• Diagrammatic format;
  • Cladograms;
  • Evolution;
  • Phylogeny;
  • Tree thinking;
  • Biology education;
  • Historical representations;
  • Reasoning


This article reports the results of an experiment involving 108 college students with varying backgrounds in biology. Subjects answered questions about the evolutionary history of sets of hominid and equine taxa. Each set of taxa was presented in one of three diagrammatic formats: a noncladogenic diagram found in a contemporary biology textbook or a cladogram in either the ladder or tree format. As predicted, the textbook diagrams, which contained linear components, were more likely than the cladogram formats to yield explanations of speciation as an anagenic process, a common misconception among students. In contrast, the branching cladogram formats yielded more appropriate explanations concerning levels of ancestry than did the textbook diagrams. Although students with stronger backgrounds in biology did better than those with weaker biology backgrounds, they generally showed the same effects of diagrammatic format. Implications of these results for evolution education and for diagram design more generally are discussed.