Teaching Tools and Strategies

"Boost your evolution IQ": An evolution misconceptions game

Author(s): Mariëlle Hoefnagels1, Matthew Scott Taylor1

University of Oklahoma

Published online:

Courses: EvolutionEvolution

Keywords: Evolution active learning Natural Selection group work misconceptions

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Students often enter introductory biology courses with misconceptions about evolution. For example, many students believe that traits arise when a species needs them or that evolutionary processes are goal-oriented. To address these and other misconceptions, we have developed an activity called "Boost Your Evolution IQ." Student groups compete against one another in a fast-paced, challenging quiz that is presented using PowerPoint. Questions get harder from beginning to end, and the stakes get higher: Each correct answer earns double points in round 2 and then triple points in round 3. Student collaboration throughout the activity helps reinforce the concepts in advanced students and allows struggling students to hear evolution explained in various ways. Further, the same misconception is often tested multiple times, allowing students to learn from their mistakes. This activity is useful as a review before an evolution exam or as a pre- and post-test. It may also be adapted for large classes using clicker technology. We provide a detailed explanation of the approach in the attached video (Supporting File S1).


Hoefnagels, M., and Taylor, M.S. 2016. “Boost your evolution IQ”: An evolution misconceptions game. CourseSource. https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2016.12

Article Context


Active learning is difficult to define, but the overall goal is simple: to reduce the amount of time that students spend passively listening to lectures. Instead, students solve problems, discuss case studies, build models, or participate in a variety of other activities that require thought. Although not every activity works equally well for every instructor (1), a recent metaanalysis indicated that, overall, the use of active learning increases exam scores and reduces the failure rate in undergraduate STEM classes (2).

Increased use of active learning is one recommendation in the AAAS Vision and Change report (3), which called for biology teachers to "focus on student-centered learning," to "use multiple modes of instruction in addition to the traditional lecture," and to "facilitate student learning within a cooperative context." The same report identified five core concepts for biological literacy, including evolution; it also listed core competencies, one of which focuses on communication and collaboration. That section of the report concludes with the statement, "Practicing the communication of science through a variety of formal and informal written, visual, and oral methods should be a standard part of undergraduate biology education."


We have developed a team game in which students work together to answer questions at a rapid pace about evolution, offering an ideal opportunity to fulfill all of the above goals. The questions are focused on misconceptions identified by Nehm and Reilly (4). Students see questions one at a time and must answer quickly, keeping teams on their toes. The fast pace of the activity enhances student engagement. We built the game in PowerPoint, so it is easy to slip into pre-existing lectures before, during, or after class instruction on evolution. The game is also readily adapted for use as a formative assessment tool if students use clickers to respond individually to the questions as a pre- or post-test (or both).


Our aim was to write questions that specifically target misconceptions about evolution, with the expectation that learning why they missed certain questions might free students to construct a new, more accurate understanding. In writing our questions, Nehm and Reilly's research (4) was extremely helpful. Instructors who want to apply our game approach in other disciplines may want to consult the American Association for the Advancement of Science's list of misconceptions in life science, physical science, earth science, and the nature of science (http://assessment.aaas.org/topics/). Revisiting difficult questions on exams from previous semesters can also provide ideas.

We compiled the following list of evolution misconceptions:

  1. Biological evolution explains the origin of life.
  2. Evolutionary processes serve a purpose or strive for perfection.
  3. Traits arise when needed.
  4. Individuals can evolve.
  5. All members of a population develop new traits simultaneously.
  6. All mutations are harmful.
  7. Evolution and natural selection are the same thing.
  8. Evolution only happens when conditions change dramatically.
  9. "Adaptation" means adjustment within a lifetime.
  10. "Fitness" describes how strong or fast an organism is.

We wrote sixteen multiple choice questions to target these ten misconceptions (see Supporting File S2). Before trying the game with students, we asked faculty colleagues to review the questions for accuracy, clarity, and overall quality. We then sorted them into categories based on their difficulty and organized them in a PowerPoint presentation with the easiest questions first.

Once the questions were ready, we prefaced them with some slides explaining the context and relevance. Why is the topic important? How does it fit into other disciplines? How might students have heard about it in the news? Likewise, at the end of the game, we provided an opportunity for students to reflect on what they learned.


The video in Supporting File S1 shows the quiz game in action and provides a detailed explanation of how to implement it in your classroom.

Each team of 3 to 4 students should receive one set of four different-colored cards printed on both sides with large letters A, B, C, and D. (Using cards instead of clickers makes it easy to identify teams that answer correctly.) The instructor should also be prepared with a set of tokens to award to teams that answer questions correctly. We use colored sticky notes, but poker chips would work as well.

When you are ready to begin, instruct students to work with their team to answer each question that will appear on the screen. Tell students how long they will have to deliberate for each question (30 to 60 seconds, depending on the question's difficulty) and that they will answer by holding up the colored card corresponding to the correct answer. Emphasize that it is important to wait until time runs out and the instructor says "3-2-1-Go" before they hold up their answer card. That strategy prevents one group from looking at other groups' answers before committing to their own.

Reveal each answer after teams have answered each question. All teams with the correct answer should hold up their colored card long enough to allow a helper to issue one or more tokens (depending on question difficulty) before advancing to the next question. After the last question, the team with the most tokens wins a prize.


The quiz game activity relates to the following Scientific Teaching Themes:

Active Learning

Students engage with the material via clicker questions, which can be answered either with flashcards or clicker technology. Collaboration with neighbors enhances the learning experience.


The fast-paced PowerPoint game is ideal for student self-evaluation. Since the instructor reveals the answer to each question immediately following the 30-60 second collaboration time, students can quickly see what misconceptions they may have about the quiz topic. If clicker technology is available, the game can also be used as a pre- and post-test to measure student improvement from instruction.

Inclusive Teaching

Teams compete against one another, encouraging collaboration among members of each team. The activity may help to develop a supportive community of learning within the classroom.


The following tips may help the game go more smoothly:

  • Arrange the classroom to facilitate group work (if possible).
  • Set up the PowerPoint questions with pre-set timings so you don't have to keep time manually; see Supporting File S2.
  • You may elect to give students more time and to increase the number of earned tokens as the questions get harder.
  • In case of a tie, have a couple of tie-breaker questions ready.

You may wish to prepare prizes (e.g., Starbucks gift cards, candy, extra credit) for winning team members. Alternatively, you may prefer students not to compete against one another. Shuffling students into new teams in the middle of the game and eliminating the prizes would make the activity less competitive without sacrificing its instructive qualities.


We tested this activity with faculty during a workshop at Tulsa Community College. The participants enjoyed the lively competition and thought-provoking questions. We also played the game with students at Rose State College in Midwest City, Oklahoma. Afterward, one student said, "You engaged students so well, it was so much fun." Another said, "The activity helped me understand evolution in a different way." Yet another said, "The quiz game was quite thought-evoking but fun at the same time."

We have also used these questions as individual, not-for-points clicker questions administered before and after basic instruction on evolution in a nonmajors biology class at the University of Oklahoma. Unlike in the game, the correct answers were not revealed until after the post-instruction questions were all complete. The class performance data showed impressive learning gains on most questions, although many students continued to struggle with the misconception that individuals can evolve if needed to overcome an individual challenge. That useful insight led to additional instruction targeted to that specific error, including suggestions for how to spot phrases often associated with imprecise "need-based" language (e.g., "in order to ... ," "because it needed ...," "to solve ... ," etc.).

We think that this activity is effective because the questions are challenging and because the fast pace keeps students engaged. Students teach other students, which helps advanced students reinforce their knowledge and helps struggling students to hear the concepts explained in a new way. This approach is readily adaptable to other topics, making it easy to use as an active learning component throughout a course.


  • Supporting File S1: Boost your evolution IQ video description for instructors
  • Supporting File S2: Boost your evolution IQ game slides.ppt


We thank the Tulsa Community College faculty and the Rose State College faculty and students for testing the evolution misconceptions game and for your valuable feedback. Also, thank you to University of Oklahoma faculty--Dr. Doug Gaffin, Dr. Tarren Shaw, and Dr. Phil Gibson--for accuracy checking the activity and providing other helpful feedback.


  1. Andrews T.M., Leonard, M.J., Colgrove C.A., Kalinowski, S.T. 2011. Active learning not associated with student learning in a random sample of college biology courses. CBE Life Sci. Educ., 10:394–405.
  2. Freeman S., Eddy S.L., McDonough M., Smith M.K. Okoroafor N., Jordt H., Wenderoth M. P. 2013. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 111:8410-8415.
  3. AAAS. Vision and Change: A Call to Action. Washington, DC: AAAS; 2011. [accessed 20 December 2015]. http://visionandchange.org/files/2013/11/aaas-VISchange-web1113.pdf
  4. Nehm R.H., Reilly L. 2007. Biology majors' knowledge and misconceptions of natural selection. BioScience, 57:263-272.
Images used in Supporting Files S1 and S2
  1. Three women playing game: (CC BY-NC-SA) Mariëlle Hoefnagels, 2015
  2. Head silhouette: (Public domain) PrinterKiller, 2011, https://openclipart.org/detail/166375/head-profile;
  3. Brain: (Public domain) holdentrils, 2014, http://pixabay.com/en/brain-anatomy-human-science-health-512758/
  4. Silhouetted people holding TEAM: (Public domain) geralt, 2013, http://pixabay.com/en/personal-group-silhouettes-man-109967/
  5. Letter cards: (CC BY-NC-SA) Mariëlle Hoefnagels, 2015
  6. Thumbs up sticky notes: (CC BY-NC-SA) Mariëlle Hoefnagels, 2015
  7. Bennu's Journey, Early Earth: (CC BY) NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab, 2014, no changes made, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/15635699388/
  8. Galapagos Finches: (Public domain) John Gould, 1845, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptive_radiation#/media/File:Darwin%27s_finches.jpeg
  9. The Texas Cave Salamander: (Public domain) Joe N. Fries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_salamander#/media/File:Texas_blind_salamander.jpg
  10. English dictionary: (Public domain) OpenClipartVectors, 2014, http://pixabay.com/p-155951/?no_redirect
  11. Collared Lizard in Black Canyon: (CC BY-SA) Daniel Schwen, 2010, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collared_Lizard_4.jpg
  12. Germinating seeds: (CC BY-NC-SA) BlueRidgeKitties, 2010, https://www.flickr.com/photos/blueridgekitties/4393858988/
  13. Amur falcon: (CC BY) ChanduBandi, 2013, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amur_falcon#/media/File:Amur_Falcon_(female,_underwing).jpg
  14. Dandelion seeds: (CC BY-SA), PiccoloNamek, 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seed_dispersal#mediaviewer/File:Photos-photos_1088103921_Floating.jpg
  15. Daisy: (Public domain), Schwarzenarzisse, 2014, http://pixabay.com/en/daisy-plant-close-339041/
  16. Albatross: (Public domain) Lusk Michael, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2015, http://www.public-domain-image.com/fauna-animals-public-domain-images-pictures/birds-public-domain-images-pictures/albatross-birds-pictures/laysan-albatross/laysan-albatross-birds-colony-phoebastria-immutabilis.jpg.html
  17. Kangaroo rat: (Public domain) 2005, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kangaroo-rat.jpg
  18. MRSA SEM: (Public domain) Janice Carr, 2014, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MRSA_SEM_9994_lores.jpg
  19. Golden barrel cactus: (CC BY-SA) Stan Shebs, 2003, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_cactus#/media/File:Echinocactus_grusonii_1.jpg
  20. Skull art: (Public domain) 2013 http://www.onlinelabels.com/clip-art/Human_skull_(side_view)-106749.htm
  21. American cockroach: (CC BY) Gary Alpert at the English language Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American-cockroach.jpg
  22. Micrasterias: (Public domain) Example at the Ajburk project, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chloroplast#mediaviewer/File:Micrasterias_.jpg

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Author(s): Mariëlle Hoefnagels1, Matthew Scott Taylor1

University of Oklahoma

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