What Good Is It to Know Biology? Study Says: Not Much!

Are these freezing young sailors likely to catch cold?

Are these freezing young sailors likely to catch cold? (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Erika N. Manzano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The March 2015 edition of The American Biology Teacher features a research article by Alla Keselman et al., entitled “The Relationship between Biology Classes and Biological Reasoning and Common Health Misconceptions.” (ABT has kindly posted a free PDF of the article). Keselman and colleagues raise two questions: “First, do we have evidence that science knowledge … is useful in daily life? Second, does formal classroom instruction benefit daily living?” These are pretty huge questions, but the authors approach them in a limited framework: the personal health beliefs of college students. They recruited 74 students, of which about half were biology majors; the rest were nonscience majors. All of the participants provided demographic information and completed a “Common Health Beliefs Questionnaire” that the authors developed. The authors compared the two groups in terms of the accuracy of their health knowledge and the depth of their biological reasoning.

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.

References:

Alla Keselman, Savreen Hundal, Yulia Chentsova-Dutton, Raquel Bibi and Jay A. Edelman. March 2015. The Relationship between Biology Classes and Biological Reasoning and Common Heath Misconceptions. The American Biology Teacher, 77(3):170-175.

Hoefnagels, Marielle. 2003. Using superstitions and sayings to teach experimental design. Pages 325-327, in Tested studies for laboratory teaching, Volume 24 (M. A. O’Donnell, Editor). Proceedings of the 24th Workshop/Conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE), 334 pages.

Hoefnagels, M. H. and Rippel, S. A. 2003. Using superstitions and sayings to teach experimental design in beginning and advanced biology classes. The American Biology Teacher, 65(4): 263-268.

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