Biochemistry students' difficulties with the symbolic and visual language used in molecular biology.
Gupthar, Abindra Supersad.
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This study reports on recurring difficulties experienced by undergraduate students with respect to understanding and interpretation of certain symbolism, nomenclature, terminology, shorthand notation, models and other visual representations employed in the field of Molecular Biology to communicate information. Based on teaching experience and guidelines set out by a four-level methodological framework, data on various topic-related difficulties was obtained by inductive analyses of students’ written responses to specifically designed, free-response and focused probes. In addition, interviews, think-aloud exercises and student-generated diagrams were also used to collect information. Both unanticipated and recurring difficulties were compared with scientifically correct propositional knowledge, categorized and subsequently classified. Students were adept at providing the meaning of the symbol “Δ” in various scientific contexts; however, some failed to recognize its use to depict the deletion of a leucine biosynthesis gene in the form, Δ leu. “Hazard to leucine”, “change to leucine” and “abbreviation for isoleucine” were some of the erroneous interpretations of this polysemic symbol. Investigations on these definitions suggest a constructivist approach to knowledge construction and the inappropriate transfer of knowledge from prior mental schemata. The symbol, “::”, was poorly differentiated by students in its use to indicate gene integration or transposition and in tandem gene fusion. Idiosyncratic perceptions emerged suggesting that it is, for example, a proteinaceous component linking genes in a chromosome or the centromere itself associated with the mitotic spindle or “electrons” between genes in the same way that it is symbolically shown in Lewis dot diagrams which illustrate covalent bonding between atoms. In an oligonucleotide shorthand notation, some students used valency to differentiate the phosphite trivalent form of the phosphorus atom from the pentavalent phosphodiester group, yet the concept of valency was poorly understood. By virtue of the visual form of a shorthand notation of the 3,5 phosphodiester link in DNA, the valency was incorrectly read. VSEPR theory and the Octet Rule were misunderstood or forgotten when trying to explain the valency of the phosphorus atom in synthetic oligonucleotide intermediates. Plasmid functional domains were generally well-understood although restriction mapping appeared to be a cognitively demanding task. Rote learning and substitution of definitions were evident in the explanation of promoter and operator functions. The concept of gene expression posed difficulties to many students who believed that genes contain the entity they encode. Transcription and translation of in tandem gene fusions were poorly explained by some students as was the effect of plasmid conformation on transformation and gene expression. With regard to the selection of transformants or the hybridoma, some students could not engage in reasoning or lateral thinking as protoconcepts and domain-specific information were poorly understood. A failure to integrate and reason with factual information on phenotypic traits, media components and biochemical pathways were evident in written and oral presentations. DNA-strand nomenclature and associated function were problematic to some students as they failed to differentiate coding strand from template strand and were prone to interchange the labelling of these. A substitution of labels with those characterizing DNA replication intermediates demonstrated erroneous information transfer. DNA replication models posed difficulties integrating molecular mechanisms and detail with line drawings, coupled with inaccurate illustrations of sequential replication features. Finally, a remediation model is presented, demonstrating a shift in assessment score dispersion from a range of 0 - 4.5 to 4 - 9 when learners are guided metacognitively to work with domain-specific or critical knowledge from an information bank. The present work shows that varied forms of symbolism can present students with complex learning difficulties as the underlying information depicted by these is understood in a superficial way. It is imperative that future studies be focused on the standardization of symbol use, perhaps governed by convention that determines the manner in which threshold information is disseminated on symbol use, coupled by innovative teaching strategies which facilitate an improved understanding of the use of symbolic representations in Molecular Biology. As Molecular Biology advances, it is likely that experts will continue to use new and diverse forms of symbolic representations to explain their findings. The explanation of futuristic Science is likely to develop a symbolic language that will impose great teaching challenges and unimaginable learning difficulties to new generation teachers and learners, respectively.