Sunday, October 04, 2009

Do Graduate Students Understand Evolution?

 
The other day I was discussing how to teach evolution with one of my colleagues and the discussion turned to the presumed distinction between students who were really interested in science and everyone else. My colleague claimed that students who were science oriented probably managed to acquire a good understanding of evolution in spite of the fact that some undergraduate courses weren't doing a very good job of teaching the subject.

I pointed out that my impression was different. I suggested that most Professors in our department don't have a firm grasp of one of the most fundamental concepts in biology (evolution), and neither do our graduate students. I reminded my colleague of the times when we cringe at graduate student presentations when the topic of evolution comes up.

Ryan Gregory must have felt the same way since he was prompted to do a survey of graduate students in science departments at Guelph University. The result is published in BioScience. You can read about it on Ryan's blog: How well do grad students grasp evolution?.
Here's the press release...
Science Students Could Brush Up On Darwin, U of G Study Finds

October 01, 2009 - News Release

Even students pursuing advanced degrees in science could brush up on their knowledge of evolution, according to a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

The finding reveals that there is room for improvement in how evolution is taught from elementary school up, said Ryan Gregory, a professor in Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology, who conducted the research with former student Cameron Ellis.

The study was published today in BioScience. It’s particularly timely, given that this year is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of publication of On the Origin of Species, which underpins understanding of the diversity of Earth’s organisms and their interrelations.

“Misconceptions about natural selection may still exist, even at the most advanced level,” Gregory said.

“We’re looking at a subset of people who have spent at least four years, sometimes even six or seven years, in science and still don’t necessarily have a full working understanding of basic evolutionary principles or scientific terms like ‘theories.’”

Many previous studies have assessed how evolution is understood and accepted by elementary, high school and undergraduate students, as well as by teachers and the general public, Gregory said. But this was the first to focus solely on students seeking graduate science degrees.

The study involved nearly 200 graduate students at a mid-sized Canadian university who were studying biological, physical, agricultural or animal sciences. About half of the students had never taken an evolutionary biology course, which is often not a prerequisite.

The researchers found that the vast majority of the students recognized the importance of evolution as a central part of biology. Overall, they also had a better understanding of evolutionary concepts than most people.

“That was encouraging, especially because it was across several colleges — it wasn’t just the biology students,” Gregory said.

But when the students were asked to apply basic evolutionary principles, only 20 to 30 per cent could do so correctly, and many didn’t even try to answer such questions. Of particular interest to Gregory is the finding that many students seem less than clear about the nature of scientific theories.

“This is telling us that traditional instruction methods, while leading to some basic understanding of evolution, are not producing a strong working knowledge that can be easily applied to real biological phenomena.”

Gregory has studied evolution-related topics for years and recently co-organized a workshop designed to improve how the subject is taught in public schools. He is also associate editor of Evolution: Education and Outreach, a journal written for science teachers, students and scientists. He recently created Evolver Zone, a free online resource for anyone interested in evolutionary biology.
He is also helping bring an evolution-inspired art exhibit to U of G this month. “This View of Life: Evolutionary Art in the Year of Darwin, 2009” highlights diverse artists’ views of Darwin’s ideas and evolution in general. It runs Oct. 9 to 30 in the science complex atrium.
Some of us know what the problem is. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to convince professors that evolution education has to change when most of them don't even recognize there's a problem because their own views of evolution are flawed?


16 comments :

  1. I'm not quite clear as to what Prof. Moran means by his assertion that many biologists have a flawed view of evolution. As I stated on a previous thread, I am reading Jerry Coynes' book, "Why Evolution is True," and it appears to me that he and Prof. Moran are at considerable odds as to the relative importance of genetic drift vs natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. Prof. Coyne appears to give very shrift indeed to genetic drift. However, as an outsider, perhaps I am reading something into this apparent issue that is really not there.

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  2. SLC says,

    I'm not quite clear as to what Prof. Moran means by his assertion that many biologists have a flawed view of evolution.

    Let's first take a simple example that illustrates the problem even though it's not fundamental to understanding evolution.

    How many scientists understand the difference between "similarity" and "homology" when referring to DNA sequences?

    If you still don't get it, then ask as many colleagues as possible whether they've ever used the term "lower organism." If so, get them to explain what they meant.

    If that doesn't convince you, then ask them to explain punctuated equilibria.

    Finally, ask them to think of a phylogenetic tree based on sequence similarity. Then ask them what mechanism of evolution is likely to be responsible for most of those changes.

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  3. Also to think a number of biochemistry/biophysics departments I know actively encourage those with chemistry, physics, or computer science backgrounds to apply. When they come in they do some catch up but usually it is taking a year-long biochemistry course. What grad courses do they take? Adv. biochemistry, biophysics, technique courses, etc. In the end they will have an advanced degree in a biological science without any sort of training in evolution.

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  4. The misuse of "homology" for "similarity" is a pet peeve of mine. It's embarrassing that I have to explicitly spell this out for our second year graduate students in molecular biology since they should have learned this long ago. I blame undergraduate education for too much focus on mechanistic detail and not enough focus on broad fundamental concepts.

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  5. To be quite honest, I don't think that any discipline would fare any differently than evolution if you were to take a poll of random grad students in that particular field. As a recent graduand, I can now admit that I was personally very disenchanted with grad school and the general quality of its students. It depressed me to note how many people were there simply because they 'didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives'. In my experience, profs constantly lament how students don't apply themselves, but on the flipside, no one is ever fired (no matter how incompetent) and many supervisors just aren't good managers (and admittedly, they're never trained to be).

    I don't want to lump everyone into a single bucket, but many of the students that I met during my training did little more than the minimum amount of effort required to get by. Those who actually worked their asses off stood out, got good postdocs, and are continuing on. It's not like admission to grad school is particularly restrictive, so I'm not sure why any of this would be shocking to anyone.

    Finally, I should note that my own experiences may not be the 'norm', but that's what I observed.

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  6. To be quite honest, I don't think that any discipline would fare any differently than evolution if you were to take a poll of random grad students in that particular field.

    That's a very accurate observation.

    And it naturally leads to what I was going to say even before I read your post.

    The ignorance about basic concepts of evolutionary biology among both professors who don't work directly in the field and graduate students is a problem but is a derivative of much deeper and more fundamental problems with the way our educational system and universities are set up. And I realize this is a pet peeve of mine, but you can blame all pf that on the all-pervasive anti-intellectualism in modern academia, one of the most prominent manifestations of which is the common education-as-a-preparation-for-the-workforce attitude towards both teaching and learning. With proper understanding of evolution being one of the least directly applicable things one can learn in a biology program it is not surprising that it is not on the top of the priority list of things to learn for most people.

    But again, that's only a consequence of most people thinking that they only need to learn what they "need to know" and the fact (OK, it's not a fact because there is not hard data, but there is little doubt what the results will be of a study on that) that it applies not only to evolution speaks volumes. If there is absolutely no incentive and no selection for people who have broad interests and natural curiosity and desire to learn, it is no surprise that you end up with people, even at the highest level who only know what is directly relevant to their narrow area of specialization...

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  7. I agree with Anonymous's comment on undergraduate education focusing more on mechanistic detail than broad fundamental concepts. The point in undergraduate education wasn't to examine how certain examples illustrated really important fundamental concepts, at least, that wasn't stressed. Rather, it was a game where being able to memorize and regurgitate could get you all you needed. It's not a surprise, then, that although I aced the most significant and introductory courses in biology, I had to go back to Talk.Origins several times in my senior years of undergrad to get a better understanding of evolutionary theory; and getting that better understanding of evolutionary theory had nothing to do with the courses I was taking.

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  8. I put together a 1-hour/week graduate seminar course that looked at some classic papers in evolution. I tried to select papers that illustrated basic principles, but also tried to include ones that corrected misperceptions (Gould and Lewontin's "Spandrels" paper, for example).

    We would read one paper each week and discuss it during class time. Several of my fellow grad students said it changed their thinking about evolution.

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  9. How many scientists understand the difference between "similarity" and "homology" when referring to DNA sequences?

    I'd say, nearly everyone! Once you explain the prevaling meaning of the terms, that is. Not a rocket science!

    But since you touched upon it, I'll comment. Beyond the simplicity to conform to definitions, there is a problem of tautology here: How do we unveil homology? - As a rule, based on similarity! So in too many cases the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy...

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  10. "I blame undergraduate education for too much focus on mechanistic detail and not enough focus on broad fundamental concepts."

    Wow, I'm a high school teacher and I make the same point at this level. I have a large proportion of students in grade 10[!] who could not list, let alone explain, Newton's Laws.

    This is true of most curricula I have seen. IB, AP, Ontario....

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  11. Nomes said: The point in undergraduate education wasn't to examine how certain examples illustrated really important fundamental concepts, at least, that wasn't stressed. Rather, it was a game where being able to memorize and regurgitate could get you all you needed. It's not a surprise, then, that although I aced the most significant and introductory courses in biology, I had to go back to Talk.Origins several times in my senior years of undergrad to get a better understanding of evolutionary theory; and getting that better understanding of evolutionary theory had nothing to do with the courses I was taking.

    I'm in the same boat. I'm a college junior and I would say the bulk of my knowledge of evolution is due to my reading books, blogs and sites like Talk.Origins on my own time. I've been reading all about drift and its importance to evolution and it's because I'm just curious; I certainly haven't learned about it in my coursework. It certainly doesn't help that the evolution course here has only been taught once so far in my three years here.

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  12. Dave Wisker, can you share the syllabus for your seminar with us? Or e-mail me: noaman.ali@gmail.com. Much appreciated.

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  13. the bulk of my knowledge of evolution is due to my reading books, blogs and sites like Talk.Origins

    talk.origins is not a site, it's a Usenet newsgroup.

    Your experience is 100% normal. Normal as in "common". Modern universities basically don't educate - they certify. "Better" universities are only better because they are able to get better students - the students that are attracted to their "betterness" and the prestige the future employers assign to the "better" universities' education.

    Apart from that, any Ohio State campus is no worse than Harvard ("real" education-wise). Frequently, better - because large proportion of faculty gives a shit about educating undergrads.

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  14. nomes asked:

    Dave Wisker, can you share the syllabus for your seminar with us? Or e-mail me: noaman.ali@gmail.com. Much appreciated.



    It's on a flashdrive at home. I'll email it to you.

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  15. Could I get a copy too? My e-mail is kelecable@gmail.com. Thanks!

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  16. @Dave Wisker: Me three?

    psi dot wavefunction at gmail.com

    Thanks! =D

    ---
    Yeah, I definitely ain't learning too much in my undergrad, except for a couple small atypical classes. Although those tend to assume you understand the fundamentals, which taught in the massive cram orgies, thereby precluding you from properly understanding anything else. Sometimes I wonder if I'd have learned a lot more just by sitting at home with the institutional subscription access... besides, you have to relearn everything when you actually have to apply it in real lab/research context anyway.

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