Visualizing the abyss of time : Students’ interpretation of visualized deep evolutionary time

Abstract: The immense time scales involved in Deep evolutionary time (DET) is a threshold concept in biology and interpreting temporal aspects of DET is demanding. DET is communicated through various visualizations that include static two-dimensional representations, low interactivity animations, as well as high interactivity interfaces. Given the importance of DET as fundamental scientific knowledge of potential societal application, there is a need for educational research on students’ interpretation of visually communicated DET. This thesis explores students’ interpretation of different forms of visualized DET along a continuum of interactivity. The research aim is four-fold, and probes how students interpret DET visualizations in terms of temporal aspects, communicated evolutionary concepts, degree of visualization interactivity, and generated affective responses.The work comprises four studies, which as a collective, adopt exploratory and multi-method designs. A total of 505 students participated. Data were collected from questionnaires, task-based questions, and semi-structured interviews. Data analysis was qualitative and quantitative, and incorporated deductive and inductive approaches.  In analysing students' interpretation of static two-dimensional DET visualizations, an instrument for measuring knowledge about the visual representation of deep evolutionary time (DET-Vis) was developed. Emergence of a unidimensional construct during validation represents knowledge about the visual communication of DET. Inspection of item performance suggests that interpreting visualized DET requires both procedural and declarative knowledge. Analysis of students’ interpretation of a low interactivity DET animation, communicating hominin evolution revealed five temporal aspects influencing interpretation: events at specific times, relative order, concurrent events, time intervals, and time interval durations. A further shift across the continuum involved analysing students’ interpretation of a high-interactivity DET visualization of a three-dimensional phylogenetic tree. Finger-based zooming was associated with movement within the tree itself, or as movement in time, respectively, and related to identified misinterpretations. Further analysis showed that interpreting DeepTree evoked the epistemic affective responses of awe, curiosity, surprise, and confusion. Affective responses were expressed in relation to five evolutionary conceptual themes, namely biological relationships, evolutionary time, biological diversity, common descent, and biological structure or terminology.   The thesis findings have implications for teaching, visualization design and future research. Exposing students to various DET visualizations across the continuum could support DET teaching. Visual communication of temporal aspects should be carefully considered in DET visualization design. Future work on relationships between affect, highly interactive visualizations, and evolution concepts will provide further insight for leveraging learning and teaching of DET.   

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