Students' use of diagrams for the visualisation of biochemical processes.
Research into the usefulness of scientific diagrams as teaching and learning tools has revealed their great effectiveness in reinforcing and replacing text; summarizing, clarifying, grouping and comparing information; illustrating abstract concepts and spatial relations between concepts; and aiding understanding and integration of knowledge. However, these advantages are not always realised as diagram effectiveness depends on the student's cognitive ability, visual literacy and prior knowledge. In biochemistry, flow diagrams are used as tools for the visualisation of biochemical processes, the abstract nature of which presents problems to students, probably because the depicted content is beyond their perceptual experience. In this study, we define visualisation as the entire process from the perception of an external representation (e.g. diagram), its internal processing, and the expression of a mental model of the represented content. Therefore, visualisation incorporates reasoning processes and interactions with a student's conceptual knowledge, in their construction of a mental model. Students' visualisation difficulties, in terms of conceptual and reasoning difficulties, have been well researched in areas such as physics and chemistry, but neglected in biochemistry, especially with respect to the use of diagrams as visualisation tools. Thus the aim of this study was to investigate students' use of diagrams for the visualisation of biochemical processes, and to identify the nature, and potential sources of students' conceptual, reasoning and diagram-related difficulties revealed during the visualisation process. The study groups ranged from 27 to 95 biochemistry students from the University of Natal and 2 to 13 local and international experts. Propositional knowledge was obtained from textbooks and from a questionnaire to experts. Data on student visualisation of biochemical processes was obtained from their responses to written and interview probes as well as student-generated diagrams. All data was subjected to inductive analysis according to McMillan and Schumacher (1993) and any difficulties that emerged were classified at levels 1- 3 on the framework of Grayson et al. (2001). The possible sources of difficulties were considered in terms of a model by Schonborn et al. (2003 & 2002). The results revealed the following major findings. The meaning of linear, cyclic and cascade biochemical processes was partially resolved by means of an extensive list of generic and distinguishing functional features obtained from experts. Attempts to clarify propositional knowledge of the complement system revealed a deficiency in our understanding of the functional relationship between the complement pathways and highlighted the need for further experimental laboratory work. Several students literally interpreted diagrams of the functional characteristics of biochemical processes (e.g. cyclic) as the spatial arrangement of the intermediates within cells (e.g. occur in "circles"), although in some cases, their verbal responses revealed that they did not hold this difficulty suggesting that they might hold more than one internal model of the process. Some students also showed difficulty using textbook diagrams to visualise the chemistry of glycolytic and complement reactions. In this regard, besides students' conceptual knowledge and reasoning ability, a major source of these difficulties included misleading symbolism and visiospatial characteristics in the diagrams, suggesting the need for improvement of diagram design through the use of clearer symbolism, the standardization of conventions, and improvement of visiospatial properties of diagrams. The results constituted further empirical evidence for the model of Schonbom et al. (2003 & 2002) and led to the proposal of a model of visualisation aimed at clarifying the highly complex and cognitive processes involved in individuals' visualisation of biochemical processes in living systems.