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Measuring what students know and retain about evolution is essential to improving our understanding of how students learn evolution. The literature shows that college students appear to have a poor understanding of evolution, answering questions on various instruments correctly only about half of the time. There is little research regarding evolution understanding among community college students and so this study examines if those students who are enrolled in life science classes, who are assessed using questions based on grade eight standards, show a better understanding of evolutionary principles than younger students and if there are differences in knowledge based on course enrollment. The authors utilized a survey of 41 items of the Life Sciences Concept Inventory that were specifically designed to measure knowledge about various aspects of evolution that relate to the 5–8 grade science standards on evolution. They administered it to 191 adult students who were enrolled in nine sections across five life sciences courses at one community college in Southern California.


Results indicated that the students in this study possessed a fair understanding of evolution, averaging scores of nearly 70%, higher than what other researchers have found (using different instruments). Students enrolled in biology major classes scored significantly higher than those enrolled in non/mixed-major courses. There was a strong relationship between item difficulty and discrimination as well as difficulty and misconception strength. When compared with the 5–8 grade student data, the community college students showed a lower level of difficulty and higher levels of item discrimination, but the proportion choosing the most popular wrong answer (the dominant misconception), was comparable. College students showed similar patterns to the grade 5–8 students in terms of which questions and which material were the most challenging, despite performing better overall.


In this study, students possessed fair understanding of evolution. However, they were assessed with an instrument designed for 5th through 8th grade students. The results of this study support the need for more research into how community college students understand evolution and which factors impact that understanding.


This article was originally published in Evolution: Education and Outreach, volume 16, in 2023.

12052_2022_178_MOESM1_ESM.docx (18 kB)
Additional file 1: Sample survey questions.

12052_2022_178_MOESM2_ESM.xlsx (39 kB)
Additional file 2: Dataset of college student answers for each item on the assessment.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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