Most SimBio authors, myself included, come from biology research backgrounds, so it’s not good enough for us to feel like we’re creating great teaching tools – we want evidence! I’m proud to report a new paper, which shows how SimBio’s education research team studies and iteratively improves the effectiveness of our materials.
Darwinian Snails is one of our most widely used Evolution labs – last year it helped 35,000 students learn about evolution by natural selection. Darwinian Snails was originally written as part of a project (funded in part by the National Science Foundation) to explore better ways of teaching evolution through the use of simulations. As part of that project, we developed pre and post tests to measure student learning, and then recruited two dozen classes around the U.S. to participate in the research. As we reported several years ago (Abraham et al, 2009), the lab helped many students overcome several common misconceptions. Unfortunately, it did not help them overcome the most common misconception we identified – that mutations arise in response to selection pressure and in a direction that would help the individual adapt.
In 2012, we received an NSF cyberlearning grant that allowed our research team to revisit our Darwinian Snails lab. While our content development team worked on a tutorial-style version of this lab, we were able to focus extra attention on the section of the lab dealing with the role of mutations in evolution. We used principles from the biology education community, including explicitly confronting students with the adaptive mutation misconception, adding instant feedback, making some changes in the simulation, and incorporating new question types we developed as part of our cyberlearning research project. These changes were implemented in several iterative rounds of revisions, using the learning from each round to inform revisions in the next.
I’m happy to say that our extra research efforts seem to be making a difference. Our latest study, just published in Evolution: Education and Outreach with lead authors Jody Clarke-Midura and Denise Pope, once again shows that both the older workbook-style and newer tutorial-style Darwinian Snails labs are effective at helping students learn natural selection. What was especially gratifying is that our efforts to better address adaptive mutation paid off, and students using the revised tutorial-style lab are better able to overcome that misconception.
While this was a larger study suitable for publication (thanks to assistance from the NSF), we conduct smaller scale research all the time on our modules as we revise them, most recently with our Climate Change release this spring. We don’t always have the resources to rigorously check how effective our revisions were, but it sure is nice to see that when we do, the process works.
– Eli Meir, SimBio founder and author