Learning molecular biology involves using visual representations to communicate ideas about largely unobservable biological processes and molecules. Genes and gene expression cannot be directly visualized, but students are expected to learn and understand these and related concepts. Theoretically, textbook illustrations should help learners master such concepts, but how are genes and other DNA-linked concepts illustrated for learners? We examined all DNA-related images found in 12 undergraduate biology textbooks to better understand what biology students encounter when learning concepts related to DNA. Our analysis revealed a wide array of DNA images that were used to design a new visual framework, the DNA Landscape, which we applied to more than 2000 images from com-mon introductory and advanced biology textbooks. All DNA illustrations could be placed on the landscape framework, but certain positions were more common than others. We mapped figures about “gene expression” and “meiosis” onto the landscape framework to explore how these challenging topics are illustrated for learners, aligning these outcomes with the research literature to showcase how the overuse of certain representations may hinder, instead of help, learning. The DNA Landscape is a tool to promote research on visual literacy and to guide new learning activities for molecular biology.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences (COS)


RIT – Main Campus