How to Teach Evolution in Schools and Universities

Ginelle Testa

Evolution is known to be a tricky topic to teach, especially in the US, often due to community religious beliefs. It’s important to teach sensitively but factually. It’s also crucial to teach evolution in high school/university because so many questions can be answered by the topic! 

According to PBS, here are some frequently asked questions:

  • How did we evolve from chimpanzees? 
  • Why do some species survive while others go extinct?
  • How can one species "turn into" another?
  • How old is Earth?
  • How long ago did dinosaurs exist?

We'll cover a few ways to explain evolution in class ranging from virtual labs to real-life scenarios.

6 Ways to Teach Evolution in the Classroom

1. Address misconceptions

Several misconceptions about evolution can be cleared up right away. For starters, according to Berkeley University, evolution is not focused on the origins of life. Instead, it’s mainly focused on what has happened after its origin. The second misconception that can be cleared is that evolution is merely a “theory.” Theories are often known as hunches, but there is much evidence to back up evolution. The last misconception we’ll mention is the idea that evolutionists claim that evolution is random. Although it’s true that chance and randomness do factor in, there are also patterns, such as the process of natural selection. 

2. Be sensitive to religious beliefs

According to a research study, religious beliefs are often obstacles to learning about evolution. “The religiosity of US college students has been shown to be negatively correlated with their understanding of evolution.” How do you address this? The authors of this study developed a “Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource” to aid teachers/instructors in sensitively teaching about evolution. One way they suggest teaching is by exploring why students feel opposed to it. They suggest opening up a dialogue rather than just shutting down the opposing views. 

3. Provide real-world examples

Evolution is such an interesting topic to teach because there are so many real-world examples you can share with students! A health reporter on Business Insider shared some examples, such as dogs. Labrador retrievers and poodle mixes are bred to create “Labradoodles.” Another frightening example is that bacteria have evolved to outsmart our antibiotics. Some of our infections are resistant to even our strongest drugs. What other real-world examples can you think of to share with your students?

4. Use virtual labs

Virtual labs immerse students in the subject matter in a way they’re familiar with: through a game. They progress through a storyline, learning all about the topic along the way. At Labster, we have six virtual labs on the topic of evolution. One is Evolution: Founding theories and principles, where students will explore the evidence that built the Theory of Evolution and the incremental genetic steps taken as one species branches from another. They’ll do this by looking at dogs!

Labster virtual lab on the theory of evolution featuring dogs

5. Utilize other sources/voices

It may be helpful for students to hear from people other than you, so they’re getting vast exposure to the topic. There are a variety of resources available to teach about evolution, such as videos, podcasts, and peer-reviewed articles. You can watch/listen/read them in class or assign them as homework. Hearing from a variety of sources can encourage students to grasp the subject. 

6. Provide classroom activities

Evolution can be an abstract topic, leaving students struggling to understand. Providing a variety of classroom activities can help them wrap their heads around it. Some examples are playing evolutionary telephone, trying to create creatures with favorable adaptations, and drawing a geologic timescale. 

Questions for consideration

  • In what ways do you teach evolution in your classroom?
  • Can you incorporate any of these suggestions into your teachings?
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