The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)


Beyond natural selection: Exploring the role of non-adaptive reasoning in undergraduate students' evolutionary explanations

ELIZABETH P. BEGGROW and ROSS H. NEHM.

STEM Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, The Ohio State University

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Non-adaptive evolutionary causes, such as genetic drift, comprise an important element of explanatory models of evolutionary change for biologists, physical anthropologists, geologists and paleontologists, and yet science education research has focused almost exclusively on student ideas and misconceptions about natural selection. After instruction that includes non-adaptive causal factors (e.g., genetic drift), how do students construct evolutionary explanations? We used clinical interviews, open-response (ACORNS) and multiple-choice (CINS) instruments to investigate undergraduate students’ non-adaptive reasoning patterns. Data generated from the interviews and instruments were analyzed for use of key concepts, non-adaptive reasoning and naïve conceptions.

After instruction, non-adaptive reasoning was found to be very uncommon in students’ explanatory models of evolutionary change in both written assessments and clinical interviews. However, when non-adaptive reasoning was used by students, it was conceptualized in an expert-like way; that is, non-adaptive factors were modeled as alternatives to selection. Additionally, Pearson correlation analyses indicated that interview non-adaptive reasoning scores showed strong and significant associations with ACORNS non-adaptive reasoning scores (r = 0.75, p < 0.01), but higher non-adaptive reasoning scores were not significantly associated with greater key concept scores for the ACORNS (r = 0.04, n.s.) or higher CINS scores (r = 0.08, n.s.). Thus, non-adaptive reasoning appears to be a distinct facet of evolutionary thinking. Greater attention to non-adaptive reasoning in undergraduate science education is needed given how uncommonly students use it to explain evolutionary change and how necessary it is for students to gain an accurate mental model of evolutionary change.

This study was funded by The National Science Foundation, REESE grant number 0909999.

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