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Prevalence and Persistence of Misconceptions in Tree Thinking

    Authors: Tyler A. Kummer1,*, Clinton J. Whipple1, Jamie L. Jensen1
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    Affiliations: 1: Department of Biology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602
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    Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. December 2016 vol. 17 no. 3 389-398. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v17i3.1156
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    Abstract:

    Darwin described evolution as “descent with modification.” Descent, however, is not an explicit focus of most evolution instruction and often leaves deeply held misconceptions to dominate student understanding of common ancestry and species relatedness. Evolutionary trees are ways of visually depicting descent by illustrating the relationships between species and groups of species. The ability to properly interpret and use evolutionary trees has become known as “tree thinking.” We used a 20-question assessment to measure misconceptions in tree thinking and compare the proportion of students who hold these misconceptions in an introductory biology course with students in two higher-level courses including a senior level biology course. We found that misconceptions related to reading the graphic ( and ) were variably influenced across time with decreasing and increasing in prevalence. On the other hand, misconceptions related to the fundamental underpinnings of evolutionary theory ( and ) proved resistant to change during a typical undergraduate study of biology. A possible new misconception relating to the length of the branches in an evolutionary tree is described. Understanding the prevalence and persistence of misconceptions informs educators as to which misconceptions should be targeted in their courses.

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References & Citations

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/content/journal/jmbe/10.1128/jmbe.v17i3.1156
2016-12-02
2017-11-21

Abstract:

Darwin described evolution as “descent with modification.” Descent, however, is not an explicit focus of most evolution instruction and often leaves deeply held misconceptions to dominate student understanding of common ancestry and species relatedness. Evolutionary trees are ways of visually depicting descent by illustrating the relationships between species and groups of species. The ability to properly interpret and use evolutionary trees has become known as “tree thinking.” We used a 20-question assessment to measure misconceptions in tree thinking and compare the proportion of students who hold these misconceptions in an introductory biology course with students in two higher-level courses including a senior level biology course. We found that misconceptions related to reading the graphic ( and ) were variably influenced across time with decreasing and increasing in prevalence. On the other hand, misconceptions related to the fundamental underpinnings of evolutionary theory ( and ) proved resistant to change during a typical undergraduate study of biology. A possible new misconception relating to the length of the branches in an evolutionary tree is described. Understanding the prevalence and persistence of misconceptions informs educators as to which misconceptions should be targeted in their courses.

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FIGURE 1

A sample item set from the assessment used to measure student misconception and examples of student responses to the item set.

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. December 2016 vol. 17 no. 3 389-398. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v17i3.1156
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Image of FIGURE 2

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FIGURE 2

The proportion of students who gave answers indicating they held each of the misconceptions assessed in this study for the INTRO course and the EVO course. Error bars represent one standard error. < 0.01; < 0.05.

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. December 2016 vol. 17 no. 3 389-398. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v17i3.1156
Download as Powerpoint
Image of FIGURE 3

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FIGURE 3

The proportion of students who gave responses based on branch length in the INTRO course and the EVO course. Error bars represent one standard error. < 0.01.

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. December 2016 vol. 17 no. 3 389-398. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v17i3.1156
Download as Powerpoint
Image of FIGURE 4

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FIGURE 4

A comparison of overall performance on the assessment for each group in the study. Error bars represent one standard error.

Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. December 2016 vol. 17 no. 3 389-398. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v17i3.1156
Download as Powerpoint

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