An investigation of relationships between student acceptance of evolution, tree-thinking, and eye movement among different instructional interventions
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Evolution is the unifying theme for the field of biology and is one of the most well developed and supported scientific theories to date. Although overwhelming evidence exists supporting evolution, evolution is considered a socio-scientific issue. Socio-scientific issues are potentially controversial social issues stemming in science content. For example, climate change, stem cell research and the concept of life are also current socio-scientific issues. Unfortunately, given the potential controversy, a large amount of the public still rejects evolution. In attempt to counter the controversy, educate people, and communicate the scientific basis for evolution, biologists commonly use a diagram called the phylogenetic tree. These diagrams represent hypothesized evolutionary relationships and learning how to accurately interpret and generate phylogenetic trees, called tree-thinking, is a difficult task for learners. Previous studies have investigated the relationship between tree-thinking and evolution acceptance. But, these results were based on an instrument limited in reliability. Additionally, these studies only incorporated a single, integrated instruction method. Using a new instrument which quantitatively measures tree-thinking and a reliable instrument which measures evolution acceptance, I investigated the relationship between tree-thinking learning outcomes and evolution acceptance in 884 undergraduate students from five different instructional interventions. Students completed the instruments both before and after learning about trees for one week of instruction. I found a significant but weak correlation between evolution acceptance and student tree-thinking learning. I also found that in non-majors biology students, evolution acceptance only explains 1.4% of the variance found in learning about tree-thinking. Knowing that students hold numerous misconceptions when interpreting phylogenetic trees, I used eye-tracking technology to investigate how these students visually interacted with these diagrams. I found that students spend the most amount of time looking at the tips of trees that incorporate organisms more than trees that incorporate abstract letters. My findings suggest that evolution acceptance does not significantly explain how students learn about phylogenetic trees. Additionally, biometric data indicates that students do not interact with trees as expected, with visual interactions closely aligned with expectations of common misconceptions.