The Relation of High School Biology Courses & Students' Religious Beliefs to College Students' Knowledge of Evolution

Article excerpt


We examined how college students' knowledge of evolution is associated with their self-described religious beliefs and the evolution-related content of their high school biology courses. On average, students entering college know little about evolution. Religious beliefs, the absence of evolution-related instruction in high school, and the presence of creationism-related instruction in high school were all associated with significantly lower scores on an evolution exam. We present an ordered logistic model that helps to explain (1) students' diverse views and knowledge of evolution, and (2) why college-level instruction about evolution of ten fails to significantly affect students' views about evolution.

Key Words: Evolution; religion; high school biology.


Although evolution is the foundation of modern biology, teaching evolution is often difficult. To appreciate this, one has only to look at recent polls. Most Americans--that is, our former students--reject evolution in favor of religious and other supernatural explanations of life's diversity (National Center for Science Education, 2010). Discrepancies in the acceptance of evolution by biologists and the general public have been attributed to a variety of factors, including ineffective teaching and the ongoing efforts of anti-evolution organizations such as Answers in Genesis. Students entering college have based their views of evolution on many of these influences, not just those that are scientifically valid. This helps to explain why creationism is so prevalent among college students, including biology majors (Moore Comer, 2009, and references therein).

It is important for instructors to appreciate students' conceptions (and misconceptions) about evolution, for a key aspect of effective teaching involves engaging students at their initial levels of understanding (Bransford et al., 2000). If instructors fail to do this, students will memorize new information for the purpose of passing an exam but later revert to their original way of thinking; this explains why courses about evolution and the nature of science may increase students' knowledge of evolution, but not their acceptance of it (Nehm & Schonfeld, 2007, and references therein). If instructors are to help students better understand and accept evolution, they must link new information with resident information (Bransford et al., 2000). This requires instructors to appreciate students' views when they enter our classrooms. This is often difficult, for students do not enter college as a "blank slate" regarding evolution. On the contrary, college students have diverse views of evolution, ranging from "young Earth" creationism to philosophical materialism. With what are these diverse views associated?

Moore and Comer (2009) have shown that the content of students' high school biology courses has a lingering influence on their acceptance of evolution when they enter college. However, the acceptance of evolution is not the same as knowledge of evolution. Moreover, Moore and Corner (2009) did not address another important variable that affects students' views of evolution--namely, their religious beliefs. Many biology teachers base their views and teaching of life's history on personal religious beliefs rather than scientific evidence (Kraemer, 1995; Trani, 2004; Berkman et al., 2008). Do college students base their acceptance and knowledge of life's history on the same thing?

To examine how students' high school biology courses and religious views are related to their acceptance and knowledge of evolution when they enter college, we tested the null hypothesis that neither would have an effect.

* Methods

Study Population

During the week before classes, we surveyed students enrolled in several sections of an introductory biology course at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota. All the students had taken a biology course in a public high school. …