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Laura R. Novick

Associate Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology and Human Development

Abstract diagrams are critical for both doing and communicating science and thus are a key component of science literacy. Professor Novick’s research program is investigating students’ understanding of and ability to reason with hierarchical diagrams (specifically, cladograms) that are used to represent evolutionary relationships among taxa (i.e., to depict the Tree of Life), a suite of skills referred to as tree thinking. Cladograms are the most important tool used by evolutionary biologists because they document and organize existing knowledge about the properties of species and higher-order taxa. By using patterns of most recent common ancestry to systematize the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, cladograms (a) enable evidence-based inference and (b) provide a conceptual framework for basic and applied biology. Professor Novick’s interdisciplinary research on tree thinking falls into three broad categories: (a) Influences of diagram design on interpretations of evolutionary relationships, (b) assessing and improving students’ tree-thinking skills, and (c) effects of prior knowledge about taxonomic relationships on tree thinking. Studies in the first group have a primarily cognitive psychological basis, with strong implications for education. Studies in the second group are rooted in science education while being informed by cognitive psychology. Studies in the third group reflect a more even mix of psychological and educational foundations. All studies are informed by expert knowledge of evolutionary biology. More detailed information about Professor Novick’s research may be found on her personal web page.