Teaching genetics prior to teaching evolution improves evolution understanding but not acceptance

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

16 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

What is the best way to teach evolution? As microevolution may be configured as a branch of genetics, it being a short conceptual leap from understanding the concepts of mutation and alleles (i.e., genetics) to allele frequency change (i.e., evolution), we hypothesised that learning genetics prior to evolution might improve student understanding of evolution. In the UK, genetics and evolution are typically taught to 14- to 16-y-old secondary school students as separate topics with few links, in no particular order and sometimes with a large time span between. Here, then, we report the results of a large trial into teaching order of evolution and genetics. We modified extant questionnaires to ascertain students’ understanding of evolution and genetics along with acceptance of evolution. Students were assessed prior to teaching, immediately post teaching and again after several months. Teachers were not instructed what to teach, just to teach in a given order. Regardless of order, teaching increased understanding and acceptance, with robust signs of longer-term retention. Importantly, teaching genetics before teaching evolution has a significant (p < 0.001) impact on improving evolution understanding by 7% in questionnaire scores beyond the increase seen for those taught in the inverse order. For lower ability students, an improvement in evolution understanding was seen only if genetics was taught first. Teaching genetics first additionally had positive effects on genetics understanding, by increasing knowledge. These results suggest a simple, minimally disruptive, zero-cost intervention to improve evolution understanding: teach genetics first. This same alteration does not, however, result in a significantly increased acceptance of evolution, which reflects a weak correlation between knowledge and acceptance of evolution. Qualitative focus group data highlights the role of authority figures in determination of acceptance.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2002255
JournalPLoS Biology
Volume15
Issue number5
Early online date23 May 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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