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Experiencing Molecular Processes: The Role of Representations for Students' Conceptual Understanding
Linköping University, Department of Social and Welfare Studies, Learning, Aesthetics, Natural science. Linköping University, Faculty of Educational Sciences.
2013 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Knowledge of molecular processes is crucial for fundamental understanding of the world and diverse technological applications. However, they cannot be clearly related to any directly experienced phenomena and may be very different from our intuitive expectations. Thus, representations are essential conceptual tools for making molecular processes understandable, but to be truly useful educational tools it is essential to ensure that students grasp the connections between what they represent and the represented phenomena. This challenge and associated personal and social aspects of learning were key themes of my doctoral research.

This thesis evaluates whether (and if so how) representations can support students’ conceptual understanding of molecular processes and thus successfully substitute the missing experience of these processes. The subject matter used to explore these issues included two crucial molecular processes in biochemical systems: self-assembly and adenosine triphosphate synthesis. The discussion is based on results presented in four appended papers. Both qualitative and quantitative research strategies have been applied, using instruments such as pre- and post-tests, group discussions and interviews. The samples consisted of Swedish and South African university students, who in the group discussions interacted with peers and external representations, including an image, a tangible model and an animation.

The findings indicate that students’ ability to discern relevant model features is critical for their ability to transfer prior conceptual knowledge from related situations. They also show that students’ use of metaphors and conceptual understanding depend on how an external representation conveys relevant aspects of the learning content (its design). Thus, students must manage two complex interpretation processes (interpreting the external representations and metaphors used), which may create challenges for their learning. Furthermore, the self-assembly process was shown to incorporate counter-intuitive aspects, and both group discussion and the tangible model proved to be important facilitators for changing students’ conceptual understanding of the process. Providing students with experiences of phenomena associated with molecular concepts that incorporate counter-intuitive aspects through representations is a key factor for their understanding of the concepts. In addition, providing students with a conflict-based task, problem or representation is not enough, they also have to be willing (emotionally motivated) to solve the conflict.

The challenge for educators lies in choosing representations that convey aspects of the learning content they are intended to teach and assist students in their meaning-making of the representations by remaining informed of students’ background knowledge and interpretations. Results presented in this thesis show that it could be advantageous to interpret learning in a broader sense.

Abstract [sv]

Kunskap om molekylära processer är avgörande för att skapa en grundläggande förståelse av världen och olika tekniska tillämpningar. Däremot kan molekylära processer inte alltid relateras till direkt erfarna fenomen och de kan skilja sig mycket från våra intuitiva förväntningar. Således blir representationer viktiga konceptuella verktyg för att göra molekylära processer begripliga. För att representationer skall vara användbara pedagogiska verktyg är det viktigt att eleverna förstår sambanden mellan vad de representerar och de representerade fenomenen. Denna utmaning och tillhörande personliga och sociala aspekter av lärande var centrala teman i mitt doktorsarbete.

Denna avhandling undersöker om (och i så fall hur) representationer kan stödja elevernas konceptuella förståelse av molekylära processer och därmed utgöra deras erfarenhet av dessa processer. Det ämnesinnehåll som används för att utforska dessa frågor är två viktiga molekylära processer i biokemiska system: självorganisering (self-assembly) och adenosintrifosfat syntes. Diskussionen bygger på resultat som presenteras i fyra bifogade artiklar. Både kvalitativa och kvantitativa forskningsstrategier har tillämpats, med instrument som före- och efter-tester, gruppdiskussioner och intervjuer. Urvalet bestod av svenska och sydafrikanska universitetsstudenter som i gruppdiskussioner interagerat med varandra och med olika externa representationer, såsom en bild, en konkret modell och en animation.

Resultaten tyder på att studenternas förmåga att urskilja relevanta aspekter hos en representation är avgörande för deras förmåga att överföra tidigare kunskaper från likartade situationer. Resultaten visar också att studenterna metaforiska språk och konceptuella förståelse beror på hur den externa representationen förmedlar relevanta aspekter av lärandeinnehållet (dess design). Därmed måste studenterna hantera två komplexa tolkningsprocesser (tolka de externa representationer och de metaforer som används), vilket kan skapa utmaningar för lärandet. Dessutom innehöll den molekylära processen self-assembly kontra-intuitiva aspekter och både gruppdiskussionerna och den konkreta modellen visade sig spela en viktig roll för att förändra elevernas konceptuella förståelse av processen. Att erbjuda studenter en direkt upplevelse av kontraintuitiva molekylära processer genom externa representationer är en avgörande faktor för deras förståelse av dessa fenomen. Att ge studenter en konflikt-baserad uppgift och en representation räcker dock inte, de måste också vara villiga (känslomässigt motiverad) att lösa konflikten.

Utmaningen för lärare ligger i att välja representationer som förmedlar delar av ämnesinnehållet som de är avser att undervisa och hjälpa elevernas meningsskapande av representationerna genom att hålla sig uppdaterade kring elevernas förkunskaper och tolkningar. Det resultat som presenteras i den här avhandlingen visar att det kan vara fördelaktigt att tolka lärande i naturvetenskap i en vidare bemärkelse.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2013. , 137 p.
Series
Studies in Science and Technology Education, ISSN 1652-5051 ; 66
National Category
Didactics
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-91371ISBN: 978-91-7519-607-7 (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:liu-91371DiVA: diva2:617389
Public defence
2013-06-05, K2, Kåkenhus, Campus Norrköping, Linköpings universitet, Norrköping, 13:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2013-04-30 Created: 2013-04-23 Last updated: 2016-05-04Bibliographically approved
List of papers
1. Student Learning about Biomolecular Self-Assembly Using Two Different External Representations
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Student Learning about Biomolecular Self-Assembly Using Two Different External Representations
2013 (English)In: CBE - Life Sciences Education, ISSN 1931-7913, E-ISSN 1931-7913, Vol. 12, no 3, 471-482 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Self-assembly is the fundamental but counterintuitive principle that explains how ordered biomolecular complexes form spontaneously in the cell. This study investigated the impact of using two external representations of virus self-assembly, an interactive tangible three-dimensional model and a static two-dimensional image, on student learning about the process of self-assembly in a group exercise. A conceptual analysis of self-assembly into a set of facets was performed to support study design and analysis. Written responses were collected in a pretest/posttest experimental design with 32 Swedish university students. A quantitative analysis of close-ended items indicated that the students improved their scores between pretest and posttest, with no significant difference between the conditions (tangible model/image). A qualitative analysis of an open-ended item indicated students were unfamiliar with self-assembly prior to the study. Students in the tangible model condition used the facets of self-assembly in their open-ended posttest responses more frequently than students in the image condition. In particular, it appears that the dynamic properties of the tangible model may support student understanding of self-assembly in terms of the random and reversible nature of molecular interactions. A tentative difference was observed in response complexity, with more multifaceted responses in the tangible model condition.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Bethesda, USA: American Society for Cell Biology, 2013
Keyword
Undergraduate, Learning, Self-assembly, External representation, Tangible model, Hands-on, Group exercise, Dynamic process, Interactivity
National Category
Didactics
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-97273 (URN)10.1187/cbe.13-01-0011 (DOI)000325792800021 ()
Projects
VisMolLS
Funder
Swedish Research Council, VR 2008:5077
Available from: 2013-09-05 Created: 2013-09-05 Last updated: 2017-12-06Bibliographically approved
2. Using a teaching-learning sequence (TLS), based on a physical model, to develop students' understanding of self-assembly
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Using a teaching-learning sequence (TLS), based on a physical model, to develop students' understanding of self-assembly
2011 (English)In: Authenticity in Biology Education: Benefits and Challenges / [ed] Yarden, A & Carvalho, G. S., Braga, Portugal: CIEC, Universidade do Minho , 2011, 67-77 p.Conference paper, Published paper (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Self-assembly is a biological process in which free subunits combine to form molecular complexes. Despite being considered one of the ‘big ideas’ in molecular life sciences, only limited education research has been performed on this topic. The objectives of this study were to investigate students’ learning of self-assembly in an authentic learning environment: a teaching-learning sequence (TLS). Twenty third-year biochemistry students in South Africa participated in the study. The TLS included a tutorial exercise with a physical model of a poliovirus capsid. A mixed-methods approach was employed to collect qualitative and quantitative data from interviews and written pre- and post-tests. A significant improvement in test scores was found, and it was observed that the TLS could support students’ understanding of self-assembly. Some conceptual and visualization difficulties were also identified. Using the model in a TLS was associated with positive attitudes and engagement among the participants.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Braga, Portugal: CIEC, Universidade do Minho, 2011
Keyword
external representation, interactive learning, post-secondary education, learning difficulties, molecular interactions
National Category
Didactics
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-75234 (URN)978-972-8952-19-8 (ISBN)
Conference
VIIIth Conference of European Researchers in Didactics of Biology (ERIDOB), 13-17 July, 2010, Braga, Portugal
Projects
VisMolLS
Available from: 2012-02-22 Created: 2012-02-22 Last updated: 2016-05-04Bibliographically approved
3. Challenging students' intuitive expectations - an analysis of students reasoning around a tangible model of virus assembly
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Challenging students' intuitive expectations - an analysis of students reasoning around a tangible model of virus assembly
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

How can a well-ordered biological complex be formed by the random motion of its components, i.e. self-assemble? This is a concept that is counter to human intuitive expectations derived from prior knowledge and experience. In previous studies we have shown that a tangible model of virus selfassembly, used as a thinking-tool in a group-exercise, helps students to grasp the process of selfassembly, particularly the facet random molecular collision. The present study investigates how and why the model facilitates students’ acceptance of new concepts and learning. The data analysed consist of audio-recordings of six group exercises and five individual semi-structured interviews, in which 35 university students from Sweden and South Africa participated. Qualitative analysis indicates that the students’ prior knowledge, prior conceptual understanding and intuitive ideas, influenced their meaning-making of the molecular process of self-assembly. Moreover, the counterintuitive aspects of the process created a conceptual conflict within the learners, and both the tangible model and group exercises facilitated a conceptual change in their understanding of the process. Lastly, the data indicate that students’ emotional state is significant for their successful accommodation of the counter-intuitive aspects of self-assembly. The analysis is based on a combination of constructivist perspectives of learning, conceptual change theory, and learning with external representations.

Keyword
Conceptual conflict, counter-intuitive, tangible model, hands-on model, conceptual change, self-assembly
National Category
Didactics
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-91367 (URN)
Note

Del av avhandling

Available from: 2013-04-23 Created: 2013-04-23 Last updated: 2016-05-04Bibliographically approved
4. When metaphors come to life: at the interface of external representations, molecular processes and student learning
Open this publication in new window or tab >>When metaphors come to life: at the interface of external representations, molecular processes and student learning
2012 (English)In: International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, ISSN 1306-3065, Vol. 7, no 4, 563-580 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

When studying the molecular aspect of the life sciences, learners must be introduced to somewhat inaccessible phenomena that occur at the sub-micro scale. Despite the difficulties, students need to be familiar with and understand the highly dynamic nature of molecular processes. Thus, external representations1 (ERs) can be considered unavoidable and essential tools for student learning. Besides meeting the challenge of interpreting external representations, learners also encounter a large array of abstract concepts2, which are challenging to understand (Orgill & Bodner, 2004). Both teachers and learners use metaphorical language as a way to relate these abstract phenomena to more familiar ones from everyday life. Scientific papers, as well as textbooks and popular science articles, are packed with metaphors, analogies and intentional expressions. Like ERs, the use of metaphors and analogies is inevitable and necessary when communicating knowledge concerning molecular phenomena. Therefore, a large body of published research related to metaphors concerns science teachers’ and textbook writers’ interpretation and use of metaphors (Harrison & Treagust, 2006). In this paper we present a theoretical framework for examining metaphorical language use in relation to abstract phenomena and external representations. The framework was verified by using it to analyse students’ meaning-making in relation to an animation representing the sub-microscopic and abstract process of ATP-synthesis in Oxidative Phosphorylation. We seek to discover the animator’s intentions while designing the animation and to identify the metaphors that students use while interacting with the animation. Two of these metaphors serve as examples of a metaphor analysis, in which the characteristics of metaphors are outlined. To our knowledge,  no strategies to identify and understand the characteristics, benefits, and potential pitfalls of particular metaphors have, to date, been presented in science education research. Our aspiration is to contribute valuable insights into metaphorical language use at the interface between external representations, molecular processes, and student learning.

Keyword
Affordance, Design of external representations, Higher education, Metaphors, Molecular phenomena
National Category
Social Sciences
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-76140 (URN)
Available from: 2012-03-28 Created: 2012-03-28 Last updated: 2017-12-07Bibliographically approved

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