Evolution vs. Natural Selection: Why are the Misconceptions Important to Correct?






Imagine if a group of students walk up to you and make the following statements about biology:

  • “Natural selection and evolution are the same thing.”
  • ” Natural selection leads to the creation of new features. It doesn’t work on what is already there.”
  • “Mutations, according to natural selection, only have positive effects on the organism.”
  • “Natural selection only allows the organisms that are the largest, strongest and fastest to survive.”
  • ” Individual organisms can evolve during a single lifespan.”

Do these misconceptions make you cringe? I would hope so! I found these common misconceptions on the internet. In this post, I will focus on one of them and how you can combat the misconceptions in your classroom. Evolution, I will not lie, is a tough subject for kids to learn. Many times, they fuse together natural selection and evolution instead of recognizing that one leads to the other. In this post, I will discuss the first statement that is often made by students, listed above, and I will talk about how to combat the misconception.

What is a Misconception?

When students are learning new material, a teacher must do two things. They must build upon and access a student’s prior knowledge, and they must also correct any misconceptions. What is a misconception? A misconception is defined as unrealistic or false beliefs, or reasoning, that exist in a student’s mind before the information is taught about the topic. It can be faulty beliefs that are not true or assumptions that are made that do not do a sufficient job at explaining the topic. As teachers, we must be sure to notice these misconceptions and to also correct them and teach the topic in the correct way. As an effective teacher, you must acknowledge the misconception, take the misconception and use it to prove why it is false, use it to build upon new information, and consider the effects of the misconception.

The Problem:

Many students struggle with the theory of evolution. For me, as a student, this always seemed straightforward, but I have witnessed other classmates of mine struggle. Now that I am becoming a biology teacher, I help these students to realize the difference between two very important components of Charles Darwin’s theory: natural selection and evolution. Natural selection is basically the observed phenomenon that animals that are more fit to their environment, and have adapted to it, are more likely to survive and pass their genes for these traits onto the next generation. Natural selection works on what is there. It does not create new features. Evolution is the effect of natural selection. Evolution is the changes, overtime, of one organism into another so they are more adapted to their environment. Evolution is caused by natural selection, but desctibes mostly the BIG changes overtime. Natural selection can happen relatively quickly. If kids do not understand this or have misconceptions, they will struggle with the key concepts in biology.











The Solution: Three Ways to Combat the Misconception!

Option#1- Work with students misconceptions and correct them, then introduce them with the correct information and build on it.

For this option, I would recognize and work with the misconception. Recognize that it is there! Tell the class the misconception and explain to them the correct definitions. Show pictures and videos about the definitions and explain to them why some people have these misconceptions. The main part of this it to put the misconception into the light, understand it, correct it, and build a new structure of information in the minds of the students. Tell them why people think that way and what the truth is. Below is a visual representation of natural selection that you can use in your classroom. I also included a crash course video that gives the definition and examples of natural selection. Enjoy!

Image result for Natural selection

Option #2- Foster dialogue and hold discussions about the misconceptions

One great way to address misconceptions is have disussions about misconceptions and why people think that way. Tell the students why the misconception is incorrect and the facts associated with it. Start by saying, “Many people believe…. but science says….”. Bringing out the misconception into the light and allowing for safe discussion of opposing views will really adress any misconceptions. List common misconceptions in your field (like I have done at the beginning of the blog) and after giving the correct information, ask the students to discuss why these common misconceptions are incorrect. This brings the misconeptions into the light, creates a safe and friendly atmosphere, and allows students to use their misconceptions to correct them and build new information!

Option#3-  Help students to make connections to everyday life with the new information and provide an opportunity for conceptual change!

Conceptual change is the number one way to break down incorrect conceptions and allow students to internalize the new information and to also build upon it. For conceptual change to take place, we have to teach the kids why their misconception is incorrect, what the correct conception is, why it is important, and how it relates to everyday life. The last part is really important. We must make sure that students know the use of this new information and how to use it effectively. For example, looking back at my image for option 1. To teach kids about natural selection, create a scenario. I would show the kids an image of me feeding a giraffe in a zoo. I would then ask them to imagine that they are giraffes and must be a certain height to reach vegetation. “What happens to the giraffes that can not reach the vegetation?”, “What giraffe do you want to be if the vegetation is up high? a tall or short giraffe?” This will show kids how the infomation relates to their lives and a living example of how to use that information.

Conclusion: After researching the misconceptions in biology, I can tell you that there are a lot! The important thing to remember, as a teacher, is to use the misconceptions for the benefit of the student. Do not just destroy their misconceptions, but tweek them, correct them, and build upon them. This is how students learn. Evolution is NOT a simple process to understand. It involves complex thinking. This is exactly why there are so many misconceptions surrounding it. Use the misconceptions of students to mold who they become and to give them strength to develop the correct conception. Students are awesome learners and using the knowledge they come to class with is what should be done in any subject!

Here is a link to an article in which I found a plethora of information reagarding misconceptions.





  1. Delaina! I really enjoyed your post. I appreciate how you provided detailed options for how to combat these misconceptions. Evolution can be a bit of a touchy subject for some but I think you handled it well. I especially like how you discussed the differences between evolution and natural selection as so many of the most common misconceptions are really in the details. Do you remember any particular instance where you had a misconception of yours challenged? How would you deal with a student who held that misconception in your class?

  2. Hello Katie,
    I enjoyed your comments! I wrote this blog because I realized that evolution is a tough topic for students to understand and that many people do not understand natural selection as the mechanism that causes evolution. To answer your question, I think that, as a teacher, you can tell the students why they may think that way and present them with facts on the topic that are not opinionated. Present them with reading that explain the concept better and give facts (not opinions) about the topic. They will be more likely to listen and to really take it to heart. You also need to establish credibility with your students. I think the best way to do this is to be open-minded to their ideas, present facts and not opinions, and to show them that they can trust you and you are a good teacher. I have found that a way to do this is to answer all questions completely, giving more information than you should. You could ask the student, “Does that make sense?” to make sure they understand. One of the most important ways to establish credibility with your students is admitting your mistakes and if you don’t know something, looking it up and getting back to them. Here are just a couple of ways, but it all goes back to credibility, I think. Thanks for your post!

    Delaina 🙂

  3. Delaina, I really enjoyed reading your blog.
    I agree that there are so many different misconceptions in biology. My favorite sentence of your blog is, “The important thing to remember, as a teacher, is to use the misconceptions for the benefit of the student.” It’s so important, as a teacher, to use these misconception moments to your advantage.
    My question for you is, what if a student just can’t wrap their head around the correction to their misconception? How would you handle it if a student still doesn’t believe you after exhausting all of the options you mentioned?
    Again, great blog!

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