FIGURE 3-1 Misconceptions decrease with educational level but never entirely disappear (left), while mixed models of evolutionary change remain as common in advanced biology majors as in non-majors (right). The vertical scale on the left measures the numbers of key concepts and misconceptions used by respondents, while the vertical scale on the right measures the percentage of respondents using different kinds of explanatory models. SOURCE: Nehm and Ha, in preparation.

that putting pressure on animals will cause them to evolve. The mixing of naïve and scientific ideas is difficult to measure with multiple choice tests, but open response explanations can reveal the relative contributions of each category of information.

Of 428 people—107 from each group—the experts (the combined group of Ph.D. students, assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors) knew more key concepts and had fewer misconceptions (Figure 3-1). Some Ph.D. students still have naïve ideas about evolution, and occasionally a professor, although that was uncommon. People learn more about evolution as they take more courses, but a surprising number do not get rid of their misconceptions.

Moreover, as shown in Figure 3-1, up to 25 percent of the advanced majors who have taken an evolution course and other advanced courses still construct mixed models of evolutionary explanations that combine naïve and scientific ideas. The use of exclusively scientific models increases with educational level, but this use never gets above 60 percent of students in Nehm’s research. Furthermore, many students have only naïve ideas, although this percentage declines with educational level.


Research shows that novices tend to get tripped up by surface features of problems, such as the context, format, or details of a problem, rather than grasping a problem’s underlying structure. They think that similar problems framed in different ways are actually different problems,

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