Original Scientific Article

Evolution: Education and Outreach

, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 666-679

First online:

What Do Experts and Novices “See” in Evolutionary Problems?

  • Ross H. NehmAffiliated withSchool of Teaching and Learning and Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, The Ohio State University Email author 
  • , Judith RidgwayAffiliated withCenter for Life Sciences Education, The Ohio State University

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Considerable research has focused on differences in expert and novice problem representation and performance within physics, chemistry, and genetics. Here, we examine whether models of problem solving based on this work are useful within the domain of evolutionary biology. We utilized card sort tasks, interviews, and paper-and-pencil tests to: (1) delineate problem categorization rules, (2) quantify problem solving success, and (3) measure the relationships between the composition, structure, and coherence of problem solutions. We found that experts and novices perceived different item features to be of significance in card sort tasks, and that sensitivity to item surface features was adversely associated with problem solving success. As in other science domains, evolutionary problem representation and problem solving performance were tightly coupled. Explanatory coherence and the absence of cognitive biases were distinguishing features of evolutionary expertise. We discuss the implications of these findings for biology teaching and learning.


Evolution Natural selection Problem solving Misconceptions Expertise Undergraduates