Date of Award

Summer 8-2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Biological Sciences

Committee Chair

Kristy L. Daniel

Committee Chair Department

Biological Sciences

Committee Member 2

Mac H. Alford

Committee Member 2 Department

Biological Sciences

Committee Member 3

Timothy McLean

Committee Member 4

Brian Gearity

Committee Member 5

Sherry S. Herron

Committee Member 5 Department

Biological Sciences


Learning is often an active endeavor that requires students work at building conceptual understandings of complex topics. Personal experiences, ideas, and communication all play large roles in developing knowledge of and understanding complex topics. Sometimes these experiences can promote formation of scientifically inaccurate or incomplete ideas. Representations are tools used to help individuals understand complex topics. In biology, one way that educators help people understand evolutionary histories of organisms is by using representations called phylogenetic trees. In order to understand phylogenetics trees, individuals need to understand the conventions associated with phylogenies.

My dissertation, supported by the Tree-Thinking Representational Competence and Word Association frameworks, is a mixed-methods study investigating the changes in students’ tree-reading, representational competence and mental association of phylogenetic terminology after participation in varied instruction. Participants included 128 introductory biology majors from a mid-sized southern research university. Participants were enrolled in either Introductory Biology I, where they were not taught phylogenetics, or Introductory Biology II, where they were explicitly taught phylogenetics. I collected data using a pre- and post-assessment consisting of a word association task and tree-thinking diagnostic (n=128). Additionally, I recruited a subset of students from both courses (n=37) to complete a computer simulation designed to teach

students about phylogenetic trees. I then conducted semi-structured interviews consisting of a word association exercise with card sort task, a retrospective pre-assessment discussion, a post-assessment discussion, and interview questions.

I found that students who received explicit lecture instruction had a significantly higher increase in scores on a tree-thinking diagnostic than students who did not receive lecture instruction. Students who received both explicit lecture instruction and the computer simulation had a higher level of representational competence and were better able to understand abstract-style phylogenetic trees than students who only completed the simulation. Students who received explicit lecture instruction had a slightly more scientific association of phylogenetic terms than students who received did not receive lecture instruction. My findings suggest that technological instruction alone is not as beneficial as lecture instruction.