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College Students' Misconceptions About Evolutionary Trees


"Evolution is at the center of the biological sciences and is therefore a required topic for virtually every college biology student. Yet several core aspects of evolution are non-intuitive. Evolutionary biology is broadly divided into two sub-disciplines: microevolution, which looks at how the distribution of traits in a population changes over relatively short time periods; and macroevolution, which looks at how new taxa arise over long time periods. Many studies have shown that students harbor misconceptions about key ideas in microevolution such as natural selection (e.g., Greene, 1990; Ferrari & Chi, 1998; Lawson & Thompson, 1998; Anderson, Fisher & Norman, 2002), and have outlined the classes of misconceptions that are most common. Yet macroevolution has received little attention (see Baum et al, 2005), despite being the area of evolution that receives the most media attention through newsworthy topics such as fossil discoveries, speciation, and the relationships among species. ...Over the past year we have [sought to identify] misconceptions among college students about the subject of evolutionary trees, the diagrams used to display branching evolutionary relationships between populations or species (which include cladograms and other diagrams showing reconstructions of evolutionary history), and the ideas embedded in these diagrams. Here we report the most common misconceptions among college students in their understanding of evolutionary trees, and their demonstrated ability to perform typical "treethinking" skills."