Faculty participants at our workshop identified factors at all levels of the ecological model that they perceive as barriers to teaching evolution, especially among highly religious students. Many of the barriers perceived within lower levels of the model are likely highly influenced by factors at higher levels, e.g., barriers involving student conflict likely arise from community norms and expectations brought about by religious influence. Faculty participants also identified potential resources at both the interpersonal and institutional levels of the model.
The primary internal factors perceived by professors and ministers to hinder student acceptance of evolution were at both the intra- and interpersonal levels. The highest cited factors were both pertaining to perceptions of students (interpersonal): student lack of knowledge and student ideology (Fig. 2), both of which would be highly influenced by community factors. This perception aligns with the previous idea that religious affiliation appears to be a significant predictor of acceptance levels (Charmaz 2014), which is heavily supported in the literature (Mazur 2004; Evans 2011; Keeter et al. 2012; Baker 2013). Some studies have shown that religious students are less likely to accept and understand evolution (Manwaring et al. 2015). Winslow et al. (2011) also found that in order to reconcile evolution with religious beliefs, students had to desire to develop a positive relationship between religion and science within their worldview. This emphasizes that student ideology may indeed be one of the critical predictors of evolution acceptance necessitating approaches that ease the tension between student ideology and the science of evolution. While addressing students’ lack of knowledge can increase acceptance of evolution, it remains ineffective if students are unwilling to change their mind (Winslow et al. 2011). Additionally, other studies have shown that addressing purely scientific misconceptions regarding evolution may be insufficient to increase evolutionary acceptance, even when those measures are otherwise successful in teaching evolutionary concepts (Sinatra et al. 2003; Walter et al. 2013; Rios et al. 2015; Dunk et al. 2019). Even though many of the professors and ministers viewed student lack of knowledge as a primary barrier, it may not be the most significant one.
While less commonly cited than student lack of knowledge and student ideology, intrapersonal factors, fear of conflict and fear of rocking the boat, were also identified as barriers by a number of institutions. However, the numbers are surprisingly low. This may be because professors and ministers underestimate the level of conflict students face regarding evolution (Barnes and Brownell 2016), fail to acknowledge their own fears about teaching evolution, or legitimately have no concerns about potential conflict within themselves or their students. Faculty falling into the last category may be overrepresented in our sample, since they signed up to come to the workshop and may therefore feel more comfortable with the topic of evolution, i.e., have less intrapersonal conflict. Previous research has suggested that fear of conflict and fear of rocking the boat are indeed significant barriers within the general population of teachers. Hawley and Sinatra (2019) found in an open discussion with teachers about their anxieties regarding teaching evolution that many teachers expressed fear of backlash from the community, administrative consequences, ostracism, and more.
Fortunately, there is an ample amount of literature demonstrating that faculty can address student fear surrounding evolution (Manwaring et al. 2015; Barnes and Brownell 2016; Lindsay et al. 2019; Tolman et al. 2020; Barnes and Brownell 2017; Truong et al. 2018; Bertka et al. 2019), and can increase student knowledge of evolutionary theory (Sinatra et al. 2003; Mead et al. 2017; Walter et al. 2013; Rios et al. 2015; Dunk et al. 2019), which account for many of the reported internal factors.
Not surprisingly, external factors fit into the outer levels of the ecological model including institutional factors, community factors, and even public policy. The results show that, of the external factors, the institutional factor of a lack of discourse around science and faith was most commonly mentioned. According to previous research, many instructors do not have adequate training or knowledge to discuss religion when teaching evolution, and thus spend less time addressing it (Barnes and Brownell 2016). This leads to a lack of conversation around evolution within the classroom if students are highly resistant due to religious reasons. Nehm and Schonfeld (2007) found that even with adequate knowledge about evolution, many instructors still prefer not to teach it. In their study, instructors attended a workshop to address teachers’ misconceptions with evolution. After the workshop, instructors had a significant increase in their knowledge of evolution, but not an increase in their desire to teach evolution. When instructors consciously make a decision to limit the teaching of evolution, an environment is created that leads to less discourse around science and faith in the classroom.
Additionally, many institutions listed politics as a concern, another institutional factor. Faculty and students may fear that the teaching of evolution may be incompatible with governmental, institutional, or religious views. Many students at religious institutions may believe that their church’s stance is incompatible with evolution, a community factor. In some religions, religious leaders have issued statements against evolution, causing students to reject the teachings of evolution further (Coyne 2012). Being a part of a religious affiliation that does not openly reject evolution may help students and faculty be more open to discussing evolution in the classroom. Furthermore, departmental culture and politics can obstruct professors from improving their teaching methods in general, including evolution units specifically. Many professors report a lack of administrative support as a barrier to improving their teaching; they may fear decreased ratings and lost opportunities for tenure if they explore different ways to teach evolution that end poorly (Sunal et al. 2001; Brownell and Tanner 2012). Brownell and Tanner (2012) have proposed that this may be compounded by the prevailing culture within academia that emphasizes research over pedagogy. Professors may feel pressure to publish at the expense of the quality of their teaching or may even feel that teaching is the less significant aspect of their occupation (Brownell and Tanner 2012). Developing faculty learning communities to facilitate student-centered learning at the departmental level could be an important step in improving biology education generally, and the teaching of evolution specifically (Elliott et al. 2016). Many professors, however, also fear political backlash at the community level (Hawley and Sinatra 2019). While improving departmental culture may not directly be able to offset all aspects of political backlash, it may be a vital step in arming professors with the knowledge and confidence they need to develop effective evolution units within their courses.
Another institutional barrier when teaching evolution is the mixed messages to students. This could stem from issues within the curriculum, or even with intrapersonal conflict within faculty. According to previous research, instructors at more religious institutions may not personally believe their religious beliefs are compatible with evolution, thus leading to a lack of teaching (Barnes and Brownell 2016). Additionally, many of these instructors believe that the religious beliefs of the students may not be compatible with evolution, and thus they shy away from teaching evolution altogether (Barnes and Brownell 2016). Another study examined undergraduate biology instructors and found that in order to maintain their high level of professional identity, many instructors preferred to focus on research rather than teaching (Brownell and Tanner 2012). Instructors were less likely to change the way they taught, even in light of new teaching methods.
Students may also receive mixed messages during instruction from professors who differ in opinion. We have found anecdotally that many students have religion instructors who are anti-evolution, but biology instructors who are pro-evolution—students may then be left with mixed messages from professors regarding evolutionary theory. Lack of faculty involvement and collaboration could lead to many inconsistencies within teaching evolution and mixed messages to students.
Lastly, a fair number of institutions cited demographics as a concern, a factor exacerbated by the different community factors that would accompany such demographics. The diversity of religious beliefs was the main demographic concern when it comes to evolution discourse in the classroom. There is great diversity among Christian denominations and compatibility with evolution and their faith. The theology of denominations such as Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church is generally seen as compatible with evolutionary theory, whereas the Southern Baptist, International Circle of Faith, and Seventh Day Adventists theologies are not. Many other denominations’ positions on compatibility of evolution is unclear (Martin and Compatibility of Major U.S. 2010). But differences in beliefs were stated clearly by many leaders of each church specifically listed above. For instance, the Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, from the Roman Catholic church, stated, “What we mean by evolution is the world as created by God” (Strickland 2009). This statement is radically different from what the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated. He said, “Evangelical Christianity and evolution are incompatible beliefs that cannot be held together logically within a distinctly Christian worldview” (Elliott et al. 2016). These extreme differences can raise a challenge as instructors are developing a curriculum for students of various beliefs, even if they are all Christian.
Barnes and Brownell (2018) examined the difference between the religiosity of instructors and their students, and how this played a role in teaching evolution A significantly higher percent of students claimed to have religious beliefs compared to the instructors (Barnes and Brownell 2018). Many religious students assumed that their instructor was not accepting of their religious beliefs. Winslow et al. (2011) found that students at various Christian universities were in the process of reconciling their religious beliefs with evolution. Instructors who were more open to discuss religion in the context of evolution were able to help students better reconcile their beliefs. It is important for instructors to recognize the religious diversity within the classroom and create an environment where students with both secular and religious views can feel comfortable learning evolution.
While educators have little sway over institutional, governmental, and theological politics, and cannot change the student demographics, they can influence discourse (Sunal et al. 2001; Kreber 2004,2005), which could logically reduce mixed messaging to students.
Resources more commonly suggested by the professors and ministers included both interpersonal and institutional factors including curriculum, faculty as a force for change, and resources to negate conflict. These resources were followed by assets and collaboration with other institutions (Fig. 4). As noted in “Results” section, curriculum, an institutional factor, was the most commonly suggested resource. Currently, there are many different studies that explore unique ways to develop an evolution curriculum in higher education. Educating students about the nature of science has been shown to increase the acceptance of evolution (Cofré et al. 2018). Professors can enhance their evolution instruction by teaching students the nature of science before evolution units are taught (Nelson et al. 2019). They can also use a reconciliation model when teaching evolution to their students—this would not only change their curriculum, but will also help negate conflict (Barnes and Brownell 2016, 2017). In one study, four religious institutions presented potential compatibility between religion and evolution. The information presented on compatibility was affiliated with the university. Students showed significant gains in acceptance of evolution and did not dismiss their faith (Lindsay et al. 2019). This intentional instruction can help students reconcile their beliefs with the theory of evolution. In 2017, Barnes et al. (2017b) created a different reconciliation model at a public university that included readings on the compatibility of religion and evolution, timeline activities, evaluation of sources, and role models. This evolution module reduced the number of students who perceived conflict between evolution and religion by half (from 50 to 26%). With evidence from these studies, and many others, curriculum is one of the most important resources that schools need to nurture healthy discourse around difficult issues. Many professors indicated this on their posters, demonstrating their belief that curriculum can have a positive impact.
Another resource that was deemed as helpful was the interpersonal factor, faculty as a force for change. A network of faculty (within or outside of an institution) has been shown to be helpful (Sunal et al. 2001). Professors want to feel like they are making a difference and are able to overcome barriers as they work with colleagues. One way the professors can collaborate in regard to evolution is through faculty learning communities (FLC). FLCs have been shown to maintain the individual autonomy of professors, while also fostering collaboration and leading to an increase in student learning (Elliott et al. 2016). These communities could be helpful for professors to not only collaborate within their own department, but across disciplines (i.e., biology and religion departments). FLCs can be utilized with multiple institutions, but further research is required to understand how this would work in the context of evolution education. Curricula could be developed among multiple institutions in a similar format as FLCs.
While there is not much research on collaboration with other institutions, there is research that shows how beneficial it is to have a positive role model for students. Role models can help with negating conflict but could also be used in collaboration with other institutions to enhance learning. In one study, two guest speakers spoke: a devout Catholic male, who is a public defender of evolution, shared his own journey of reconciling science with evolution; the other speaker was a female ecologist and evolutionary biologist. She presented her work with microbial communities to showcase current research with evolution. These role models helped to provide possible positive role models for students to connect with and see that they can hold religious beliefs and defend evolution (Truong et al. 2018). Role models could also be faculty who help create a force for change. Holt et al. (2018) found that a role model had the biggest impact with helping students reconcile evolution and religion. Another study surveyed students through essays and found that they liked the authenticity and transparency of their professors who were straightforward in communicating their views on evolution and their religious beliefs, which created a positive relationship between science and religion (Winslow et al. 2011). Faculty can be a force for change by encouraging critical thinking, that will lead to transformative learning. This will help students challenge and grapple with the ideas that have been presented to them in their homes, school, and social life. Once students are able to engage with their thoughts, they are able to see other perspectives and reconstruct their own sense of self (Quinlan 2016). This idea of nurturing students with developing selves was found to be crucial for instructional success in a secondary science class, in regard to evolution (Scharmann and Grauer 2020). Other ways professors can have a positive effect on students while teaching evolution includes not forcing students to accept evolution and respecting students’ multiple viewpoints (Truong et al. 2018). Professors can be a force for change; students look up to their professors.
Curriculum and assets, which are both institutional factors and were commonly listed resources, are externally providable through grants and curriculum made publicly available. These resources can be procured much more rapidly than the cultural change necessary to help faculty be a force for change (Sunal et al. 2001) and the development of resources for negating conflict such as visiting authorities, or change in theology to a stance that is more accepting of science in general, and evolution in particular.
It is important to note that this study is qualitative in nature. While we include quantification, these are meant solely to help readers visualize what our respondents were saying. These numbers are not meant to imply that the responses of workshop participants are representative of science educators nationwide. Further research with a larger sample size, and more random sampling is needed to make these claims. Indeed, we call for further work to be explored in this area.