The American Society of Human Genetics announced a press release out today about a study of student essays submitted as entries in the National DNA Day Essay Contest in 2006 and 2007. The ASHG’s education staff examined 500 of the 2,443 essays and found that 55.6% of the essays contained at least one “obvious” misconception, and 20.2% contained two or more misconceptions.
At first glance I was a little concerned about mining these essays – notably submitted by eager students to win a contest – for this type of information, but then I concluded that the authors of the essays must have assumed that they were being evaluated based on the accuracy of their statements. Additionally, the ASHG took careful steps to preserve anonymity.
The panel concluded that “misconceptions about genetics remain prevalent in U.S. science classrooms”, and included information about using the findings to improve genetics education. I highly recommend reading the entire paper, available for free from the ASHG and Genetics: “Essay Contest Reveals Misconceptions of High School Students in Genetics Content.” From the press release:
“The misconception most frequently identified in the researchersâ€™ analysis of student essays was broadly defined into the category of â€œgenetic technologiesâ€ (17.2%), these responses displayed incomplete understanding of the complexity of scientific research, including biotechnology and genetic engineering. Another common theme identified in the analysis revealed that students did not fully understand concepts related to heredity and patterns of inheritance (14%); these essays reflected studentsâ€™ belief that single genes are the cause of traits and inherited diseases. In actuality, even in cases of simple inheritance, multiple genetic and/or environmental factors often play a role in the expression of a trait or disease.”
The paper includes some interesting examples of misconceptions, such as the following quote from a student’s essay:
â€˜â€˜One study showed that chemical dependency skips a generation. This would make the gene for chemical dependency recessive. This means that if a psychiatric geneticist would make a Punnett square for two parents whose parents had chemical dependency, the Punnett square would say that 3 out of 4 of their children would be chemically dependant.â€™â€™
The authors of the study respond with: “Chemical dependency is a complex trait that cannot be explained by a simple, monohybrid Punnett square cross.”
Everyone remembers the “big B” “little b” Mendelian crosses of things like eye color in biology class. But in today’s world of genetics, teaching this simplistic view of genetics, especially in high school (which is really just a basic introduction to genetics) might be too confusing. What do you think?