One of the most important messages we can convey to our students is evolutionary theory’s role as an organizing principle across all of biology. To effectively communicate and reinforce this message, you can integrate evolution throughout your biology teaching, rather than isolating it as a discrete unit at the beginning or end of the semester. One approach would be to introduce basic evolutionary concepts at the beginning of the semester and then to refer back to these concepts in other units throughout the semester, so that students come away with the understanding that evolution helps explain phenomena in areas as diverse as respiration, photosynthesis, ecology, and human physiology. For suggestions regarding how to do this, see our sample intro bio syllabus. In addition, students at the college level are ready to begin to explore the many applications of evolutionary theory in addressing practical problems in medicine, conservation, and agriculture. These topics should also be integrated throughout the semester.
Though students at this level will have been introduced to the process of natural selection before, this topic is rife with misconceptions. Be sure to reinforce and review the four essential components of natural selection:
- Variation: All life forms vary genetically within a population.
- Inheritance: Genetic traits are inherited from parents and are passed on to offspring.
- Selection: Organisms with traits that are favorable to their survival and reproduction are more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.
- Time: Evolutionary change can happen in a few generations, but major change, such as speciation, often takes many thousands of generations.
Also, be aware of the common misconceptions that students may have picked up through prior instruction and tailor instruction to avoid and correct such confusions.
At the college level, students should be prepared to learn about mechanisms of evolution besides natural selection (genetic drift, mutation, and migration), especially the role of chance in effecting evolutionary change. They should understand how different mechanisms of evolution can operate simultaneously and how small changes in populations caused by these different processes can accumulate into macroevolutionary change over geological timescales.
In college, students should continue to be engaged in activities that reinforce the nature and process of science. This will help them differentiate between science and non-science, recognize the validity of evolution as science, and appreciate the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. To further emphasize the process and nature of science, you may wish to engage undergraduates with the primary literature through our Journal Club Toolkit and UC Berkeley’s primary literature translation project. To find resources for teaching these topics, visit the grades 13-16 teaching guide on our sister site, Understanding Science.