Student construction of phylogenetic trees in an introductory biology course
Jonathan Dees and Jennifer L. Momsen Email author
Evolution: Education and Outreach20169:3
DOI: 10.1186/s12052-016-0054-y© Dees and Momsen. 2016
Received: 25 November 2015Accepted: 14 April 2016Published: 21 April 2016
Phylogenetic trees have become increasingly essential across biology disciplines. Consequently, learning about phylogenetic trees has become an important component of biology education and an area of interest for biology education research. Construction tasks, in which students generate phylogenetic trees from some type of data, are often used for instruction. However, the impact of these exercises on student learning is uncertain, in part due to our fragmented knowledge of what students construct during the tasks. The goal of this project was to develop a more robust method for describing student-generated phylogenetic trees, which will support future investigations that attempt to link construction tasks with student learning.
Through iterative examination of data from an introductory biology course, we developed a method for describing student-generated phylogenetic trees in terms of style, conventionality, and accuracy. Students used the diagonal style more often than the bracket style for construction tasks. The majority of phylogenetic trees were constructed conventionally, and variable orientation of branches was the most common unconventional feature. In addition, the majority of phylogenetic trees were generated correctly (no errors) or adequately (minor errors only) in terms of accuracy. Suggesting extant taxa are descended from other extant taxa was the most common major error, while empty branches and extra nodes were very common minor errors.
The method we developed to describe student-constructed phylogenetic trees uncovered several trends that warrant further investigation. For example, while diagonal and bracket phylogenetic trees contain equivalent information, student preference for using the diagonal style could impact comprehension. In addition, despite a lack of explicit instruction, students generated phylogenetic trees that were largely conventional and accurate. Surprisingly, accuracy and conventionality were also dependent on each other. Our method for describing phylogenetic trees constructed by students is based on data from one introductory biology course at one institution, and the results are likely limited. We encourage researchers to use our method as a baseline for developing a more generalizable tool, which will support future investigations that attempt to link construction tasks with student learning.
Phylogenetic trees Cladograms Conceptual models Construction tasks Evolution Tree thinking