In introductory biology, college students are taught to predict how populations will grow and change over time by using population growth models. These models are commonly represented as mathematical equations. However, students consistently struggle when math and biology concepts intersect in the classroom, and these struggles lead to suboptimal understanding of how mathematical population models are designed and used. Education literature suggests that students may struggle with population modeling because of math anxiety, the high cognitive load of the task, and the lack of scaffolding for abstract concepts. In our study, we sought to improve student mastery modeling exponential growth, logistic growth, and Lotka-Volterra predator-prey interactions through using pictorial diagrams in modeling pedagogy. We predicted that these diagrams would reduce the amount of triggered math anxiety, lower the cognitive load of the task through reducing element interactivity, and allow for a more scaffolding for abstract symbols through a pictorial representation bridge. To test the effectiveness of population diagrams, we created two versions of a population modeling lesson plan: one version taught using diagrams then equations, while the other taught using purely equations. We also designed practice and assessment questions that tested calculation and model-building ability. We assessed math anxiety, scientific reasoning ability, and math ability at the beginning of the semester and state anxiety, effort of tasks, and difficulty of tasks during each lesson. Over 200 students from a non-major biology course were randomly assigned to each group, and all were given a pre-assessment, four lessons, a practice test, and a unit test on population modeling. Our findings show that while the addition of pictorial models to the traditional pedagogy did not have a significant effect on exponential and logistic growth model mastery, students that were exposed to predator-prey diagrams were more able to create a new model for a three-level predator-prey interaction than students that were only given traditional pedagogy. In addition, students who were exposed to predator-prey interaction diagrams before they derived equations reported a lower cognitive load than students who were only exposed to equations. Although diagrams were not a more helpful calculation tool for students than traditional equations, using population diagrams before to equation derivation may help improve student mastery of growth model creation.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Biology



Date Submitted


Document Type





population growth, introductory biology, math education, collegiate pedagogy, math anxiety, exponential growth, logistic growth, Lotka-Volterra predator-prey interactions



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Life Sciences Commons