Evolution is a difficult concept for many students at all levels, however research from the Milner Centre for Evolution has demonstrated a simple cost-free way to significantly improve students’ understanding of evolution at secondary level: teach genetics before you teach them evolution.

Currently in the UK setting the two modules are taught in isolation often with long time intervals between. The team at the Milner Centre for Evolution hypothesised that since core concepts of genetics (such as DNA and mutation) are so intimately linked to the core concepts of evolution, then priming students with genetics information might help their understanding of evolution.

Improved scores by seven per cent

The researchers conducted a large controlled trial of almost 2000 students aged 14-16 in 78 classes from 23 schools across the south and south west of the UK, in which teachers were asked to teach genetics before evolution or evolution before genetics.

The students were tested prior to teaching and after. The five year study, funded by The Evolution Education Trust and published in the open access journal PLOS Biology, found that those taught genetics first improved their test scores by an average of seven per cent more than those taught evolution first.

Teaching genetics before evolution was particularly crucial for students in foundation classes, who increased in their understanding of evolution only if they were taught genetics first. The higher ability classes saw an increase in evolution understanding with both orders, but it was greatest if genetics was taught first.

The team also tested the students’ understanding of genetics and found that the genetics-first effect either increased genetics understanding as well or made no difference, meaning that teaching genetics first doesn’t harm students’ appreciation of this subject.

Simple cost-free intervention

Professor Laurence Hurst, Director of the Milner Centre for Evolution and lead author on the paper commented: “These are very exciting results. School teachers are under enormous pressure to do the best for their students but have little time to make changes and understandably dislike constant disruption to the curriculum.

“To be sensitive to their needs, in the trial we let teachers teach what they normally teach – we just looked at the order effect.”

First author on the paper Dr Rebecca Mead, a former teacher herself, commented: “It’s remarkable that such a simple and cost-free intervention makes such a big difference. That genetics-first was the only intervention that worked for the foundation classes is especially important as these classes are often challenging to teach. This research has encouraged teachers to rethink how they teach evolution and genetics and many schools have now changed their teaching practice to genetics-first. I hope more will follow.”

Acceptance of evolution

The team also looked at whether students in the study agreed or disagreed with the scientific view of evolution. They found that whilst the teaching of evolution increased acceptance rates to over 80 per cent in cohort examined, the order of teaching had no effect.

Qualitative focus group follow-up studies showed that acceptance is heavily conditioned by authority figures (teachers, TV personalities, religious figures) and the correlation between the students’ understanding of evolution and their acceptance of it is weak.

Dr Mead commented: “Some students reported that being told that key authority figures approve of the scientific evidence for evolution made a big difference to their learning experience. It would be worth testing alternative ways to help students overcome preconceptions.”

Milner Centre for Evolution

The Milner Centre for Evolution is a world-class research facility which bridges disciplines of biology, health and education. The Centre, part of the University of Bath, United Kingdom, is helping answer some of the most fundamental evolutionary questions of biology, and using this insight to find new technological and clinical research applications. Research into educational methods, and a novel outreach programme, is helping to improve public understanding of genetics and the importance of the process of evolution in all of life on Earth.

The Milner Centre for Evolution is named after University of Bath alumnus, Dr Jonathan Milner, who provided founding capital to establish and build the Centre.

An impressive 85 per cent of the University’s Biological Sciences research was judged as world-leading or internationally excellent in the recent independently-assessed Research Excellence Framework 2014.

Find out more about educational activities run by the Milner Centre for Evolution: http://www.bath.ac.uk/campaigns/get-involved-with-our-educational-evolution-activities/

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

The best way to get children to understand evolution is to teach genetics first The Conversation

“Last African dinosaur” discovered in Moroccan mine

Education research informs Scottish government

'Silent' mutations useful for medical diagnosis

Ground-breaking marks start of building work for new Milner Centre for Evolution