Relevance of Threshold Concepts for Understanding Evolution

Evolutionary theory is the integrative framework of modern biology and learning its essential tenets is widely considered a necessary feature of scientific literacy. However, research indicates that teachers and students still struggle with teaching and learning evolution, respectively, and have various alternative conceptions. Current research also displays learning difficulties with those evolutionary concepts that are strongly related to abstract concepts like randomness and probability, so-called threshold concepts. Until now, valid tools that assess students’ understanding of these threshold concepts to examine the relationships to knowledge and to the acceptance of evolution, as well as to investigate the effectiveness of educational strategies to support a conceptual knowledge of threshold concepts are lacking. Four empirical studies have been conducted as part of this dissertation project. All four studies focus on students’ conceptual knowledge of threshold concepts, particularly on the threshold concepts randomness and probability. Study 1 concentrates on the developmental process of two test instruments to measure students’ conceptual knowledge of randomness and probability in an evolutionary and mathematical context (RaProEvo and RaProMath, respectively). Study 2 examines the effectiveness of the simulation software EvoSketch for teaching and learning random and probabilistic processes in evolution. Study 3 deals with the question to which extent conceptual knowledge of randomness and probability is related to knowledge and acceptance of evolution. Study 4 investigates the effect of item features for students’ use of threshold concepts. Overall, using qualitative and quantitative methods, the presented dissertation provides new insights into the existing body of work on evolution education by developing a more expansive view of understanding (and accepting) evolution that encompasses aspects of threshold concepts.


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