Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Seeing May Not Mean Believing: Examining Students' Understandings & Beliefs in Evolution

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Seeing May Not Mean Believing: Examining Students' Understandings & Beliefs in Evolution

Article excerpt

Evolution is considered a unifying theme in biological science (National Research Council [NRC], 1996). Evolution is such a powerful idea that its application to all grade levels can serve as a guide for instruction and curriculum alignment (Haury, 1996). Scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) stress the significance of evolutionary theory in biology and advocate teaching evolution in schools (Blackwell et al., 2003; Haury, 1996; NAS, 2008). According to Blackwell et al. (2003), "Without evolutionary theory, biology is divested of needed theme, coherence, understanding, and interpretation of relationships." Evolutionary theory provides connection among biological topics, accentuating the investigative nature of science and power of scientific discoveries.

The tenets of evolutionary theory have been at issue among scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, and the public since Darwin first revealed his ideas over 150 years ago (Brem et al., 2003). Today, teaching evolution in public schools continues to be viewed with disparagement by many in positions of power and decision-making. Throughout the U.S., state boards of education are making decisions that may eliminate or severely limit students' opportunity to learn about evolutionary theory. In Kansas and Oklahoma, the state boards of education have modified or removed evolution from the state objectives (McKeachie et al., 2002). The state of Texas reviews the status of teaching evolution in 2008 as they work to revise their state science education standards. Also in 2008, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board debated the acceptance of a science education Masters' degree program emphasizing creationism from the Dallas-based Institute of Creation Research Graduate School. These actions indicate an alarming trend that impacts the nature and quality of learning experiences that science teachers are able to provide for their students.

Notwithstanding such omnipresent controversy, evolution is a core theme underlying the biology curricula. Along with the science of evolution, removing evolution from curricula also eliminates the historical perspective such topics bring to the table. Dagher and BouJaoude (1997) support the need to maintain such controversial topics in science, contending, "Most of the revolutions in the history of science involved challenges to worldviews." Evolution makes clear the case that many new theories in science challenge current views and ways of thinking and, in so doing, exemplify the very nature of science as a discipline.

Though evolution continues to endure great public scrutiny, in the scientific community evolution is the key to understanding life. As stated by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, 2008),

   ... evolution is a core concept in biology that is based
   both in the study of past life forms and in the study of
   the relatedness and diversity of present-day organisms.
   The rapid advances now being made in the life sciences
   and in medicine rest on principles derived from an
   understanding of evolution.

Evolution is multi-purposeful, such that students may learn the science of what the theory states, the social significance of the theory, and its importance in understanding the very nature of science as tentative and dynamic. Evolution epitomizes what science is, meaning that the theory is supported by empirical, data-driven evidence and explanations (National Academy of Sciences, 2008). Clearly, new evidence in evolutionary theory has altered scientific understandings through time and will continue to do so as new discoveries and evidence are added to the existing knowledge base. But evolutionary theory also has implications regarding the way human behavior is interpreted, human notions of spirituality, and the purpose of human existence (Brem et al., 2003). It is important to recognize that spirituality and the philosophical purposes of life are separate aspects of human existence from the science of evolution, as they are not based on empirical data and evidence. Accordingly, "science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist" (NAS, 2008). For some, evolution may even serve to support religiously-based spiritual beliefs.

Despite evolution's societal infamy, biology teachers find that students enter their classrooms with little scientific understanding of evolutionary processes, but hold many beliefs about the theory. Students may accept the theory of evolution for example, or they may disregard it due to their personal religious and/or social beliefs. Some students may hold strong aversion to evolution, possibly impeding their acquisition of scientific understanding of the theory. In conjunction with predispositions about evolution, students may misunderstand what constitutes "scientific theory" in general. Students often view scientific theory as statement of fact and not as something that can change over time as new evidence comes to fruition.

Individuals' beliefs define how they view the world, which in turn can influence their learning. Sinatra et al. (2003), contend that beliefs can be defined as a subjective way of knowing. Therefore, beliefs may not be the reality of the world, but can be considered as personal reality. Because of its potential influence on learning, educators would be well served to better understand and consider how students view the world and what version of reality they hold upon entering the classroom.


Beliefs About the Nature of Science & Science Learning

Students' misunderstanding of what defines scientific theories, such as the case in evolutionary theory, may be an artifact of their view about Nature of Science (NOS) as a whole. Science is often described as a "way of knowing" (Lederman et al., 1998). It has been recognized that scientific ways of knowing are not the only way available to us (Smith & Scharmann, 1999). Science is socially situated and dependent upon the questions, experiments, interpretations, and negotiations of the scientists in that discipline (Sandoval & Morrison, 2003). Science is intimately tied to the influences of scientists' beliefs and societal constructs. Based on the literature, NOS can be summarized as a framework for what science is and, importantly, how science finds and defines the extent of knowledge inspiring this framework at any given time in history.

Science education has long emphasized science as the vehicle for promoting among students, the ability to reason and think (Education Policies Commission, 1961). By acquiring understandings of science concepts and theories, and importantly, the "ways of knowing" that characterize NOS, our students can lead more responsible and fulfilling lives and become more scientifically literate citizens (Bell et al., 2003; Smith & Scharmann, 1999).

Research over the past few decades has emphasized the importance of students' beliefs in NOS in science teaching and learning, such that NOS now holds a significant position in the National Science Education Standards (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000; National Research Council, 1996). Beliefs about NOS are reflected in students' ideas of science, concepts that are considered scientific, and the processes of science (Davis, 1997). A study by Sandoval and Morrison (2003) found that students believed experiments were designed and undertaken to create answers to questions or that experiments were designed for scientists to prove their ideas as definitively right or wrong. Other students held beliefs that scientists want to be personally correct, science moves forward only through correct answers, experimental results are not objective, and theories are proven hypotheses (Sandoval & Morrison, 2003). In a study by Eick (2000), students believed that a theory became law if it was finally proven as correct. Students in this study had an overall simplistic and undeveloped belief about the nature of science. Bell et al. (2003), found that students viewed scientific laws as absolute knowledge and believed theories and laws were the same type of knowledge, differentiated only by the level of confidence in that knowledge. Such views indicate that students may misunderstand the meaning of theory. Scientific theory helps explain related observations and natural occurrences, and provides a framework for predicting future similar phenomena. Since theories help summarize scientific evidence and thought, such misunderstandings may have a distinct impact on what students can intellectually gain from science education.

Student beliefs about NOS provide a context for understanding how such beliefs may relate to their understanding and learning of the topic. Linn and Songer (1993) characterize student beliefs about NOS as being either dynamic and tentative, or static and fixed. Students who believe science is dynamic and tentative view science as a field that constantly changes and realize that scientific conclusions are made based on evidence and conjecture. Alternatively, some students view science as static and fixed, and/or as a collection of data and facts that do not change. Students who hold a static, fixed view also tend to believe that scientists always arrive, or attempt to arrive, at the truth (Linn & Songer, 1993; Saunders, 1998).

These categorical beliefs in NOS also seem to influence how students attempt to learn and understand science. Students who view science as dynamic or tentative see science as a topic that can be understood, interpreted, and connected with their understandings of the world. Students who hold the beliefs that science is static or fixed see learning science as something to be learned through memorization, and as completely divested from their lives (Linn & Songer, 1993). Results of a study by Davis (1997) indicate that students with fixed or static views of science are less likely to understand science and more likely to memorize facts than those students with tentative views of science. The beliefs of students as fixed or tentative also relate to how they view scientific evidence. Kardasch and Scholes (1996) found that students who believed scientific knowledge was tentative were more likely to view evidence as not arriving at exact conclusions, while students who viewed knowledge as fixed felt evidence usually leads to a definite conclusion (Sinatra et al., 2003). Because such research also shows positive relationships between students' beliefs about the nature of knowing, a predominant aspect of NOS and academic performance, it is posed here that students' beliefs about NOS may influence their learning and acquisition of scientific understandings.

Beliefs About Evolution & Student Learning

The Theory of Evolution is considered a unifying idea in the life sciences (Blackwell et al., 2003). Yet evolutionary science is a source of tremendous conflict and frustration among both students and educators because of the associated social and familial discord. Opponents of evolution cite ambiguity and disagreement within the scientific community about the reliability and processes of evolution. However, the modern theory of evolution offers the best explanation for the incredible variation of life and has been upheld despite intense scientific scrutiny. Perhaps overlooked by the general public is that areas of conflict among scientists on evolution do not center on the theory's broader aspects, but on the specific processes of change within the theory (Sinclair & Baldwin, 1996). These kinds of disagreements are common and form the basis of scientific discovery as theories continue to add and adjust knowledge and evidence to the framework.

Secondary school biology students have likely been exposed to some opinions about evolution from parents, religious leaders, or the media before entering the classroom. Media stories about evolution typically are sensational stories that deal with the negative impacts of evolution, such as relation to crime, addiction, or disease (Brem et al., 2003). This exposure has most likely helped form ideas and beliefs about evolution prior to formal biology instruction (Woods & Scharmann, 2001). Social and emotional preconceptions surrounding evolution may be further confounded by students' misunderstandings about the scientific aspects of the theory. Accordingly, to effectively and successfully teach evolution in our schools, the students' personal views of the world along with potential misunderstandings need to be understood and considered (Smith, 1994; Woods & Scharmann, 2001). With the likelihood that many students have pre-formed ideas about evolution, it benefits educators to examine their students' beliefs about the topic and explore how beliefs may be impacted by science learning. Musante (1999) emphasizes that evolution should simply be recognized by all as "good science." But, as Blackwell et al. (2003), note, evolutionary theory "remains a topic that will often require the penetration into a person's belief system prior to acceptance."

Beliefs about evolution are varied among students. Woods and Scharmann (2001) found that thirty-five percent of the students in their study accepted evolution, thirty-one percent did not accept any part, six percent accepted it with conditions, and twenty-nine percent lacked enough knowledge to make a judgment. Thus, the percentage of students accepting and not-accepting evolution was nearly equivalent. One of the most influential factors regarding one's beliefs appears to be religion. Religious beliefs seem to contribute to the variation in student beliefs about evolution. Religion is a very personal aspect of one's life, and beliefs in general are a very personal aspect of viewing the world, so it stands to reason that religion would be an influence on beliefs about controversial topics such as evolution. Data from the 1997 study by Dagher and BouJaoude points to the strong connection between religious affiliation and personal views regarding the theory of evolution. In general, beliefs were shown to interfere with students' ability to examine scientific evidence objectively, and the interference was even stronger when learned religious ideas went against the information being taught (Sinclair & Baldwin, 1996). Lawson and Worsnop (1992) found that a substantial portion of students held a belief in creation and related non-scientific beliefs before their study began. These studies highlight the notion that science and religion both serve as ways of knowing about the world, but do so from very different frameworks of understanding (Sinclair & Baldwin, 1996).

In teaching and learning evolution in the school classroom, it must be recognized that this is taking place "in a context that includes cultural, political, personal, theological, epistemological, and scientific influences" (Woods & Scharmann, 2001). These differing conceptual structures can coexist, but in general they seem to force students to make a choice between evolution and religious faith. Many times these beliefs influence students to place themselves in an either/or position in regards to evolution (Sinclair & Baldwin, 1996). These positions seem to fall in to one of two camps, evolutionist or creationist. Evolutionists would tend to believe that evolution is a process of change that is independent of the influence of any supreme design, while creationists would tend to believe that there is some supreme force directing the development of life. These differing beliefs can affect how students approach learning evolution.

Another characteristic of student beliefs about evolution is that students seem to struggle with the complexities of the theory itself. Certainly, evolution is a difficult and complex topic to learn, even when a person's beliefs are not in discord with the subject matter (Sinatra et al., 2003). Students also may not understand the unifying aspects of evolution, which can impact acceptance of the theory (Sinclair & Baldwin, 1996; Woods & Scharmann, 2001).

Regardless of extant misconceptions or preconceived beliefs about evolution, many students feel that it is a part of biology that should be taught. In a 2001 study by Findley, Lindsey, and Watts, eighty-one percent of students felt that evolution should be a part of the curriculum. Students in another study gave these reasons for the importance of the study of evolution: a) it is an important part of science, b) it is needed for future use/learning and, c) it can show us how humans may have evolved (Woods & Scharmann, 2001). Yet another study found that only a small percentage of students felt that they could never accept evolution, which indicates students might be willing to consider the validity of the theory (Blackwell et al., 2003).

Many students maintain that the theory of evolution is only speculative because it is just a "theory" and not a law (Dagher & BouJaoude, 1997). The notion that theory is equivalent to speculation indicates that students may believe evolution is a guess or an idea (Blackwell et al., 2003). They do not consider that the theory is based on scientific evidence and adherence to certain, albeit strict, scientific processes and scrutiny. Students who hold more complex beliefs about the nature of science tend to be more accepting of controversial theories like evolution because of their increased understanding of the processes by which scientific theories are established. A more sophisticated view of the nature of science may also indicate a likelihood of students' holding more positive beliefs about theory of evolution (Sinatra et al., 2003). Findley, Lindsey, and Watts (2001) found that when instruction on the nature of science was included in teaching about science, students overwhelmingly felt that evolution was not an uncomfortable or challenging topic. Another study found a strong relationship between beliefs and understandings of evolution when related to students' understanding of the nature of science (Cherif, Adams, and Loehr, 2001).

Science education currently has incomplete understandings of potential relationships between students' beliefs in NOS and evolution, and how these beliefs may be related to scientific understandings of evolution. Because of evolution's prominence in science education, curricula decisions, and the future of science teaching and learning, it is important to gain more information on teaching and learning evolution through research. This study attempts to contribute to the knowledge base surrounding evolution in science education by exploring interrelationships among students' beliefs about the nature of science and evolution, and their scientific conceptual understandings of this theory.


The purpose of this study was to explore patterns and interrelationships among students' beliefs about the theory of evolution and the nature of science, and their conceptual understandings of evolution. The specific purposes of this study were to do the following:

1. Examine the extent to which beliefs about NOS, beliefs about evolution and the understanding of evolution may shift from pre-instruction to post-instruction during an instructional unit on evolution.

2. Explore possible relationships among students' (a) beliefs about the nature of science, (b) beliefs about evolution, and (c) pre- and post-instruction understandings of evolution topics.

3. Investigate possible differences in students' understanding of evolution topics according to their NOS beliefs (fixed, tentative) and evolution beliefs (high, low).



This study was conducted in a suburban/rural high school freshman campus located in the midwestern part of the United States. The school is a ninth-grade-only campus located in a small city that is separate, yet also part of a much larger metropolitan area. The district is the largest in the county and enrolls a mix of rural and suburban students. The socioeconomic levels of students in the district range from lower class to upper middle class. The enrollment at the high school level is approximately 2200, with the freshman campus having 689 students. The ethnic composition of the freshman campus is 96.7% Caucasian non-Hispanic, 1.2% Hispanic, 1% U.S. Indian/Alaskan Native, .8% Asian/Pacific Islander, and .3% Black non-Hispanic.

The students in the study were those enrolled in three ninth-grade biology classes. The curriculum was general biology designed to meet state and national standards and benchmarks. The class focused on general science, cellular biology, genetics, ecology, and evolution. The text used in the class was Biology: The Study of Life, Schraer and Stoltze, 7th Edition (1999). This curriculum was used as the framework for teaching the subject of biology, with outside additional resources incorporated as necessary.


The mean age of the study's participants was 14.5 years. The total number of participants was 81, with 37 males and 44 females. Students enrolled in the freshman biology courses were high-achievers planning on attending college or pursuing other advanced education. Two of the participants were students with autism. They were academically qualified for the course and able to complete all included work.

Data Collection

The data was collected by having students complete questionnaires regarding their beliefs about the nature of science and their beliefs about evolution. A test, Understanding Biological Changes, was also given to assess their understanding of evolution. The questionnaires and the test were given before the study began to establish baseline data for students' beliefs about the nature of science and beliefs about evolution, as well as their level of knowledge of evolution. Following the questionnaires and the pre-test, a four-week instructional unit on evolution was implemented. At the end of the instructional unit, the same questionnaires about NOS and evolution beliefs were given to the students, as well as the same test about understanding evolution. The post-instruction questionnaires and test were used to examine possible shifts in students' beliefs about evolution and the nature of science, and in their scientific understandings of evolution over time.


The Science Knowledge Questionnaire (SKQ) used in previous research in science education (Cavallo et al., 2003) was adapted in this study to measure students' beliefs about the nature of science. The SKQ is a 16-item Likert instrument with fewer items than the original versions (Ryan & Aikenhead, 1992; Saunders, 1998). On the four point scale, students responded to questions about NOS by indicating one of the following: A = Strongly Disagree, B = Generally Disagree, C = Generally Agree and, D = Strongly Agree, which for analysis were scored as A = 1, B = 2, C = 3 and, D = 4. On the SKQ, a lower score indicated that students had a more "fixed" view of science and a high score indicated students had a more "tentative" view of science. The scores obtained thus represent what is termed students' NOS Beliefs.

Sample questions included:

1. Scientific knowledge is unchanging.

2. Today's scientific laws, theories, and concepts may have to be changed in the face of new evidence.

The Measure of Acceptance of the Theory of Evolution Instrument (MATE) was adapted and used to measure students' beliefs about evolution (Rutledge & Warden, 1999). The selected questions were used to determine students' level of acceptance about the theory of evolution. Two additional questions were added to the questionnaire to evaluate overall student perceptions of evolutionary theory. Question 17 was a negativelyphrased statement that says, "I believe that evolution is not the best explanation for the way the world and its organisms have come to exist in their current form. Question 25 is a positively-phrased statement: "I feel that evolution is the best explanation for how the world and organisms of today have come to exist in their current form." The concepts covered within the questionnaire included the age of the Earth, the processes of evolution, the ability of the theory to explain phenomena, human evolution, the methods of evolution, science as a valid as a way of knowing, and the status of the modern theory of evolution (Rutledge & Warden, 1999). The 22-item questionnaire is based on a five point Likert scale, with A = Strongly Agree, B = Agree, C = Undecided, D = Disagree and, E = Strongly Disagree, converted to numerical values for analysis. A high questionnaire score indicates greater acceptance of evolutionary theory, thus scores obtained were termed as students' Acceptance of Evolution.

Sample items included the following:

3. The theory of evolution is based on assumption and not valid scientific observation and testing.

4. Most scientists accept evolutionary theory to be a scientifically convincing theory.

The questions for testing students' understanding of evolution were taken from a test, Understanding Biological Change (UBC), Version B, designed by Settlage and Jensen (1996). Four additional questions were selected from the questionnaire used by Sinclair and Baldwin (1996). These questions were modified to match the two-tiered question format from the UBC test. The two-tiered format was most appropriate in this case due to the selection of the multiple-choice test as the tool for gathering data. By using a two-tiered test, students' reasoning for their responses could be revealed. Scores ranged from 0-20 on this test, with high scores indicating a high level of understanding of biological change. The scores from the UBC therefore represent students' Evolution Understanding.

The instruction for the unit on evolution was a combination of active inquiry and discussion to help students gain understanding of the theory of evolution and its supporting evidence. The content of the unit was based on the text, Biology: The Study of Life by Schraer and Stoltze, Seventh Edition (1999). The topics included the history of evolutionary thought, Darwin, evidence of evolution, and how evolution works through natural selection. Additional resources were taken from the Web site series, Evolution, 2001, produced by PBS, Station WGBH, (Retrieved 4-20-07). Several online and in-class activities were used to help students gain an understanding of the evolutionary topics of this course. A short introductory video for each topic from the PBS series was also used to instigate class discussion on the upcoming topics.

Study Design & Data Analysis

The study took place over a four-week period using a pretest, treatment, post-test design. Using a median split, students were placed into low and high categories based on their scores on the NOS Beliefs and Acceptance of Evolution instruments. For the NOS Beliefs, the students in the low-scoring group held a more static view of the nature of science, and the high scoring group held a more dynamic view of the nature of science. The low scoring group on the Acceptance of Evolution instrument held a lower level of beliefs in evolution and the high scoring group held a higher level of beliefs in evolution.


Examining Shifts in Students' Beliefs About NOS, Beliefs About Evolution & Their Understanding of Evolution From Pre- to Post-Instruction on Evolution

Data was analyzed using paired t-test analyses to establish if there were significant shifts in students' NOS Beliefs, Acceptance of Evolution, and Evolution Understanding from pre- to post-instruction. Table 1 shows the results of these analyses.

There was no significant change in students' NOS Beliefs or in their Acceptance of Evolution from pre- to post-instruction. However, there was a significant positive shift in students' biological understanding of evolution between pre- and post-instruction on evolution.

Exploring Relationships Among Students' Beliefs About the Nature of Science, About Evolution & Pre- & Post-Understandings of Evolution Topics

Correlation analyses were used to explore relationships between pre- and post-instruction of students' NOS Beliefs, Acceptance of Evolution, and Evolution Understanding. These data are summarized in Table 2. Significant positive correlations were found between students' Pre-Test NOS Beliefs and Pre-Test Acceptance of Evolution, Post-Test NOS Beliefs and Post-Test Acceptance of Evolution, and students' Pre- and Post-Test Evolution Understanding scores.

Investigating Differences in Students' Understanding of Evolution Topics According to NOS & Evolution Beliefs

Paired samples t-tests were used to determine possible differences in post-test scores on students' evolution understandings according to their NOS Beliefs and Acceptance of Evolution. The static/fixed groups for NOS Beliefs and high/low groups for Acceptance of Evolution were the independent variables, and Evolution Understanding was the dependent variable. Results are shown in Table 3. There were no significant differences in Evolution Understanding between groups according to NOS Beliefs or Acceptance of Evolution. It may be noted that the difference in Evolution Understanding between the static and fixed NOS Beliefs groups approached significance (p = .06) and may be worthy of further study.


This study sought to examine interrelationships and shifts in students' beliefs about evolution, nature of science, and their scientific understandings of evolution concepts. Results show that student beliefs did not change during the course of the instruction. This finding corroborates the literature that reports beliefs as deeply entrenched in one's persona and unlikely to change in a short period of time (Blackwell et al., 2003). Worth considering is that indiscernible changes or questioning in the minds of learners may have occurred, but such will either will be ignored or perhaps become more obvious at a later point in life. A future study should be longitudinal in nature such that data is collected several years after the initial introduction of formal instruction/learning about evolution. Future studies also call for qualitative or mixed methods research. One problem faced in research about beliefs in evolution is that students may not freely and openly express their opinions and beliefs due to the intense controversy and real or perceived judgments of others (parents, teacher). It would be useful to conduct this or similar research in other settings, such as urban schools versus rural schools in different areas of the United States where religious influences may differ. Results might reveal differing patterns in beliefs about science and evolution related to understandings of evolution.

Beliefs often begin to develop at a young age and can be very deeply ingrained by the time students reach high school. These beliefs are influenced by many factors such as family, peers, and religion. Students have a strong personal investment with these individuals, groups, and organizations who can influence their beliefs. These beliefs are likely resilient even in light of scientifically-based and logical evidence that may contradict such beliefs. In their study, Lawson and Worsnop (1992) found that student beliefs were very difficult to change. The current study supports Lawson and Worsnop's research with the finding that students' beliefs did not shift during the evolution unit, yet student understanding of the concepts related to evolutionary biology increased. These findings reveal that students may construct sound understandings of science concepts regardless of whether they believe in the subject matter they are learning.

Because of evolution's conspicuous place in the public arena, students may tend to hold their beliefs with an even greater resistance to change. Sinatra et al. (2003), found that an individual's ability to question his/her beliefs when initially learning about the theory of evolution could play a more important role than the actual substance of his/her personal beliefs. One goal of science education should be to teach students to inquire about the world around them in an objective manner. Beliefs can influence scientists, but to really push for scientific discovery we must sometimes question our personal beliefs. Questioning what we know and think does not necessitate that we change beliefs based on faith. Science deals in scientifically-obtained evidence that is to be purposefully laid out for scrutiny; as science educators, it is within our purview to promote and foster such questioning in the minds of learners. This can be done most effectively when science teachers themselves understand the nature of science, and teach in a way that is consistent with the discipline: discovery, inquiry-based, and student-centered rather than didactic and teacher-centered. Science educators have the responsibility to allow students to directly experience the scientific process, including the evaluation of extant scientific evidence.

The results of this study showed a positive relationship between students' beliefs about the nature of science as tentative and beliefs in evolution. In both pre- and post-evolution instruction, if students viewed science as a tentative process, they were also more likely to hold beliefs in evolution; the more the students viewed science as fixed and authoritative, the more likely they did not believe evolutionary theory. This finding reveals that confounding the controversy about evolution could be an under-developed understanding of NOS. For many, science may be considered a "subject" to learn or memorize, and as an authoritative source of knowledge rather than as something that is changeable and dynamic. By viewing science as a dynamic process, students may actually be more open to highly-charged scientific ideas such as evolution. This view carries over to other areas of education as well. When students view their current knowledge about the world as something that will change with new knowledge, perhaps they will become open to continued inquiry and questioning in every aspect of their lives.

The question remaining is do students need to believe in evolution for evolution to be taught in our schools? The prevailing finding of this study and in the evolution literature indicates that the goal of teaching evolution should not be to change one's personal beliefs. The goal is to help students understand and be able to practice the processes of science, to experience the tentative nature of science, and to logically and thoughtfully analyze scientific evidence, gathered today or throughout history, to support and/or refute any scientific theory.

High school freshmen will likely take several more science courses in which their cognitive maturity will increase as will their capacity to make their own logical arguments that justify their beliefs. Knowing that students' beliefs are unlikely to change even if their scientific knowledge does is useful information. Teachers should not be discouraged if beliefs have not been transformed in four weeks, or even after a year-long course, as long as there is confidence that students' understandings of science as a discipline and as a dynamic body of knowledge have changed. Educators cannot accurately predict the long-term effects of the experiences we provide students or the potentially-complex scientific understandings they may formulate at a later time in their lives based on these early experiences. These same students may develop new scientific insights and paradigms, with little notice given to the foundational understandings and thinking skills their high school science teachers once helped them form.

Scientist Albert Einstein stated, "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning" (retrieved February 9, 2007). This statement is profoundly important in today's world in which we are in dire need of a thinking, questioning citizenry, workforce, and leadership. Continued questioning and reflection must be a mainstay in our schools, as it is the only way the new generations will be prepared to confront, and subsequently solve the many challenges of our global society.


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ANN M.L. CAVALLO, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Science Education, College of Education, University of Texas Arlington, Arlington, TX 76019; e-mail: DAVID MCCALL is a science teacher at Howell High School, Ninth Grade Campus, Howell, MI 48843; e-mail:

Table 1. Paired Sample t-Test on Pre- and Post-Test NOS Beliefs,
Acceptance of Evolution, and Evolution Understanding.

Variable        Test        df   Mean      SD      t     (2 tailed)

NOS Beliefs     Pre-Test    76   42.75    5.50    -.54      .594
                Post-Test        43.13    3.85

Acceptance of   Pre-Test    76   66.66    5.56   -1.05      .296
Evolution       Post-Test        68.49   15.19

Evolution       Pre-Test    75    6.04    3.05   -7.25      .000
Understanding   Post-Test         9.66    4.23

Table 2. Correlation Matrix of Pre- and Post-Test Variables Used
in the Study.

                           Pre-Test      Post-Test    Acceptance of
Variable                  NOS Beliefs   NOS Beliefs     Evolution

Pre-Test                       --           .16           .28 *
NOS Beliefs

Post-Test                                    --           .13
NOS Beliefs

Pre-Test                                                   --
Acceptance of Evolution

Acceptance of Evolution

Evolution Understanding

Evolution Understanding

                            Post-Test       Pre-Test        Post-Test
                          Acceptance of     Evolution       Evolution
                            Evolution     Understanding   Understanding

Pre-Test                       .12             .11             .02
NOS Beliefs

Post-Test                      .22 (a)        -.16             .14
NOS Beliefs

Pre-Test                       .17             .12             .16
Acceptance of Evolution

Post-Test                       --             .03             .17
Acceptance of Evolution

Pre-Test                                                       .32 **
Evolution Understanding

Post-Test                                                       --
Evolution Understanding

* p < .05 (a) p = .05 ** p < .01

Table 3. Group t-Test Results on the Post-Test Means of the
Understanding Biology Test (UBC) According to Evolution Belief Groups
(Low, High) and NOS Belief Groups (Fixed, Tentative).

Group       Variable                  df    Mean    SD      t     Sig.

Evolution   Low Beliefs Group         73    9.14   4.10   -1.21   .23
            High Beliefs Group             10.31   4.24

Nature of   Fixed Beliefs Group       73    8.84   4.30   -1.89   .06
Science     Tentative Beliefs Group        10.63   3.92

Note: Levene's Test for Equal Variances analysis indicated that equal
variances could be assumed in these analyses.
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