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Strategies for Teaching Evolution in a High-Enrollment Introductory Paleontology Course for Non-Science Majors

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2017

Patricia H. Kelley*
Department of Geography and Geology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC 28403–5944 USA
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The high-enrollment introductory paleontology course, “Prehistoric Life,” taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington fulfills general-education life-science credit. Most students enter the course with little knowledge of evolution (90% are non-science majors). Some assume evolution and religion are incompatible, and as non-science students, they have little incentive to learn about topics perceived to threaten their faith. Nevertheless, such students need to be prepared to make informed decisions on public-policy issues related to teaching evolution. Five principal strategies have been effective in teaching evolution to such students: 1) creating a student-centered classroom in which active/ collaborative learning engages student interest and prevents them from tuning out a threatening topic; 2) building a foundation for evolution by fostering understanding of the fossil record and geologic time; 3) in discussing evolution, focusing not only on the evidence for and mechanisms of evolution, but also clarifying the nature of science and differentiating it from religion, reinforcing that science and religion need not conflict; 4) giving students the opportunity to respond in writing to one of the position statements on evolution available from professional societies; this approach helps students formulate their own views, reassures them that their religious beliefs are respected, and fends off potential hostility during class; and 5) cultivating evolutionary thinking throughout the course (e.g., discuss evidence for evolutionary transitions and role of natural selection in evolution of various groups). These strategies have been successful in fostering student learning about evolution as indicated by teaching evaluations, student attendance, and comments in student reflection papers on evolution.

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Copyright © 2012 by The Paleontological Society 

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