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Managing student conceptions about evolution using the integration of multiliteracies in the classroom.

Educators are increasingly looking to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as a means of enhancing student learning. The New Life Sciences (NLS) is a domain where complex and often abstract concepts must be communicated from a scientific perspective and understood by the student in terms of their underlying implications. This intervention study examined students' misconceptions about evolution and identified ways through which these misconceptions could be influenced by the use of ICT. The results of this pilot study indicate that pedagogically-sound use of ICT in the classroom can benefit student learning and dispel student misconceptions about evolution.


Teachers in today's society are responsible for a technology literate generation where computer use, digital TV, mobile phones, iPods, PDAs and the concomitant jargon are a fact of life. To keep pace with this generation of students, teachers need to understand these new channels for curriculum delivery and appropriately use them to improve student learning. These new multimodal methods of curriculum delivery, involving the use of print, visual and digital texts and often, but not always ICT are referred to as 'multiliteracies'. It is imperative for educational researchers to identify valid methods for practitioners to assist students to construct educationally accurate knowledge. Employing the theoretical framework of constructivism, this study of high-school students assesses the role of ICT as a tool to better engage students, assist them to understand complex concepts and deliver better outcomes.


Constructivism is founded in Piaget's concept that intelligence is comprised of the two interrelated processes of organisation and adaptation (Sobat, 2003). Constructivists theorise that students actively build their own knowledge and that this approach allows them to develop critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities (Sewell, 2002). As the processes of thinking, perceiving, and remembering (cognition) are better understood, there is a greater drive for change in curriculum delivery. Learning appears to be most effective when characteristics such as active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and connections to real-world contexts are present (Roschelle, Pea, Hoadley, Gordin & Means, 2000; Foreman, Gee, Herz, Hinrichs, Prensky & Sawyer, 2004). There is some debate about whether or not constructivism is relevant in the science classroom (Matthews, 2002). However, Lorsbach and Tobin (1997) are of the view that, in general, the study of science lends itself to a constructivist approach to learning. Scott and Branch (2003) outline the value of a constructivist approach to science education that enables students to work through alternative conceptions and understand concepts that are scientifically accurate.

The theory of evolution is critical in the study of biology. However, evolution is a non-intuitive concept, prone to alternative conceptions (Meir, Perry, Herron & Kingsolver, 2007; Jensen, Moore, Hatch & Hsu, 2007). Kuech, Zogg, Zeeman & Johnson (2003) argue that traditional methods of science instruction do not facilitate students changing any alternative conceptions they may hold. Sewell (2002) found that students' beliefs could be tenacious, and resistant to change, and furthermore, that it is important to identify misconceptions and, having clearly identified them, present students with information that directly conflicts with these misconceptions. Sinclair and Baldwin (1996) advocate that instructional strategies should be developed to present students with sound and objective evidence so as to provoke them to utilise critical thinking skills as they look at the alternatives. They also found that how students were taught was as significant as what they were being taught. Scott and Branch (2003) cite research on a constructivist approach that emphasises the importance of identifying a student's existing alternative conceptions about evolution. Thompson and Logue (2006) and Moore, Froehle, Kiernan & Greenwald (2006) along with others (Findley, Lindsey & Watts, 2001; Sinclair & Baldwin, 1996), advocate teaching evolutionary concepts in a nonconfrontational way so that students are able to view all sides of the debate and determine for themselves which theory is correct.

There is significant and continuing debate in educational circles as to the effectiveness and value of integrating ICT (Cuban, 2001; Roschelle et al, 2000; Eadie, 2001). Roschelle et al (2000) have suggested that some applications of technology can enhance learning and that technology can assist children to improve their learning efficiency and effectiveness. Several studies have investigated whether or not the application of technology can enhance student learning in the field of science (Kuech et al, 2003; Cepni, Tay and Kose, 2006; Turcotte and Laferriere, 2004), and several of them have utilised multiliteracies to assist in dispelling scientific alternative conceptions. Keuch et al (2003) argue that these new tools can assist teachers by promoting increased understanding in the science classroom and that if these digital technologies are applied in a pedagogically sound way, they can promote better understanding of scientific concepts. Rutledge and Sadler (2007) are of the view that the determination of the effectiveness of these new instructional strategies is an important challenge for evolutionary biology education.

Research specific to alternative student conceptions of the theory of evolution, and the potential for manipulation employing multiliteracies, including ICT, is not currently part of the literature. The objective of this action research project was to determine the efficacy of multiliteracies and specifically ICT in addressing alternative student conceptions about evolution. The research question was: Can the integration of ICT in the classroom influence alternative student conceptions about the theory of evolution?

Research method

The scope of this pilot study was limited to an Australian Independent School (AIS) and involved one Year Eleven Biology class of seventeen students for Term 3 2007. The school is a non-selective, K-12 private facility located on the outskirts of the Sydney metropolitan area. It has a variety of students from a range of cultural backgrounds, including a large cohort of English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The research class is a mixed ability class with a wide variety of students whose subject choices cover the full range from Art to Physics. The class includes extension, ESL and lower ability students.

The research was conducted in the course of the delivery of the syllabus topic 'The evolution of Australian biota'. Pre-testing was conducted in the form of a series of cartoons with an evolution theme (as per the four concepts of evolution outlined below) selected from several Gary Larson Far Side books (The Far Side Gallery 3 and 4, 1992, 1993, Warner Books, London). These cartoons were chosen to provide visual stimulation and to prompt students to think about the concepts involved. For example, students were shown two cartoons around the concept of natural selection (one being Larson's 'Bummer of a birthmark Hal' depicting a deer with a target birthmark in the middle of its chest) and then asked an open-ended question soliciting what they understood about the concept of natural selection.

Learning objects were then developed using a variety of ICT tools around the concept of evolution including natural selection and the non-scientific alternative theories e.g. creationism, Lamarck's theory and Darwin's theory. These were specifically designed to challenge the alternative conceptions that the researcher had identified in the pre-testing. These learning objects were then delivered in specific lessons to fit in with the overall curriculum timeframe and were structured around the syllabus dot points. Students subsequently sat a post-test (the same as the pre-test) to determine whether or not the alternative conceptions identified in the pre-test had changed.

The students were oriented with an initial lesson in the form of a podcast from ABC Radio National entitled 'Nature? Nurture? What makes us human?' The first specific ICT lesson was built using a tool called Exelearning, a simple Learning Management System (LMS) that allows users to incorporate different multiliteracies. Various components of the PBS website were incorporated including video and interactive activities around the topic of Natural Selection. The lesson was delivered over two one-hour sessions. The second ICT object consisted of students examining a paper on Darwin's travels in Australia (Nicholas, 2001) and critically analysing it to develop a mind map using a tool Inspiration. The mind map answered a series of questions and was delivered in the course of a one-hour period. Finally, a Web Dilemma was designed using a template that allowed students to assess both sides of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate and to draw some conclusions about the people involved, and the concepts behind the debate. This famous debate, conducted in 1860, was a crucial debate between the church and Darwin's supporters regarding the rights of the church to dictate the conclusions scientists could reach. Students engaged with this activity over the course of two one-hour lessons.

All ICT lessons and the pre and posttests were delivered using Moodle, an open-source, web-based Learning Management System. After the learning objects were delivered, students anonymously completed a one-page questionnaire to obtain their feedback on the role of ICT and whether it had facilitated the learning process.

Research findings

To provide a context for the identified alternative conceptions, it is necessary to outline Darwin's Theory of Evolution as it is taught in the Preliminary Higher School Certificate (HSC). In Year 11, students are taught the basics of Darwin's theory and also look at several non-scientific alternative theories such as creationism and Lamarck's theory. They then go on to study Darwin's theory, and evolution, in more detail as part of the Blueprint of Life topic in the HSC. As outlined in his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), Darwin's theory is based on key observations, and on inferences drawn from them. These can be distilled as a series of concepts that form the basis for Darwin's theory as it is taught to Year 11 Biology students:

1. Characteristics are inherited from parents and there is variation in sexually-reproducing species

2. Natural selection is the mechanism through which evolution occurs

3. Survival of the fittest

4. Gradual change of the population over time.

Pre and post-test analysis

The pilot group's alternative conceptions identified in the pre-test are categorised under the four concepts from Darwin's theory listed above. Of the 17 students, only 16 of the pre-tests were completed, but the 17th was uploaded blank. It is unknown whether the student left it blank deliberately or, more likely, uploaded the wrong file to Moodle. The non-attempts were from different students in each area. Of the 17 possible responses to the post-test, only 14 of the responses were included. One response was uploaded blank and two students appear to have corrupted their files so that, although the files were there, they could not be opened in MS Word.

Alternative conceptions about inheritance pre- and post-test

In the pre-test, students exhibited a general lack of understanding of inheritance. They said that an offspring's characteristics were 'often' or 'predominantly' inherited from the parents, 'another family member' or 'up the family tree', or that inherited characteristics were as a result of 'mutations', the parents 'choosing' particular advantageous characteristics to pass on, or the individual developing characteristics in its lifetime. There were also Lamarckian conceptions such as 'if the parents have certain characteristics within them their children have a greater chance of getting these characteristics as well'. One student expressed that inherited characteristics were 'also a habit that you may get from ur [sic] grandparents like i [sic] may have a habit of waking up early and getting prepared just as they did.'

In the post-test, student responses indicated that they no longer held alternative conceptions about this concept and could articulate clearly what it was about e.g. 'Inherited characteristics are those that are passed down from generation to generation. This could include certain traits or physical attributes such as eye colour or hair colour.' Another student expressed it as; ' this gradual passing down of inherited characteristics may eventually lead to the gradual process of evolution.'

Alternative conceptions about natural selection, pre and post-test

In the pre-test most of the students saw this process as almost altruistic, i.e. that natural selection occurs for the 'good of the species' and that it is a guided process that facilitates a 'better' species or that natural selection was a specifically selective process operating to eliminate the 'negative traits' in the gene pool to 'allow' the positive traits to be 'passed on'. Another common alternative conception was that adaptations occur in an individual's lifetime and that an individual will 'acquire' these characteristics in their lifetime through the process of natural selection. One student believed that the process of natural selection was a sexual one and that only the 'prettier ones will mate' and the 'uglier ones will die off'. He was talking about peacocks.

Although seven students still held alternative conceptions in the post-test, only one student still had the concept entirely wrong and was mistaking it for the predator/prey relationship. The student who had not answered this question in the pre-test (but had responded to other questions), did not really answer the question in the post-test but gave a set of information relating to the question. In all other cases where students still had alternative conceptions, they had provided better answers that were mostly correct.

Alternative conceptions about survival of the fittest, pre and post-test

The majority of the alternative conceptions in the pre-test were around the idea that the 'fittest' was the one that 'ran faster', was the 'strongest' or was 'harder to catch'.

Students were looking at the individual level as opposed to the species level and interpreting this concept as an individual animal's survival rather than passing genes onto the next generation contributing to the species survival. Some thought that the 'dumbest' were the ones to be eaten or that the predators were lazy; 'This shows that the 'fittest' animals or the harder to catch animals may have a longer survival rate due to the slower animals not wanting to run after them.' One student summed it up as follows: 'I believe that survival of the fittest means that in order to live or win you must be fit. The more fit you are the longer you survive. In rugby in order to win a game and survive it you must be fit as if u [sic] are not fit you will lose the game as the other team is much fitter and have survived longer in the game.'

The post-test indicated that this is probably the area that was least understood by the students where they had failed to grasp the concept of the 'fittest' passing their genes onto the next generation. Again though, these students were more correct in their answers and in general understood the concept, with the exception of the reproduction side. In general, these students had grasped the concept of the 'fittest' being those best adapted, although one student still talked about the 'fastest and smartest'. One other student still saw it in terms of predator/prey. However, this student then went on to describe the concept well in answering the inheritance question.

Alternative conceptions about evolution in general, pre and post-test

One of the most common alternative conceptions identified in the pre-test was around evolutionary relationships with students citing that 'humans were evolved from apes over a period of time'. Lamarck's theory was prevalent, with the concept of animals 'growing longer necks to reach higher leaves in a forest' cited as the process of evolution, and again the misconception that these changes occurred in an organism's lifetime. Others thought that evolution was a considered act either at the individual animal or the species level. Several students referred to the guided approach, citing that it was 'a combination of periodic predictable gene mutations, and mutations caused over a very long time by environmental factors, when the creature is adapting to changes in its environment in order to survive.' This particular student, however, then went on to talk about creationism as the 'non-scientific' alternative view. Several other students mentioned creationism in the same sentence as evolution, with one student attributing the process of evolution as 'God's creation'.

In the post-test, one student did not respond to this question and one did not really answer the question. Other than this, one student worded the answer poorly in so far as they talked about a 'change in an animal' occurring, but then went on to give a very good example of evolution. Two other students gave a good description of natural selection but did not refer to changes over time. Apart from these responses, all other students demonstrated a good grasp of the concept of evolution.

In general, the post-test identified that students did have a better understanding of Darwin's Theory of Evolution as it is taught in the NSW syllabus and had largely dispelled alternative conceptions in all areas. As Sewell (2002) found though, these original conceptions are stubborn and resistant to change, where there were still alternative conceptions, they were not as incorrect as they had been.

Post-research questionnaire

As the study indicates, students held fewer alternative conceptions and had a better understanding of the concepts of Darwin's theory at the end of the posttest. As to the efficacy of ICT, its specific role has not yet been established, in particular, whether lessons facilitated by this or any other means would have had the same affect on knowledge gained and alternative conceptions dispelled. To gain some further insight students were asked to fill in a short survey. All seventeen students completed the post-research questionnaire anonymously. Their results are as follows:

In answering the second question the students who answered 'yes' commented along the following lines: 'They allowed me to research specific areas of the course that I didn't understand, as opposed to having to do excessive work that I understood. It also helped from a motivation perspective as it was more engaging', 'Mind map we did. It helped because it was easier to learn visually. Instead of just using the textbook, it was good to have an alternative way to learn', 'Because I was doing it myself rather than having a teacher talk I was able to keep focused for longer' and 'The interactive way of learning was good to understand changes in the environment, for example the finch's [sic] on the island.'

The 'No' answers were 'It took a while to do and when you had to make mind maps on the computer etc. you focused more on using the technology.' The qualified answers indicated that although the students did enjoy this method of learning 'to a certain extent' and found positive aspects in the ICT lessons, they preferred a combination of styles and that ICT could occasionally prove 'distracting'.

In answering the third question, the 'yes' responses indicated that the students found the ICT lessons 'fun and interesting' and that they were more engaged and able to work at an appropriate pace. However, they generally preferred a variety of lesson styles. One student expressed it as; 'Breaking up the lessons will keep students focused. Some things, topics etc would not work well in this style of lesson but the internet can be a very helpful resource with visual learning stimuli as well.'

The 'No' responses indicated they preferred traditional lecture-style lessons without the 'distractions of the internet' and in one case, a student identified that 'This style of learning does not suit me personally.' The qualified responses indicated that they would like a few of these style of lessons but 'not too many because it is sometimes hard to concentrate on the information.'

It seems clear from these results that the students felt that, in general, they did benefit from the use of ICT. Quite a few responses indicated that a combination of styles would be the most appropriate and effective way to deliver the content. The majority however, felt they got some real value out of this style of learning, particularly from the mind mapping exercise. While ICT is not a panacea, it does offer flexibility that is consistent with the constructivist approach to learning.

Conclusions and implications for teachers

The results indicate that, with careful and considered integration of ICT learning objects in a pedagogically sound way, students can achieve a better understanding of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. In terms of constructivism, the student responses in the postresearch questionnaire reinforce the importance of allowing them to assess and integrate all aspects of a concept to construct a more scientifically accurate understanding of it. Using techniques such as mind mapping allowed students to organise the information in a meaningful way to them. Students generally indicated a positive view of this style of learning, although some did express difficulty in adapting.

As Scott and Branch (2003) cautioned, a constructivist approach to teaching evolution required careful preparation and consumed significant additional time in and out of the classroom.

However, as the learning objects can be re-used, this time can be considered as part of the start-up cost of this approach to education.

Although there were instances when students, while improving their understanding of Darwin's theory, continued to believe an alternative view in the face of a scientific explanation, in general, they had a better understanding of the concepts involved. The process of critically analysing relevant information via the WebDilemma and scientific document concept mapping with Inspiration, assisted students to dispel alternative conceptions that they held. Integrating ICT does take time if it is to be done in a pedagogically sound way, as Keuch, Zogg, Zeeman and Johnson (2003) found. However, if this is accomplished it can promote a better understanding of scientific concepts.

Limitations and recommendations

The following issues were encountered during this pilot study and should be considered by any practitioners seeking to implement ICT in the classroom. They can be grouped into three categories:

1. Issues with technology--There were problems with students uploading the pre- and post-test files into Moodle and a simpler way of processing these would be beneficial e.g. having the tests in Moodle itself, rather than as a separate Word document which then had to be uploaded. This would have avoided the issues of students loading up blank or wrong files, or corrupting their documents. In addition to this, as Moodle is in the process of being implemented in the school, there were issues with this technology in terms of student access, and with loading files from other software under Moodle. There were also issues with access to certain websites due to the school's network security, and problems with bandwidth for some of the streaming video. There were also problems with accessibility of computers although, to some extent, these were mitigated via the use of the laptops in the computer lab.

2. Issues with time--This was a significant issue to do with the Year 11 assessment schedule for all subjects, which is very tight in the three terms they have to complete the syllabus. When something changed therefore, there was a domino effect on other assessments. As the ICT lessons needed to be completed in a certain timeframe before their Yearly exams, there was a significant impact on the research schedule because other assessments were due in the same time window.

3. Issues with attitude--While this was not a problem with the pilot group, it is something that needs to be considered. The researcher attended the ICT in Education Conference 2007 in September and several of the presenters mentioned that the students sometimes developed a 'Mickey Mouse' attitude to the ICT lessons i.e. they saw them as technology for technology's sake and did not understand or realise the pedagogical value of the ICT learning objects. This can be overcome by effectively positioning the lessons within the syllabus to deliver specific outcomes.

This research was a pilot study for a larger research project, and was conducted with one class in one school, by one teacher who developed all the learning objects. It does however provide some insight into the issues and direction for future research in this area.


The author would like to thank Professor John Hedberg and Dr Wilhelmina Van Rooy of the School of Education at Macquarie University and the Principal of the school in which the research was conducted.


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Jenni-Lea Williams spent 20 years in the IT industry, working for companies such as IBM and Microsoft, before moving to teaching in 2003. She is a secondary science teacher at an independent private school in NSW. Jenni-Lea undertook a pilot research project to determine the efficacy of ICT integration in the classroom in enhancing student outcomes in science, in the final year of her M.Ed.
Table 1. Pre- and post-test analysis

               Alternative        Alternative
               conceptions        conceptions
                  a out          about natural
               inheritance         selection

Pre-test            9              15 and 1
Post-test           0                  7

               Alternative        Alternative
               conceptions        conce tions
              about survival     abo ev I tjon
              of the fittest      in general

Pre-test         15 and 1          15 and 1
               non-attempt        non-attempt
Post-test           10                 0

Table 2. Post-research questionnaire findings

Question                                     Yes          No

1. Do you think you have a better
understanding of Darwin's Theory             13           1
of Evolution now?
2. Do you think the ICT lessons          9 and 1 of
helped you to understand                the qualified     2
Darwin's theory better?                   responses
3. Would you like to have more of            11           5
this style of lesson in the future?

Question                               Maybe/Qualified

1. Do you think you have a better             3
understanding of Darwin's Theory
of Evolution now?
2. Do you think the ICT lessons               6
helped you to understand
Darwin's theory better?
3. Would you like to have more of             1
this style of lesson in the future?
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Author:Williams, Jenni-Lea
Publication:Teaching Science
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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