Practitioner Research Improved My Students’ Understanding of Evolution by Natural Selection in an Introductory Biology Course


Bruce W. Grant
Widener University
Chester, PA, 19013


Many undergraduates are challenged in their understanding of evolutionary biology because they harbor deeply held misconceptions about basic evolutionary concepts that are highly resistant to instruction. This paper presents results of eight years of practitioner research to improve my teaching and my students’ learning of evolution in an introductory biology course at Widener University. Since 2000, I have been using pre-, mid-, and post-course tests to assess students’ understanding of evolution by natural selection. For fall 2006, I made an extensive set of course revisions (both content and pedagogy) in response to results of 2000-2005 assessments. Among these revisions was a novel way of using student pre-test responses to identify and confront my students’ misconceptions about evolution and natural selection. This involved presenting histograms of their pre-test misconceptions in class, rearranging course content to systematically and explicitly confront and displace these misconceptions as “expert” knowledge and ways of knowing were transmitted, and having students reflect upon their learning. Thus, the students’ demonstrated misconceptions drove the course outline and methods of content delivery. Data from fall 2006-2007 indicate significant improvements in understanding of evolution by natural selection. I enjoin that practitioner research methods are highly effective means to articulate and focus research questions, design course interventions, and test hypotheses about the effectiveness of course revisions on student learning.


practitioner research, evolution, natural selection, misconceptions, formative assessment, pre-post tests, Dino Neck question


This project is part of the “practitioner research” initiative of ESA’s Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE, Warm thanks are extended to my long term collaborator on TIEE, Charlene D’Avanzo, who has provided many years of inspirational interaction. In addition, I thank Deborah Morris, Jason Taylor, Josh Riney, David Slingsby, Mike Mappin, Alan Berkowitz, Kathy Winnet-Murray, Chris Beck, and members of the TIEE Practitioner Research Team. I especially thank Chris Beck for stepping in as TIEE co-editor on V6, and from whose comments and stewardship this manuscript has benefited greatly. I thank Diane Ebert-May for introducing me to the “Dino Neck” question as well as the kind of thinking to understand how to use it. TIEE exists because of support from the Ecological Society of America, support from the National Science Foundation (NSF-DUE-0443714, DUE-0127388, and CCLI 99-52347), and most importantly from the vibrant and dedicated community of ecological educations who are the heart, mind, and spirit of ecological educational reform within ESA from which TIEE was spawned. Additional funding for my Bio161 practitioner research project comes from Math Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia (NSF DUE MSP-GP 0314806), and special thanks go to Steve Madigosky, who is the co-PI of the MSP-GP sub-award to Widener University.

I published a more extensive version of this paper commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Board on Science Education stemming from the workshop “Linking Evidence and Promising Practices in STEM Undergraduate Education” 30 June 2008 at the National Academies, Washington, DC. I thank workshop organizers Margaret Hilton, Jay Labov, Susan Singer, David Mogk, Cathy Manduca, and other workshop participants for insightful and encouraging comments on this project.

Lastly, my deepest thanks are extended to the 400+ Widener University freshmen who populated my Bio161 course since 2000 and who all agreed to participate in my research program (all components of which were conducted with the approval of Widener University’s Institutional Review Board), and to my Bio161 co-designer and co-teacher, Robert Morris.


Bruce W. Grant. March 12 2009, posting date. Practitioner Research Improved My Students’ Understanding of Evolution by Natural Selection in an Introductory Biology Course. Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, Vol. 6: Research #4 [online].