High school students' understanding of human evolution

Year: 2013

Author: Seoh, Kah Huat Robin, Subramaniam, Ramanathan, Hoh, Yin Kiong

Type of paper: Refereed paper

Diverse alternative conceptions embedded in the minds of learners of biology impede their learning of evolution. Our study aimed to find out the acceptance level of the theory of evolution in high school students in Singapore, characterise how students describe human evolution, and measure the prevalence of common alternative conceptions (reviewed by Gregory, 2009) in the same group of students, through a survey consisting of several multiple-choice questions about their beliefs, as well as an open-ended question that allowed students to freely describe how humans have evolved. Student responses were first coded based on the grounded theory approach (described by Strauss & Corbin, 1998) and then sorted into categories primarily based on the work of Nehm & Ha (2011). The results revealed that a very significant proportion of the students doubted or did not believe in evolution. Context analyses of their open-ended responses revealed that students preferred to first describe the lineage or taxa of the ancestral organism, followed by trait polarity (both trait gain and trait loss), and subsequently describing trait types. For relatively short evolutionary time, trait loss descriptions were more frequent whereas for relatively long evolutionary time, trait gain descriptions were more likely. Certain types of alternative conceptions, particularly typological, essentialist and transformationist types of conceptions, were also found to be more prevalent in students' answers, suggesting that students firmly believed that all individuals of a population evolved simultaneously over time. These findings, which were in line with the findings of the literature, further highlighted that despite much work done in the education of evolution, students continued to develop alternative conceptions when attempting to understand the theory. As such, there is a need to revise textbooks, curricula, and lesson delivery in order to help students overcome their alternative conceptions.