Thumbnail Image

Educational issues in introductory tertiary biology

The work presented in this thesis focuses on educational issues in first-year biology courses at university. First-year courses are important because they have the potential to influence student retention and subsequent subject selection choices, as well as learning at higher levels. Further, biology is considered to be an important enabling subject in New Zealand because of the Government's drive towards a biotechnology-based knowledge economy. Specifically, the work in this thesis explores the educational implications of the increasingly diverse academic backgrounds of students entering first-year biology courses on teaching and learning in these courses. A social constructivist view of learning is adopted, in which prior knowledge of the learners is considered to have a significant influence on their learning. The social context of learning interactions also is considered to be important. The research involved three phases: identification of prior knowledge assumed by faculty; identification of actual prior knowledge of students; and the implementation and evaluation of an intervention programme based on concept mapping. In order to investigate faculty assumptions of student prior knowledge, 35 faculty from six New Zealand universities were interviewed. Document analysis and classroom observations provided data triangulation. The findings for this phase of the research suggest that faculty were aware of the diverse prior knowledge of students, and reported a tension between teaching from scratch in order to accommodate those with very limited prior knowledge; and the risk of boring those with more extensive relevant backgrounds. A range of concepts that are not explained during teaching (i.e., concepts it is assumed students understand) were identified, including biology-specific concepts and relevant chemical and mathematical concepts. In the second phase, research findings from phase one were used to develop a prior knowledge questionnaire administered in two successive years to all students enrolled in first-year biology courses at one New Zealand university. Data analysis for this phase suggests that although students with more extensive prior biology study were more likely to have a scientifically acceptable understanding of some key concepts, this was not true of all the concepts that were investigated, including chemical and mathematical concepts. The data also point to differences between what faculty expect students to know, and what students actually know. Furthermore, few students, regardless of the extent of prior biology study, were able to demonstrate understanding of the relationships between important biological concepts. In the third phase of the research, an intervention based on concept mapping was implemented and evaluated. Two of the six weekly tutorial classes associated with two first-year biology courses were used for the purposes of the intervention. The intervention differed from the other concept mapping studies reported in the literature in that its implementation was of long duration, viz., a period of 11 weeks. Students who participated in the intervention reported in 'tutorial experience questionnaires' and subsequent interviews that concept mapping helped them to learn the biology content covered during lectures, and to identify links between concepts. A large proportion of participants indicated that they used concept mapping for biology study outside of the intervention tutorial classes, and in some cases in other courses of study. Classroom management strategies appeared to contribute to the positive views about the use of concept mapping during tutorials. Specifically, the tutor modelled the use of concept mapping, but students were also given opportunities to construct their own maps. The role of the tutor in guiding discussions with students and providing feedback was also viewed as being important. Detailed analysis of course assessment tasks suggests that concept mapping enhanced learning for test questions that require understanding of links between concepts. Where tasks require only the recall of facts, concept mapping does not appear to make a statistically significant difference to student performance. The findings from the concept mapping intervention thus suggest that although concept mapping is a strategy that can be used effectively in tertiary biology tutorial classes, it is more worthwhile if the type of deep learning that is encouraged by the use of concept mapping is also the type of learning required to successfully complete assessment tasks. This raises the issue of whether the type of learning faculty specify in course objectives is the type of learning they actually seek to develop in course delivery and associated assessment regimes.
Type of thesis
Buntting, C. M. (2006). Educational issues in introductory tertiary biology (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/2616
The University of Waikato
All items in Research Commons are provided for private study and research purposes and are protected by copyright with all rights reserved unless otherwise indicated.