Interview: Exploring the Impact of Biology Courses on Student Understanding of Biological Diversity

//Interview: Exploring the Impact of Biology Courses on Student Understanding of Biological Diversity

Interview: Exploring the Impact of Biology Courses on Student Understanding of Biological Diversity

2023-06-29T00:15:12-07:00 June 29th, 2023|Biology|

By Adyasha Padhi, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Sociocultural Anthropology ’25


Hannah Higuera, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Evolution & Ecology, and Dr. Laci Gerhart, an Assistant Professor of Teaching in the Department of Evolution & Ecology, have been working together to understand how college students think about animal diversity. The first biology course I took here at UC Davis was BIS 2B with Dr. Gerhart and Hannah and it was my experience in that class that inspired me to look deeper into our perceptions of animals, specifically as it relates to conservation. I sat down with them to discuss their thoughts on the topic and hear more about their research. 

Note: This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and cohesion but care was taken to preserve the interviewee’s original statements.

Adyasha Padhi: Could you introduce yourselves? 

Hannah Higuera: Hi, my name is Hannah Higuera. I am a Ph.D. student in the Evolution & Ecology department [at the University of California, Davis] and really excited to be working on this project with Laci. So both of us have been teaching BIS 2B, her as an instructor and me as a Teacher’s Assistant. I’ve been teaching BIS 2B for the last several years and I’ve noticed that students have certain misconceptions about animals and animal diversity. So the idea from this project came out of trying to better understand how college students think about animals because there’s a lot of literature on how younger students, like K-12 populations think about animals, but not so much about how college students or biology majors think about animals.

Laci Gerhart: I’m Laci Gerhart. I’m an Assistant Professor of teaching in Evolution & Ecology. So Hannah and I got together on this project because she was proposing doing this as part of her dissertation. So we talked about various ideas and then I was brought in on her committee to advise on this project specifically. So there are a couple of prongs to this project. The one that’s furthest along is looking at some of the instructional materials and how biased they are, kind of as a guide to inform what might be driving some of the biases. Then the biggest dataset is the survey project where we send surveys out to all of the students in the Introductory Biology series (BIS 002) and a couple of more specific elective courses to get a sense of students’ perceptions on this as they enter a class. And then if and how different types of classes shift the needle and how that happens across a series of courses. One of the cool pieces of this was because we did it through one whole academic year, there were a small number of students that we caught across the entire Bis 2 series. So we could look at how their perspective has progressed long-term across the entire introductory series.

AP: What initially got you into this research? What has the research shown about younger students’ perspectives on animal diversity and how can that impact more work down the line?

HH: I think a lot of my interest in this research came out of recognizing my own biases and how those have changed over time. So I definitely grew up thinking that most animals were furry and four-legged, especially coming from the Midwest. Like I didn’t encounter marine organisms unless on vacation. So to me, that was an animal and it wasn’t until I took invertebrate zoology when I was in college that suddenly I realized, the vast majority of animals are these spineless, weird, slimy things, not the furry four-legged creatures that I saw everywhere on TV and in books. And so for me, it came out of going through that transition myself and wondering how often students here also go through that transition and what causes them to come to a more expert level of thinking about animals. 

LG: I was interested in this from a really different perspective. I mostly teach BIS 2B and that class is so huge that I don’t feel like I get to have a lot of one-on-one conversations with students about their perspectives and how they engage with the material. I do a little bit during office hours, but that’s a really small number of students. So throughout the time that I’ve been teaching here, I’ve been involved in a variety of survey projects that get at student perspectives of different things. And I find those really valuable as an instructor because it gives me a much better window into the diversity of perspectives in the class. Is there one perspective that falls out, or are we seeing a lot of variety? And it gives me a way to get to know the student’s perspectives a little bit better. So that’s part of what I was excited about with this, was getting an idea about how my students are thinking about this when they come into the class and is my instruction of this course changing their thinking at all. Is the introductory series broadly changing it at all? The other classes we included are later in their degree or for non-majors so are we able to see any sort of shifting in these perspectives or not? 

AP: Can you talk a little bit more about how you designed each part of the study and what went into that process? 

HH: A lot of iteration. We had a pilot survey, where we wrote a first draft and then tried it out in a class. And while those are not results we are ever going to publish or share publicly, they were informative in terms of how long does this survey take? Are we getting the responses we expect or not? That helped us develop the final survey. And then since we’re studying human populations, there’s a lot of special permissions and processes you have to go through. Still, it is much different than working with invertebrates, which is all my previous work. 

LG: In basically any sort of research where humans are the subject, every university and some non-university organizations will have to review your protocol and make sure that it’s not going to harm anyone. There’s a lot of review on making sure that we’re doing that in an ethical, appropriate way. And so there were early steps on getting the survey approved through the IRB (Institutional Review Board). And what sorts of things can we ask the students and what does the consent language need to look like to make sure we’re being transparent with the study design. And so that process is very iterative as well. You submit something to the IRB office, they review it, they let you know if things need to be changed. And then once you get through all of those, then you have the approval to do the project. 

AP: Could you talk about how the survey is structured? 

HH: We paid attention to a lot to previous studies and what kinds of questions they were asking. Because ideally, you don’t want your study to be in isolation. You want to be able to compare your results to previous work. So we did try to ask the same types of questions, if not the same questions, that previous work had done so that we could compare. The survey had three main parts. The first part was asking students and experts to just name five animals. And we sorted those animals into their taxonomic groups. So like if you said dog, that’s a chordate. If you said jellyfish, that’s a cnidarian. So we could figure out, do all five things they’re naming belong to a single phylum? Or is it a diverse representation spanning the tree of life? And that kind of question has been asked on previous studies. The second part of the survey was trying to get at how students think about animals in terms of their characteristics and how often animals belong to certain groups. So this section was a series of sliders. So we asked, what percentage of described animal species do you think have hair or fur? And the real answer is quite small. We could compare with all these questions how far the survey participant was from what we think of as the real or correct answer. Then we also asked specifically, what percentage of described animals do you think are insects or mammals? We spent a lot of time over designing those sliders and how they should be worded. And part of the reason we asked questions such as “How common do you think this trait is?” and “How common do you think this taxonomic group is?” is so that we could tease apart if we were getting responses that were overestimating those. Is it because the person thinks that most species are mammals? Or is it that they think this trait is true of more groups than just mammals? Asking the same question in slightly different ways allows us to tease apart how the person who’s responding to the survey is thinking about these things. 

AP: What have you been seeing in the results of the survey and other parts of your research so far? 

HH: Biases and misconceptions about animals are really prevalent. Not just in student, and college student populations, but even in the experts, we saw many of the same biases where they would basically consistently overestimate the abundance of mammals and underestimate how many invertebrate species are out there. I think one of the most surprising results was the third part of the survey, which was sorting pictures into two categories: animals or non-animals. And we found that after taking biology classes, students definitely broadened their idea of what animals were. But often they broadened it a little bit too far and started including things like bacteria or carnivorous plants, even though they’re not animals. Overall, we had over 2,000 undergraduate UC Davis students take the survey across three quarters (Fall ’21-Spring ’22) and 246 professional biologists (faculty, postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and staff who research biology at UC Davis).

LG: Another aspect that was interesting was in a couple of places, we included a question on the survey that asked how confident the person was in their answer. We could get a sense of if you’re just guessing but maybe after you have taken a class, you’re a little more certain. And we actually saw that how well someone did on the survey in terms of getting close to the correct answers, was actually negatively correlated with their confidence. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, it’s like a psychological process by which when you learn a little bit about something you think you know way more than you do. But then as you keep learning, you realize how little you know about that thing, and your confidence shifts accordingly. We interpret that reduction in confidence as these classes are helping students realize how much more diverse the animal kingdom is than they thought when they first came in. So even though they’re doing better on the survey, they now know how much they don’t know. Their confidence is actually going down a little bit, which sounds a little bit sad as a result. But actually, a really important part of the learning process is realizing the scope of what you do and don’t know. And so that was a really exciting result, even though it sounds a little sad. 

AP: What are the potential impacts of this bias of which organisms are considered “animals?” How could this bias affect the field of biology as a whole and the ways that we interact with animals in our lives, such as through conservation? 

LG: Well, one of the parts that Hannah did a lot of research on when we were first doing this was how these sorts of biases can manifest in other things like conservation. How this assumption that most organisms are one group then drives funding for research or interest in imperiled species, right? There is formal literature on how non-charismatic groups don’t get as much attention for conservation, or beyond the animal community, fungi and bacteria are hard to get support for because they’re not things that we generally identify with. While our work in this project is focused mostly on just the magnitude of this misconception, there are a lot of downstream effects about how biases like this can play out in terms of decision-making that is really impactful.

AP: Could you explain how you analyze the survey results? 

HH: The survey was conducted in Qualtrics, a website for distributing surveys. We did most of the analysis using R, which is a statistical programming language. Now, we did have some conversations about how to score the survey in terms of correct and incorrect. For some of those, that was pretty straightforward, right? How far off the estimate of the number of species was is easy to quantify. And then we did some scoring around the number of correct or incorrect sorting in the photos. How many of the photos did you sort correctly or not? And then the opening question we scored based on how many different phyla you were doing. And so collating all those together in a way that then ranked the three parts of the survey roughly equally and scored. We had some conversations around how to try to do that to get an idea of if students were improving when they took the survey multiple times. That part got a little bit interesting in terms of how to quantify each of those steps. 

AP: Is there anything else that you want to talk about or that you think the wider student population should know, especially those who might not have taken the survey?

LG: I’m curious how students feel about being studied in their classes by their faculty. I don’t know what their perspective is on that. I hope that they find it an interesting way to reflect on their own perspectives and a way to have a dialogue with faculty on such a large campus and in a large class setting. I could also see students not really liking the feeling that they’re being studied. And so I don’t actually have a good sense of how students feel about these sorts of projects being done in the classes. And I’d be curious about that perspective. Something I would want to add is that the study is really meant to be sort of a baseline. So the next step would be testing different interventions to see which one is the most effective. We got some responses actually from some of the experts who e-mailed us after taking the survey saying they felt ashamed that they didn’t know the answers. And definitely, that was not our intention! And I think it’s really easy to feel like everyone should know this, but we cannot emphasize enough that these kinds of biases are so pervasive, not just among students but among experts. And you can look everywhere from zoo collections to textbooks to what research gets published in journals. There’s a strong mammal and vertebrae bias everywhere. So it’s not a matter of anyone being prepared or not prepared. We’re kind of equally in the same boat.