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The presentation and interpretation of arrow symbolism in biology diagrams at secondary-level.

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The literature contains conflicting ideas about the effectiveness of diagrams, and their constituent symbolism as teaching and learning tools. In addition, only limited research has been specifically conducted on the presentation and interpretation of arrow symbolism used in biology diagrams, let alone on the nature, source and remediation of student difficulties caused by arrows. On the basis of this limited research and 30 years of experience of teaching biology at secondary-level, the author suspected that students might have difficulties interpreting arrow symbolism in diagrams used as explanatory tools and decided to thoroughly investigate this issue. The hypothesis, 'Secondary-level students have difficulty with the use of arrow symbolism in biology diagrams' was formulated and the following broad research questions defined to address the hypothesis: 1. How much of a problem is arrow symbolism in diagrams? 2. How effectively is arrow symbolism used in diagrams to promote the communication of intended ideas? 3. To what extent does the design of arrow symbolism in diagrams influence students ' interpretation and difficulties? 4. How can the emerging empirical data and ideas from literature be combined to illustrate the process of interpretation of arrow symbolism? 5. What measures can be suggested for improving the presentation and interpretation of arrow symbolism in biology diagrams at secondary-level? To address Research question 1, a content analysis of all arrow symbolism in seven popular secondary-level biology textbooks was undertaken. This revealed a wide diversity of arrow styles, spatial organisations, purposes and meanings that could be confusing to students. These results suggested the need for an evaluation of the effectiveness of arrow symbolism (Research question 2). As there was no definitive set of guidelines available for specifically evaluating arrows, general guidelines from the literature on diagrams were used to develop a set of 10 criteria, to evaluate the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic dimensions of arrow symbolism, which were validated by selected educators, students and a graphic design expert. Application of the criteria (which constituted expert opinion) to the arrow symbolism used in 614 realistic, stylised and abstract diagram types, revealed a relatively high incidence (30%) of inappropriately presented arrow designs that could mislead students. To establish whether this problem could be the cause of student difficulties, and to thereby address Research question 3, a stylised and an abstract diagram were selected and evaluated according to the criteria. The results of the evaluation were compared to the responses given by 174 students to a range of written and interview probes and student modified diagrams. In this way, student performance was correlated with expert opinion. The results confirmed that students experience a wide range of difficulties (26 categories) when interpreting arrow symbolism, with some (12 categories) being attributable to inappropriately presented arrow symbolism and others (14 categories) to student-related processing skills and strategies at both surface- and deeper-levels of reasoning. To address question 4, the emerging empirical data from the evaluation and student studies was combined with a wide range of literature, to inform the development of a 3-level, non-tiered model of the process of interpretation of arrow symbolism in diagrams. As this model emphasised the importance of both arrow presentation in diagrams and arrow interpretation by students, it could be used as an effective explanatory tool as well as a predictive tool to identify sources of difficulty with the use of arrow symbolism. This model was, in turn, used to inform the compilation of a range of guidelines for improving the presentation and interpretation of arrow symbolism, and so target Research question 5. These, and other guidelines grounded in the data and relevant literature, were suggested for all role players, including students, educators, textbook writers, graphic artists and researchers, to use as remedial tools. Future research should focus on the implementation of these guidelines and studying their effectiveness for improving the presentation and interpretation of diagrams with arrow and other types of symbolism.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2006.


Biology--Study and teaching (Secondary)--KwaZulu-Natal., Biology--Charts, diagrams, etc., Biology--Textbooks., Signs and symbols., Comprehension., Science--Study and teaching., Theses--Biochemistry.