Representing variability: The case of life cycle diagrams


Two foundational concepts in biology education are 1) offspring are not identical to their parents, and 2) organisms undergo changes throughout their lives. These concepts are included in both international and U.S. curricular standards. Research in psychology has shown that children often have difficulty understanding these concepts, as they are inconsistent with their intuitive theories of the biological world. Additionally, prior research suggests that diagrams are commonly used in instruction and that their features influence student learning. Given this prior work, we explored the characteristics of life cycle diagrams and discuss possible implications for student learning. We examined 75 life cycle diagrams from books, including five biology or general science textbooks and 25 specialized trade books focusing on biology for children. We also examined 633 life cycle diagrams from a publicly available online database of science diagrams. Most diagrams failed to show any within-species variability. Additionally, many diagrams had perceptually rich backgrounds, which prior research suggests might hinder learning. We discuss how the design characteristics of diagrams may reinforce students’ intuitive theories of biology, which might make it difficult for students to understand key biological concepts in the future.

CBE-Life Science Education, 19, ar49
David Menendez
David Menendez
Postdoctoral Research fellow

My research interests include cognitive development, diagrams, and STEM education