NSF Graduate Fellow
Patterns of thinking about phylogenetic trees: A study of student learning and the potential of tree-thinking to improve comprehension of biological concepts.
Paul Beardsley and Mike Thomas
Doctor of Arts
University Department and/or Lab:
Understanding students' preconceptions concerning the interpretation of phylogenetic trees prior to instruction.
Description of Research:
Evolution is the unifying theme of biology; consequently students must have a comprehensive understanding of evolution in order to be biologically literate. Current curricula in many introductory biology courses focus on evolutionary processes, specifically natural selection, with little regard to evolutionary patterns. Phylogenetic (evolutionary) trees represent patterns of evolutionary relationships, and the historical perspective made available through phylogenetic analyses are critical to understanding evolution. Trees, however, contain substantial visual jargon, which can be difficult for novice students to correctly interpret. The objective of this study is to characterize students' patterns of thinking about the interpretation and use of phylogenetic trees prior to instruction. These data are useful for developing effective strategies for teaching tree-thinking.