Linear Versus Branching Depictions of Evolutionary History: Implications for Diagram Design

Topics in Cognitive Science 3 (3):536-559 (2011)
This article reports the results of an experiment involving 108 college students with varying backgrounds in biology. Subjects answered questions about the evolutionary history of sets of hominid and equine taxa. Each set of taxa was presented in one of three diagrammatic formats: a noncladogenic diagram found in a contemporary biology textbook or a cladogram in either the ladder or tree format. As predicted, the textbook diagrams, which contained linear components, were more likely than the cladogram formats to yield explanations of speciation as an anagenic process, a common misconception among students. In contrast, the branching cladogram formats yielded more appropriate explanations concerning levels of ancestry than did the textbook diagrams. Although students with stronger backgrounds in biology did better than those with weaker biology backgrounds, they generally showed the same effects of diagrammatic format. Implications of these results for evolution education and for diagram design more generally are discussed.
Keywords Diagrammatic format  Historical representations  Phylogeny  Reasoning  Cladograms  Tree thinking  Biology education  Evolution
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DOI 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2009.01077.x
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Barbara Tversky (2011). Visualizing Thought. Topics in Cognitive Science 3 (3):499-535.

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