Combined, the results of Wiles and Alters (2011) and the qualitative data reported herein have measured and examined changes in students’ evolution acceptance levels after an educational experience incorporating an inventory of factors identified as potentially influencing students’ acceptance of evolution (Wiles and Alters 2011). Furthermore, students’ perceptions of their acceptance of evolution and any changes therein were explored, and insight was sought regarding the factors which participants perceived to have influenced their acceptance of evolution. Wiles and Alters (2011) presented a thorough review of the prior literature on factors thought to potentially influence student acceptance of evolution (these factors are also listed in Carter & Wiles (2014)), and each factor identified was mentioned by at least some of the participants as having influenced their position.
Students who accepted evolution prior to the AGS course on evolution leaned heavily on evidence as the most influential factors, but many of them also cited their parents’ or other social acquaintances’ acceptance of evolution or the compatibility of their religious views with evolution as supporting factors influencing their acceptance of evolution.
Students who had become more accepting of evolution often discussed having become “more open-minded” about their religious interpretations or about evolution in general before they mentioned scientific factors like evolutionary evidence, and some of these participants attributed their increased receptiveness to new ideas to having been introduced to people whose views differed from their own. Perhaps this marks a decrease in their previous levels of the “Feeling of Certainty” (Ha et al. 2012) in their prior rejection of evolution. A few students listed factors related to critical or “logical” thinking or to the nature of science, the limitations of science, or “how science works”. These data suggest that religious factors, social factors and emotional factors, as well as students’ attitudes toward science and their understanding of the nature of science, are likely to be key factors involved in accessing the deferral of judgment regarding acceptance of evolution for which Pigliucci (2002, 2007) suggested science educators should seek. Factors related to critical thinking skills, epistemological views and cognitive dispositions are apparently similarly important, and perhaps, therefore, ought to be addressed prior to, and in preparation for, exposure to material on the scientific factors involving the evidence for and the mechanisms of evolution.
Students who continued to reject evolution largely reported that their positions were based on religious beliefs, which, aside perhaps from those that are directly tied to scientific misconceptions, lie outside of science teachers’ sphere of responsibility. However, even these students, given time, may eventually, and gradually, accept more aspects of evolutionary science, as in the case of Mitch, who has “decided” to “withhold judgment” pending further study. And indeed, it can take a great deal of further study to effect large-scale change in a creationist student’s level of acceptance of evolution, as described by Godfrey and Smith (2005).
Creationists who do transition to higher levels of acceptance of evolution apparently do so, at least in several instances described herein, through a series of concessions which are common across cases. These concessions include acceptance of older ages for Earth and/or the universe (whether through perceived “gaps” in religious accounts or through “Day-Age” interpretations), acceptance of “micro-evolution” and associated expansion of what that can include, and more flexible religious notions of what “God could have” done. These stages appear to coincide with various points along Scott’s (2004) creation/evolution continuum. The evolution of humans from non-human ancestors is apparently the most difficult aspect of evolutionary science for many students to accept, and it is often the final point of rejection among students who otherwise accept evolutionary science.
Finally, with regard to the widespread public rejection of evolution, it is reasonable to speculate that much of the general population’s misunderstanding of and subsequent resistance to evolution may well be due to how evolution is treated, or rather, is not treated, in public school science classes. Although many of the participants in this study reported satisfactory treatment of evolution in their schools, the frequency of reports from participants alleging downplaying, omission or even denigration of evolution by their science teachers is deplorable. But such practices are apparently not uncommon. These student accounts are consistent with previous reports about evolution education in Arkansas (Wiles 2006a), other states (Moore and Kraemer 2005; Weld and McNew 1999), and across North America (National Science Teachers 2005; Wiles 2006b, 2006c; Wiles and Branch 2008; Berkman and Plutzer 2011).
Additionally, there is a complex and individualized landscape of factors that students perceive to influence their acceptance of evolution. This likely reflects the varying blend of scientific concepts and naïve cognitive biases they draw upon in forming their understandings and positions, as Opfer et al. (2012) described. Although most of them referenced the compatibility of their religious beliefs and their parents’ positions on evolution as having had an influence, the majority of participants who accepted evolution ranked factors related to evidence most highly among those leading to their acceptance. The fossil record was the most frequently cited and highly ranked line of evidence reported, followed by evidence from genetics, comparative anatomy, observation of recent changes, developmental biology and biogeography. Participants who had become more accepting of evolution offered a similar list of ranked evidence, but were more likely to list having become “more open-minded” as the primary influencing factor. This change in cognitive disposition was largely attributed to perceived compatibility between science and religion or to social factors involving exposure to people with diverse ideas. Participants who rejected evolution were more likely to list “the Bible” or “religious beliefs” as the chief factor affecting their position regarding evolution, and the second most frequently and highly ranked factor cited by evolution rejecters was that they had been “taught” or “raised” not to believe in evolution, which is consistent with the findings of Woods and Scharmann (2001) that social factors were second only to religious factors toward rejection of evolution. When discussing evidence, these students were more likely to refer to their perceptions of its insufficiencies rather than having any value toward convincing them of the veracity of evolution.
Patterns and trends common among groups of participants emerged from the qualitative data. Among these trends it appears that students who accept evolution appeal more strongly to evidence than those who are unsure about or reject evolution; that students often appeal to their religion as a factor influencing their level of acceptance of evolution whether they accept evolution, reject evolution or are in transition; that students may have difficulty with the evolution of human beings even if they accept all other aspects of evolution; and that students often come to terms with evolution by revising what they believe “God could have done”. Other trends suggest that students who become more accepting of evolution may go through “stages” of changed acceptance involving acceptance of increasingly ancient ages for Earth and universe and expanding limits within which they accept that evolution can occur.
Within the scope of the investigations described herein and more quantitatively illuminated in Wiles and Alters (2011), it can be said that there were substantial changes in some participants’ evolution acceptance levels following a focused academic experience designed to incorporate an inventory of factors which were suspected to influence student acceptance of evolution. Furthermore, student reports confirmed that the suspected factors addressed by the course did indeed influence their acceptance of evolution. Should these results be further confirmed through future investigations, the implications are at once encouraging and potentially far-reaching. Further exploration of the relative influence various factors may have on student acceptance of evolution should be explored by means of standardized instruments administered to a much larger sample across student populations in varying geographic locations, institution types, academic majors and academic levels. This is line with the conclusion of Lloyd-Strovas and Bernal (2012) that future studies in the field of evolution education ought to “build upon each other and allow us to move beyond detecting patterns of association among constructs to investigating the causality of those relationships” (p. 464). Investigating these causalities is at the very heart of this study and future efforts which it will inform.
Finally, insight should be sought through further dialogue with students who are resistant to evolution and students who have been identified as potentially becoming more accepting of evolution. Conversations with such students may give teachers at all levels more insight into what methods may work and whether their efforts may impact these students, even if the effects may not be immediately manifest.