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Assistant Teaching Professo

University of Missourimissouri-m-head.gif

Division of Biological Sciences

110 Tucker Hall

Columbia, MO  65211 



The University of Missouri - Columbia campus sits at the geographical center of the state, halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.  It is a typical college town of about 100,000 regular residents and swells to 130,000 every August.  Columbia, MO is as diverse a community as one can find in the middle of the mid-west with many activities for all interests.

I've been teaching at Mizzou since fall of 2002 and favor the non-science majors courses.  Currently I teach General Biology lecture, Infectious Diseases, Genetic Diseases (all to non-science majors) and team-teach Botany.  Because I am a teaching professor, I do not have a research requirement, however because I am a scientist I can't help it!  In my research life, I am interested in exploring what students know coming into our class (correct or incorrect) and which teaching strategies work best.  My bench training was in plant molecular biology, physiology and nutrition. In the future, I hope to spend some time in the summers re-exploring those plant research roots.

As a bonus, I am the mother of two small children: Liberty and Archer.  All else takes second seat to spending time with my kids and my husband, Richard.  I live on 65 acres about 15 miles out of town and sometimes get a moment to go out and smell my horses.


Biology Scholars Research Project

Title: Exploring Student Misconceptions about DNA, Genes, and Chromosomes  

What is the focus of your investigation?

One mistake many first-time teachers make is assuming their students' brains are empty vessels just waiting to be filled.  Experienced educators know students enter our classrooms with diverse backgrounds and prior knowledge -- some correct and some not.  Unfortunately, once a piece of incorrect information is learned, it is difficult to dislodge.  Before it can be replaced with correct understanding, students need to be faced with the flaws in their thinking and find the new/correct replacement valuable.

The purpose of this study is to investigate what misconceptions students may have on molecular genetics when they enter a college General Biology course.  Other goals of this research are to tease out the sources of these misconceptions and then test the effectiveness of various methods for confronting the misconceptions and, hopefully, replacing them with valid understanding.

For more information, please see the Context and Problem page.

What resources/references have you found helpful?

Duncan and Reiser (2007) reported a comprehensive study that they conducted to explore the difficulty 10th grade high school students have in learning molecular genetics, specifically the function of genes in making proteins.  Because this study was conducted in high school students, it doesn't directly answer my question, but it does provide some clues on stumbling blocks students may have as they enter my classroom and, from that, possible misconceptions.  Having an idea what students struggle with in high school makes designing my assessment tool easier, as I can target these possibilities.

For more information, please see the Bibliography page.

What is your approach and/or what evidence will you gather?

My goal was to measure students' prior knowledge on molecular genetics at the start of the semester and also measure conceptual change at the end of the semester in a large, non-majors general biology lecture course.  To do this, I used written pre- and post-instructional assessment. Earlier in my teaching career, I worked with Dr. Pat Friedrichsen and Dr. Pat Brown on a pilot study on misconceptions in molecular genetics.  Preliminary results from this research are found under Previous Research.  Basically, we discovered students try to label the rungs on the DNA ladder as either genes or chromosomes.  We also discovered that students think cells have only the genes they need for their individual function.

In the Fall of 2008, I used the results from our pilot student to create open-ended questions that gave students the opportunity to describe their understanding on concepts such as "What is a gene?", "What is the relationship between genes and proteins?", and "Is there a structural relationship between genes, DNA and chromosomes?".  WIth 350 students participating in the study, I was able to pull out many common misconceptions and holes in the knowledge.  I also discussed the research with my peers to find what inaccuracies they had noticed in their students. In Spring, 2009, I used the inaccurate student responses as distractors on a multiple-choice format pre-and post-instructional assessment.  For these semesters, students picked the answer they thought was best and then ranked their confidence in their understanding from 1-5.  This allowed me to assess if a student thought their incorrect answer was right (indicating they held a misconception) or if they just didn't know.  I also asked students to comment on which teaching strategies they thought were the most helpful.

Because Spring, 2009 had revealed a lack of conceptual change in some key concepts, in Fall, 2009 I created a new instructional strategy and used the same assessment tools to measure the effectiveness of this new learning tool.

For more information, please see the Methods and Findings page.

What results have emerged?

Students struggled with three concepts:


Concept 1: Cells in the same person have the same genetic information

Results from Spring, 2009 indicate most students initially think the DNA sequence and genes are different in different cells in the same individual.  After instruction, they understood all cells have the same genes, but still held onto their misconception that the DNA sequence varies between cells.

Concept 2: The structural relationship between DNA, genes and chromosomes
Prior to instruction, students are confident that genes or, especially, chromosomes are either structures on the DNA helix or are unrelated to DNA.  A large % of students have confidence in these alternative conceptions.  After instruction, more students selected the correct relationships, but the misconceptions were maintained by many.  Their confidence in both the correct and incorrect understanding increased. 
Concept 3: All people have the same genes and genes store information to make proteins.  Protein function are the “traits” we see.
Other studies have explored more deeply students’ understanding of the relationship between genes and proteins (Duncan and Reiser, 2007), but this was also assessed briefly in this study.  Both before and after instruction, students favor the functional definition of a gene, but they struggle with gene in other contexts.
Several teaching strategies were used during the course of the unit.  When asked, students indicated they found attending lecture and the two concept map exercises that had them relate various terms the most helpful.  Students found the Podcast version of the lecture, an analogy, and a problem-solving exercise less helpful.  A jigsaw exercise was included as a control since the jigsaw was completed during the same unit, but on a different topic.  Students reported the jigsaw was the least helpful.
For more information, please see the Discussion page.


What information may be found in your Appendices?

In the Appendices you can find the following information:

- Explanations of terminology

- Examples of student work

For more information, please see the Appendices page. 






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