Teaching complete evolutionary stories increases learning

June 15, 2013

Many students have difficulty understanding and explaining how evolution operates. In search of better ways to teach the subject, researchers at Michigan State University developed complete evolutionary case studies spanning the gamut from the molecular changes underlying an evolving characteristic to their genetic consequences and effects in populations. The researchers, Peter J. T. White, Merle K. Heidemann, and James J. Smith, then incorporated two of the scenarios into a cellular and molecular biology course taught to undergraduates at the university's Lyman Briggs College. When the students' understanding was tested, the results showed that students who had understood an integrated evolutionary scenario were better at explaining and describing how evolution works in general.

The results of the research, described in the July issue of BioScience, are significant because evolution is not usually taught in this comprehensive, soup-to-nuts way. Rather, instructors teach examples of parts of the evolutionary process, such as the ecological effects of natural selection or the rules of genetic inheritance, separately. It appears that this fragmentation makes it harder for students to understand the process as a whole.

White and his colleagues note that "surprisingly few" comprehensive evolutionary study systems have been described, although the number is growing. The two employed in the BioScience study were about the evolution of sweet taste and wrinkled skin in domestic garden peas, and the evolution of light or dark coat color in beach mice living on light or dark sand. Students were tested on the beach mouse coat color scenario as well as on evolutionary principles in general. Understanding the beach mouse example was a better predictor of good responses to questions about evolution in general than was performance on the course as a whole. This suggests that improvements in evolutionary understanding came mostly from studying the integrated evolution scenarios.
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BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS; http://www.aibs.org). BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is a meta-level organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations. The article by White, Heidemann, and Smith can be accessed ahead of print as an uncorrected proof at http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/ until early July.

The complete list of peer-reviewed articles in the July 2013 issue of BioScience is as follows. These are now published ahead of print.

Toward a Mechanistic Understanding of Linguistic Diversity.
Michael C. Gavin, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Robert K. Colwell, Michael Dunn, Robert R. Dunn, Russell D. Gray, Kathryn R. Kirby, Joe McCarter, Adam Powell, Thiago F. Rangel, John R. Stepp, Michelle Trautwein, Jennifer L. Verdolin, and Gregor Yanega

Using Multiple Metaphors to Understand Human-Environment Relationships.
Christopher M. Raymond, Gerald Singh, Karina Benessaiah, Joanna R. Bernhardt, Jordan Levine, Harry Nelson, Nancy J. Turner, Bryan Norton, Jordan Tam, and Kai M. A. Chan

Incorporating Socioeconomic and Political Drivers of International Collaboration into Marine Conservation Planning.
Noam Levin, Ayesha Tulloch, Ascelin Gordon, Tessa Mazor, Nils Bunnefeld, and Salit Kark

Transdisciplinary Research, Transformative Learning, and Transformative Science.
Deana D. Pennington, Gary L. Simpson, Marjorie S. McConnell, Jeanne M. Fair, and Robert J. Baker

Quantity is Nothing without Quality: Automated QA/QC for Streaming Environmental Sensor Data.
John L. Campbell, Lindsey E. Rustad, John H. Porter, Jeffrey R. Taylor, Ethan W. Dereszynski, James B. Shanley, Corinna Gries, Donald L. Henshaw, Mary E. Martin, Wade. M. Sheldon, and Emery R. Boose

A New Integrative Approach to Evolution Education.
Peter J. T. White, Merle K. Heidemann, and James J. Smith

American Institute of Biological Sciences

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