The impact of religious cultural competence on student acceptance and comfort learning evolution

Elizabeth Barnes
Assistant Professor
Middle Tennessee State University

Need: Evolution is the foundation of biology yet is one of the most controversial topics among undergraduates. Low acceptance of evolution remains a challenge and religious beliefs are a major factor that influence student acceptance of evolution. Ours and others’ past work has indicated that if instructors use Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education (ReCCEE), it may be able to help students of faith become more comfortable learning and accepting evolution. However, even though at least 61 studies recommend culturally competent practices in evolution instruction, only a third of these studies use data to support their recommendations and almost none of these studies use a pre-post measurement design with a comparison group of students not exposed to culturally competent practices. Additionally, there is currently no systematic and standardized way to measure the use of culturally competent practices. Notably, there have been no large-scale studies done to try to compare the efficacy of these practices in multiple settings. Inquiry and methods: To address previous limitations of the literature, we created a new survey to measure instructor use of culturally competent practices and analyzed pre – post instruction data from 6,719 students in 46 introductory biology classes. We used previously published surveys to measure student evolution acceptance before and after evolution instruction and comfort learning evolution after instruction. We used cognitive interviews, classroom observations, and Rasch analyses to provide validity evidence for the new measure of culturally competent practices. We administered this new survey to students after they learned evolution to measure the extent to which they thought instructors were implementing culturally competent practices while teaching evolution. We used general linear mixed models with course as a random effect to calculate the association of culturally competent practices with students’ post evolution acceptance (controlling for pre-instruction acceptance) and comfort learning evolution. Outcomes: We found that when students perceived that their instructor was not culturally competent and that they were negative towards religion, that these students were less comfortable learning evolution and accepted evolution less at the end of the instruction compared to students with more culturally competent instructors. We also found that when instructors were more culturally competent, and students perceived that the instructors gave them autonomy over their decision to accept evolution that this resulted in positive outcomes; students who perceived autonomy during evolution instruction were more comfortable learning evolution and more accepting of evolution at the end of instruction compared to those who did not. Finally, we found that when instructors were more culturally competent, and students perceived that they presented trusted religious messengers who accept evolution that this was associated with more acceptance and comfort learning evolution among students. Broader Impacts: These results reveal how instructors can influence student affective responses to culturally controversial biology topics. The cultural opposition to evolution is one of many disconnects seen between science experts and nonexperts. Understanding how to bridge this disconnect can help us understand how to increase trust in socially controversial science topics more broadly.


Sara Brownell, Arizona State University, Arizona; Rahmi Aini, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee; K. Supriya, University of California Los Angeles; Yi Zheng, Arizona State University, Arizona