The results suggested that biology majors had slightly more accurate beliefs than non-science majors. Furthermore, not surprisingly, students who had taken advanced biology coursework were a bit more likely to use biological knowledge than “media/culture-based knowledge” in their reasoning. But overall, in the words of the abstract, “…the direct impact of college-level biology coursework on judgment accuracy was minimal.”
I wish the authors had provided more data. Table 1 in the article does list the statements from their questionnaire, and the narrative contains abundant statistics comparing one group to another, but the authors never show the number of students in each group who answered each question correctly. I would have liked to have seen that, for two reasons. First, it would have given me an idea of where to focus my teaching of viruses (which are amply represented in the questionnaire), among other health-related topics. Second, it would have dovetailed nicely with an experimental design activity I do in my nonmajors biology class. I published this activity years ago in The American Biology Teacher (see reference below); you can also find an abbreviated version as a free PDF in the Association for Biology Laboratory Education proceedings.
My activity asks students to design experiments based on common superstitions and sayings, including such gems as “If you swim right after eating, you will get cramps” and “If you go outside when your head is wet, you’ll catch a cold.” The point is to figure out how to design experiments to test these hypotheses, not to determine whether each statement is true. But the Keselman article has me inspired to modify my approach. For example, a class might begin with clicker questions based on statements from the Keselman questionnaire, followed by feedback on the accuracy of student beliefs, followed by the experimental design activity. Knowing which of the statements in the Keselman questionnaire are most frequently missed would help me refine the activity to focus only on the most important or widespread misconceptions.
And what of the article’s rather depressing main conclusion, that being a biology major doesn’t help much when it comes to health in daily life? All I can say is, “Yikes!” I sure hope the 74 students in this study do not represent the true state of college-level biology education. Regardless of the level of our students, though, this study is a good reminder that teachers need to explain why biology matters to student lives. A well-timed sprinkle (or dollop) of relevance not only adds interest to the class, it may also produce well-informed students who make good decisions about their health.
P.S. ABLE is a wonderful organization, with useful conferences and fantastic colleagues; if you teach biology labs, you should definitely check it out.