Student Misconceptions in Biology

Posted on February 19th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

Over the last fifteen or so years, physics instructors have done a good deal of research on how students think about physics, and what sort of misconceptions they are prone to. They have used the results of this research to improve the quality of physics teaching - they’ve come up with workshop activities, demonstrations, and other teaching tools, all of which do a much better job of informing students about physics than previous, more traditional methods.

As (primarily) an astronomy outreach instructor, some of this has trickled down to my awareness, and changed how I talk about and teach concepts in astrophysics.

Today, by far the biggest apparent crisis in science education is in biology. The foundational knowledge of biology is evolution. The theory is so well confirmed, so powerful in its predictive abilities, and so wide-ranging and integrating that evolution dominates parts of many other disciplines as well - including biochemistry, ecology, genetics, paleontology, geology (especially stratigraphy), and so forth. Despite this, evolution is casually dismissed as untrue by religious extremists who want it to be untrue for complicated reasons relating to their desired religious hegemony - because, in short, they believe knowledge leads to poor morals. Their propaganda confuses the issue for otherwise sound-thinking individuals.

From my own experience I feel comfortable asserting that biology students, at least at the high-school level, often do not appreciate the nature of biological processes at the cellular level. The tendency is to believe that cellular processes are directed. This belief has in common with evolution denialism an insufficient appreciation of the character and power of random occurrences, and a lack of awareness of where randomness ends and direction begins. However, I have not previously been aware of any research supporting this notion.

Now, much like physicists, biologists have begun to do research on student misconceptions about their subject area. A paper in last month’s PLoS-Biology, Recognizing Student Misconceptions through Ed’s Tools and the Biology Concept Inventory, details some interesting methods and results of such research.

The research began with the construction of a concept inventory, which was done by asking students several open-ended questions about biological processes. Responses to the questions, as well as interviews with the students, were analyzed in order to determine where student misconceptions were rooted.

Results from the BCI indicate a striking lack of understanding on two questions related to randomness, even after three major’s courses in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder—we suspect that similar results would be found widely.

(Emphasis mine.) Misconceptions on randomness do not surprise me; high school students are the raw material of college freshmen. But I was surprised that the misconceptions persisted after three college courses in the subject.

A common observation … was that students were unwilling to see random processes as capable of directed effect in themselves—they routinely seek alternative rational explanations, the dominant one being the presumption of drivers that are actually responsible for the observed effects.

It will be noted that this amounts to the cognitive strategy adopted by intelligent design creationists - deny, without having a reason, that randomness can produce an effect, and then go make something up to fill the void.

This research therefore serves as a very large arrow pointing at where biology, presumably including outreach, is having educational failures. It also points out that these failures are in the same concept domain that intelligent design creationists are having propagandistic success.

In discussing the cognitive effect of these misconceptions, the authors note:

From an evolutionary perspective, it leads to “just-so” stories that project meaning onto every variation, whether meaningful or not, and obscures the basic mechanisms that make evolutionary theory so valuable.

This strokes a pet peeve of my own, which is that those doing biology outreach frequently overemphasize selection, sometimes misleading students into believing that selection is the cause of variation.

The paper authors make some concrete recommendations, including one that I believe would have high value:

From the perspective of course and curriculum content, we need to provide students with opportunities to work with random systems, and explicitly state (and confront) their assumptions.

At the level of late gradeschool and middle school students, I can imagine a demonstration involving a clear acetate box, with, say, 20 ping-pong balls inside. Four of the ping-pong balls have velcro on them. Shaking the box will result in a pretty stochastic motion of balls, and yet the four balls should stick to one another in fairly short order. This sort of demonstration might address something like the authors’ description of a student misconception that ATP synthase seeks out and grabs ADP - appropriately simplified for the grade level. (Such a demonstration has the virtue of allowing bright colors, loud noises, and vigorous physical activity into the classroom, which tends to appeal to this age group.)

The paper is focused on college-level students and instructors, but it nevertheless suggests several strategies for outreach and educators in lower grades. It is recommended reading for anyone doing outreach that touches on biology.

This blog post is about:

Klymkowsky, M.W., Garvin-Doxas, K. (2008). Recognizing Student Misconceptions through Ed’s Tools and the Biology Concept Inventory. PLoS Biology, 6(1), e3. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060003

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2 Responses to “Student Misconceptions in Biology”

  1. Mary Says:

    Thanks for highlighting this–we do outreach that touches on biology, and I am always looking for ways to improve!

  2. Blue Collar Scientist » Blog Archive » Kenneth Miller: Fail Says:

    [...] adopted for the task of educating people about facts, as I see it - instead of adopting evidence based biology education techniques that are unquestionably pertinent to the issue at hand, and result from research methods [...]

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