In summary, research has established key variables that should be investigated and many possible beneficial interventions. But the research literature on evolution education lacks robust, causal, generalizable claims relating to particular pedagogical strategies and interventions. It also lacks measurement instruments that meet basic quality control standards and capture authentic disciplinary practices. Finally, the research lacks consistent application of measurement instruments across different populations. “This is a call to action,” said Nehm. “We need to gather and do a national randomized controlled trial of some of the most likely and agreed upon variables and test their causal impact on students’ learning of evolution.”
In his own research, Nehm and his colleagues have been studying how different groups, from novice to expert, think about problems.1 Using performance-based measures in which research participants are asked to solve evolutionary problems, they have looked at 400 people—including non-majors who have completed an introductory biology course, students who have completed a course in evolution, students who have completed an evolution course as well as more advanced coursework, and a group of biology Ph.D. students, assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors (Nehm and Ha, in preparation).
The study measured people’s ability to explain evolutionary change across a variety of contexts, not through multiple choice questions. In general, this technique revealed many more gaps in evolutionary understanding than would simpler assessments. For example, students have a harder time explaining evolutionary change (in writing or orally) than recognizing accurate scientific elements of an explanation when presented in a multiple choice test (Nehm and Schonfeld, 2008). Or, as Nehm put it, knowing the parts and tools needed to assemble furniture does not mean that you can build it. Students may have a lot of knowledge about evolution but not be able to use that knowledge to create a functional explanation. “This is a tough competency,” explained Nehm. “If you asked any of your students, and I encourage you to do this, ‘Can you explain how evolutionary change occurs?’ you will be startled at their inability to articulate their understanding because they are never asked to do that.”
In addition, people have a tendency to mix naïve and scientific information together in their explanations. Naïve ideas include, for example, the notions that the needs of an organism drive evolutionary change or
1 A summary of the general research on differences between novices and experts can be found in National Research Council (2000).