course over four semesters have experienced direct impact. Three external project advisors, biological anthropologists from the three collaborating universities, are assisting with dissemination of project successes. Biological anthropology is an area of under-recognized need and opportunity for this kind of curricular improvement effort in STEM education. There is also potential for broader impact in other biological sciences of demonstrating the effectiveness of laboratory experiences that target misconceptions about evolution and utilize molecular techniques to that end.

Unexpected Challenges

1) We expected the university to provide an appropriately-furnished physical classroom in the department's home building, but it ended up having to be located/constructed in a portable classroom building elsewhere on campus that was finally ready a semester after the project began; 2) the impact of changes in the general education program on class size (decreased enrollment), which we addressed by ensuring that the course received general education approval within a semester of the start of the new version of the program.


2015. SL Johnston, M Knabb, J Auld, L Rieser-Danner. Changing student misconceptions about evolution through an innovative laboratory curriculum in biological anthropology. American Journal of Human Biology 27:272-273 (abstract).