Teaching Tree-Thinking to Undergraduate Biology Students

Phylogenetic trees are essential tools for representing evolutionary relationships. Unfortunately, they are also a major conceptual stumbling block for budding biologists. Anyone who has taught basic evolutionary concepts to college undergrads (and probably high school students as well) has most likely dealt with students struggling to properly read and draw phylogenies.

Lucky for us, there is also a growing body of literature on the most effective ways to teach what has been dubbed “tree-thinking”. I have summarized this literature in a review due to be published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach (doi:10.1007/s12052-010-0254-9). The full text of the article is available at that link, and I have reproduced the abstract below.

Evolution is the unifying principle of all biology, and understanding how evolutionary relationships are represented is critical for a complete understanding of evolution. Phylogenetic trees are the most conventional tool for displaying evolutionary relationships, and “tree-thinking” has been coined as a term to describe the ability to conceptualize evolutionary relationships. Students often lack tree-thinking skills, and developing those skills should be a priority of biology curricula. Many common student misconceptions have been described, and a successful instructor needs a suite of tools for correcting those misconceptions. I review the literature on teaching tree-thinking to undergraduate students and suggest how this material can be presented within an inquiry-based framework.