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Using Inquiry and Tree-Thinking to “March Through the Animal Phyla”: Does Working With Phylogenetic Trees Help Students Understand Biodiversity and Evolution? 

James J. Smith and Kendra Cheruvelil, Michigan State University, Lyman Briggs College


Biodiversity was originally taught in our Introductory Organismal Biology course (LB144; freshman/sophomore majors) by rote memorization of isolated facts about organisms.  Unfortunately, when we moved to an inquiry-based laboratory framework to improve pedagogy, we lost much of our study of biodiversity.  Thus, we recently restructured LB144 to restore the study of organismal groups.   To retain the benefits of an inquiry-based approach, we incorporated phylogenies and phylogenetic analysis as major components of our students’ work.  Tree-thinking (the use of phylogenetic trees to interpret evolutionary relationships) provided a synthetic evolutionary framework for our biodiversity studies, which we deemed essential but had never employed in LB144.  We reasoned that students who developed tree-thinking skills would better understand biodiversity as being the result of an evolutionary process.  Our initial hypothesis was that students who learned tree-thinking skills would better be able to use data to evaluate alternative phylogenetic hypotheses (trees).  Our instructional strategy consisted of the design and implementation of a set of experiences that helped students learn how to read, interpret and manipulate phylogenetic trees, with a particular emphasis on using data to evaluate alternative phylogenetic hypotheses (trees).  We created a Phylogeny Assessment Tool to assess learning outcomes.  This open-ended response instrument first asked students to map characters onto two different phylogenetic trees.  Students were then asked to apply an objective criterion to decide which of the two trees (alternative hypotheses) was better supported by the data.  A Pre-/Post-test design was employed to collect data from approximately 200 students in LB144 during fall semester 2008.  Preliminary analyses indicated that, although students learned how to map characters onto trees, they did not learn very well how to use the data to argue which of the two hypotheses (trees) was better supported.  We will provide possible explanations for our preliminary observations in the context of the results of our ongoing quantitative analyses.

(submitted to ASMCUE2009 on 2/20/09)




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Hi Jim-- can you make a comparison back to any previous impressions or data about this topic? It seems your final sentence about the students having strong learning gains would have more punch if you had some evidence that students generally DON'T understand these topics. Otherwise, I think it's ok to say that you are still analyzing the data. My only other comment is that several of your sentences are really really long, thus making them a bit difficult to decipher. Might just be my personal preference!
Posted 17:17, 14 Feb 2009
Hi Jim, It would be useful to include data from previous classes that did not have the phylogenetic approach to demonstrate that there was a failure in the learning outcomes that is addressed by your new approach. Do you have plans to test how well students retain their strong learning gains?
Posted 10:09, 15 Feb 2009
I agree with Chris -- adding some qualitative impressions from previous courses on how students struggle with evolutionary relationships without the "Tree-thinking" framework would be helpful. You may not have this since you are re-introducing this material. You might be able to draw this information out of previous research.

I like how you addressed that you are not completely done with data analysis. This was a good way of handling it and I may steal that line, if you don't mind!

If you plan on submitting this abstract to AMS-CUES, it is currently a bit long (1850 characters with spaces is the limit and you have 2262). For more details on the format for the AMS-CUES format, see:
Posted 12:27, 15 Feb 2009
Hi Jim,
I actually do not like the last sentence about ongoing data analysis. It is a very weak sentence to end an abstract with. Since you will be continuing to analyze the data and you actually have a preliinary analysis, you COULD state that "Analysis indicates that the students had strong learning gains..." But what do you conclude from this? What does it mean if they have strong learning gains. How does this tie back to your hypothesis? It would help if you had previous data to compare it to, but even if you don't try to tie your data back to your original hypothesis/question for a concluding remark.
Posted 08:39, 17 Feb 2009
I would use the present tense in this sentence: One of our major curricular goals IS to teach organismal diversity in an evolutionary framework. Otherwise I like it. I see what Alix is trying to say about the last sentence, but sometimes you just haven't done the full data analysis when you need to submit the abstract, so I prefer to be a bit cautious in what I promise my data will say, when I am not really sure what my data says. I also agree with Jenny that some of your sentences are too long.
Posted 09:25, 17 Feb 2009
Seems you have had good advice re the format and content of your abstract from the group. When you edit do it up front and provide your self the opportunity to end with the pithy comments Alix suggested re tying back to the hypothesis. Sherri
Posted 13:17, 17 Feb 2009
Many thanks to all of you!!!
Posted 18:32, 20 Feb 2009
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