Any scientist could tell you that the field of genetics is heavily tied to our understanding of evolution. So when we first learn about evolution in science class, why is it usually taught before we learn genetics? This is a question that piqued the interest of researchers from the University of Bath, who recently published a study in the open access journal PLOS Biology.
The researchers present a simple, cost-free strategy for significantly improving students’ understanding of evolution at the secondary level: teach them genetics before teaching them evolution.
The study was performed in the UK, where evolution and genetics are generally taught separately, sometimes with long periods of time in between subjects. Led by Lauren Hurst of the Milner Centre for Evolution, they hypothesized that starting students off with studying genetics might aid in their understanding of evolution, as core concepts of genetics (like DNA and mutation) are integral parts of our conceptualization of evolution.
Consisting of almost 2000 students in 78 classes from 23 schools in the UK (all students were between the ages of 14 and 16), the study asked some teachers to teach genetics before evolution and vice versa. Students were tested prior to teaching as well as after.
Over the course of five years, it was found that students who were taught genetics first improved their test scores by an average of seven percent more than those who were taught evolution first. Furthermore, additional testing on students’ understanding of genetics showed that teaching genetics first either improved their understanding of genetics, or had no effect.
“These are very exciting results,” says Hurst. “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.”
The information gained from this study has helped teachers improve the learning environment in the classroom, with no cost or added stress to their own teaching methods. “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,” says Rebecca Mead, the first author and a former teacher herself. “I hope more will follow.”
Image Credit: Miki Yoshihito, Flickr