PS 82-85 - What do students really know about evolution? Measuring students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward evolutionary science

Friday, August 12, 2011
Exhibit Hall 3, Austin Convention Center
Sarah R. Bray, Biology, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY and Gary L. Bailey, CASNR/Classics and Religious Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE

National polls show that just over one-third of all U.S. citizens agree that living organisms have evolved due to natural processes. This number has remained constant for thirty years. More detailed knowledge of college students’ attitudes toward evolution may help instructors develop more effective pedagogies to address incorrect preconceptions about evolution.  We surveyed 91 students in introductory biology and first-year or senior seminar courses at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college in Kentucky.  The survey was designed to measure students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward evolutionary science, their political and religious orientations, level of education (generally and with regard to evolution), as well as their perception of their own sense of control in the world (internal vs. external locus of control) and God-mediated locus of control.  The introductory biology course (n = 20) was given the survey at both the beginning and end of the semester to determine whether instruction in evolution science alterered their knowledge and attitudes.  


We found that religious belief and political orientation were strongly correlated with both evolutionary knowledge and attitudes. Total evolutionary knowledge was strongly positively correlated with liberal political orientation (r=0.454, p < 0.01) and disbelief that God mediates personal control (r=0.494, p<0.01), while negatively correlated with social conservatism (r=-0.501, p<0.01) and statements like ‘religion answers life’s questions’ (r=-0.499, p<0.01).  Unfavorable attitudes toward evolution were strongly negatively correlated with evolutionary knowledge (total knowledge, r=-0.815, p < 0.01; correct knowledge r=-0.704, p<0.01), and positively correlated with incorrect knowledge (r =0.835, p<0.01). Pre- and post-semester surveys of an introductory biology course suggest that while instruction in evolutionary science modestly increased evolutionary knowledge (76.6% correct pre-term vs. 80.8% post-term, t=2.6, p<0.01), there was no change in attitudes toward evolution (t=1.66, p>0.05). Strong positive correlation between statements such as ‘If you accept evolution, you really can’t believe in God’ and negative evolutionary attitudes (r=0.707, p<0.01), suggests that students believe that commitment to religion compels them to reject science. We suggest that interdisciplinary teaching modules which directly address religion and science, historically and conceptually, might prove to be more effective than science instruction alone in helping students overcome their belief that science and religion are necessarily opposed.

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