Pretests and posttests on the topic of evolution by natural selection were administered to students in a college nonmajors' biology course. Analysis of test responses revealed that most students understood evolution as a process in which species respond to environmental conditions by changing gradually over time. Student thinking differed from accepted biological theory in that (a) changes in traits were attributed to a need-driven adaptive process rather than random genetic mutation and sexual recombination, (b) no role was assigned to variation on traits within a population or differences in reproductive success, and (c) traits were seen as gradually changing in all members of a population. Although students had taken an average of 1.9 years of previous biology courses, performance on the pretest was uniformly low. There was no relationship between the amount of previous biology taken and either pretest or posttest performance. Belief in the truthfulness of evolutionary theory was also unrelated to either pretest or posttest performance. Course instruction using specially designed materials was moderately successful in improving students' understanding of the evolutionary process.