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Laura R. Novick

Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development
Associate Professor of Psychology, College of Arts and Science

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.

Lab Website

Representative Publications

  • Novick, L. R., Pickering, J., MacDonald, T., Diamond, J., et al. (2014). Depicting the Tree of Life in museums: Guiding principles from psychological research. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 7:25. doi:10.1186/s12052-014-0025-0.
  • Novick, L. R., Schreiber, E. G., & Catley, K. M. (2014). Deconstructing evolution education: The relationship between micro- and macroevolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51, 759-788. [Special issue on Discipline-Centered Post-Secondary Education Research
  • Novick, L. R., & Catley, K. M. (2014). When relationships depicted diagrammatically conflict with prior knowledge: An investigation of students’ interpretations of evolutionary trees. Science Education, 98, 269-304.
  • Novick, L. R., & Catley, K. M. (2013). Reasoning about evolution’s grand patterns: College students’ understanding of the tree of life. American Educational Research Journal, 50, 138-177. 
  • Singer, S. R., Nielsen, N. R., & Schweingruber, H. A., (Eds.); Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research (Novick, L. R., member). (2012). Discipline-based education research: Understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

  • Novick, L. R., Stull, A. T., & Catley, K. M. (2012). Reading phylogenetic trees: Effects of tree orientation and text processing on comprehension. BioScience, 62, 757-764.

  • Bassok, M., & Novick, L. R. (2012). Problem solving. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), Oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning (Ch. 21, pp. 413-432). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Novick, L. R., Shade, C. K., & Catley, K. M. (2011). Linear versus branching depictions of evolutionary history: Implications for diagram design. Topics in Cognitive Science, 3, 536-559.
  • Novick, L. R., Catley, K. M., & Funk, D. J. (2011). Inference is bliss: Using evolutionary relationship to guide categorical inferences. Cognitive Science, 35, 712-743.
  • Hurley, S. M., & Novick, L. R. (2010). Solving problems using matrix, network, and hierarchy diagrams: The consequences of violating construction conventions. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63, 275-290.
  • Catley, K. M., & Novick, L. R. (2009). Digging deep: Exploring college students’ knowledge of macroevolutionary time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46, 311-332.
  • Novick, L. R., & Catley, K. M. (2007). Understanding phylogenies in biology: The influence of a Gestalt perceptual principle. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 13, 197-223.
  • Novick, L. R. (2006). Understanding spatial diagram structure: An analysis of hierarchies, matrices, and networks. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 1826-1856.
  • Whitley, K. N., Novick, L. R., & Fisher, D. (2006). Evidence in favor of visual representation for the dataflow paradigm: An Experiment Testing LabVIEW s Comprehensibility. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 64, 281-303.
  • Novick, L. R., & Hurley, S. M. (2001). To matrix, network, or hierarchy: That is the question. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 158-216.


2014: “Highly Accessed” designation from Springer Publications for Novick et al. (2014). Depicting the Tree of Life in museums: Guiding principles from psychological research. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 7:25.

2014: Fellow of the Psychonomic Society

2011: Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science