Curriculum Article

Evolution: Education and Outreach

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 415-428

First online:

Using Avida-ED for Teaching and Learning About Evolution in Undergraduate Introductory Biology Courses

  • Elena Bray SpethAffiliated withCenter for Research in College Science Teaching and Learning, Michigan State University Email author 
  • , Tammy M. LongAffiliated withBiological Sciences Program, Michigan State University
  • , Robert T. PennockAffiliated withLyman Briggs College and Departments of Philosophy and Computer Science, Michigan State University
  • , Diane Ebert-MayAffiliated withCenter for Research in College Science Teaching and Learning, Michigan State University

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Evolution is a complex subject that requires knowledge of basic biological concepts and the ability to connect them across multiple scales of time, space, and biological organization. Avida-ED is a digital evolution educational software environment designed for teaching and learning about evolution and the nature of science in undergraduate biology courses. This study describes our backward design approach to developing an instructional activity using Avida-ED for teaching and learning about evolution in a large-enrollment introductory biology course. Using multiple assessment instruments, we measured student knowledge and understanding of key principles of natural selection before and after instruction on evolution (including the Avida-ED activity). Assessment analysis revealed significant post-instruction learning gains, although certain evolutionary principles (most notably those including genetics concepts, such as the genetic origin of variation) remained particularly difficult for students, even after instruction. Students, however, demonstrated a good grasp of the genetic component of the evolutionary process in the context of a problem on Avida-ED. We propose that: (a) deep understanding of evolution requires complex systems thinking skills, such as connecting concepts across multiple levels of biological organization, and (b) well designed use of Avida-ED holds the potential to help learners build a meaningful and transferable understanding of the evolutionary process.


Avida-ED Assessment Complex systems thinking Digital evolution Evolution education Instructional design