Newsportal - Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Biology teachers often fail to recognise misconceptions
Random changes that result in a survival advantage – the principle of evolution is not in line with our intuition and experience. Biology teachers are therefore often confronted with misconceptions among students. Only about half of the teachers recognise them correctly and can take appropriate countermeasures. This is the result of a survey of 182 pre-service, in-service, and biology teachers in practical training conducted by Tim Hartelt for his Master’s thesis under the supervision of Dr. Nina Minkley. The researchers from the Behavioural Biology and Biology Education research group at Ruhr-Universität Bochum call for special training for teachers. The study was published in the journal “Science Education” on 3 February 2022.
Purposeful thinking and anthropomorphism
“Cheetahs have become faster and faster because they have realised that it is necessary” – this statement should make teachers sit up and take notice when they teach the principles of evolution. Many students have incorrect ideas about it. They fail to recognise the principle of random variations that represent a survival advantage and instead assume that evolutionary processes are directed towards a goal, that a species has unchanging traits, that useful characteristics are inherited, or they anthropomorphise organisms by assuming that they act consciously. “In everyday life, such concepts are sometimes helpful, but scientifically they are inaccurate,” says Nina Minkley. “Teachers need to diagnose them in biology lessons and take targeted countermeasures, because they otherwise get in the way of a scientifically correct understanding.”
To find out how good biology teachers are at identifying and addressing such misconceptions, Tim Hartelt conducted an online survey in spring 2020. 182 pre-service, in-service, and biology teachers in practical training took part. They were confronted with statements from students about evolution and were asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with these statements. If they disagreed, they were also asked to indicate on what scientifically incorrect concept the relevant statement was based and how they would address it.
Teaching experience helps
“The study showed that the ability to diagnose misconceptions and deal with them appropriately varies depending on the level of education,” says Nina Minkley. Participants with no teaching experience in the topic of evolution correctly identified about half of the misconceptions. Experienced teachers diagnosed around 60 per cent, which suggests that experience helps to master this complex task. “We were surprised that many of the participants did not recognise the misconceptions at all,” says Nina Minkley. “Moreover, less than half would respond to the misconceptions in a manner that was constructive in terms of learning theory; failure to address them could lead to the consolidation of the misconceptions or even to new misconceptions.”
Based on the results, the researchers argue that teachers should receive special training to help them respond appropriately to students’ misconceptions.
Tim Hartelt, Helge Martens (Gresch), Nina Minkley: Teachers’ ability to diagnose and deal with alternative student conceptions of evolution, in: Science Education, 2022, DOI: 10.1002/sce.21705
Dr. Nina Minkley
Behavioural Biology and Biology Education Research Group
Faculty of Biology and Biotechnology
Phone: +49 234 32 29020
4 February 2022