Exploring students’ descriptions of mutation from a cognitive perspective suggests how to modify instructional approaches

Fang Fang Zhao, Anita Schuchardt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Prior studies have shown that students have difficulty understanding the role of mutation in evolution and genetics. However, little is known about unifying themes underlying students’ difficulty with mutation. In this study, we examined students’ written explanations about mutation from a cognitive science perspective. According to one cognitive perspective, scientific phenomena can be perceived as entities or processes, and the miscategori-zation of processes as entities can lead to noncanonical ideas about scientific phenomena that are difficult to change. Students’ incorrect categorization of processes as entities is well documented in physics but has not been studied in biology. Unlike other scientific phenomena that have been studied, the word “mutation” refers to both the process causing a change in the DNA and the entity, the altered DNA, making mutation a relevant concept for exploration and extension of this theory. In this study, we show that, even after instruction on mutation, the majority of students provided entity-focused descriptions of mutation in response to a question that prompted for a process-focused description in a lizard or a bacterial population. Students’ noncanonical ideas about mutation occurred in both entity-and process-focused descriptions. Implications for conceptual understanding and instruction are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberar45
JournalCBE life sciences education
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the members in the Schuchardt-Warfa research group who provided valuable feedback throughout this study: Abdi Warfa, Petra Kranzfelder, Catherine Kirkpatrick, Jenna Hicks, Marcos Garcia-Ojeda, Jessica Dewey, Linh Chau, and Jennifer Bankers-Fulbright. We also thank Gillian Roehrig for critical comments on an earlier draft of this article. We appreciate the critical feedback from two anonymous reviewers. We also thank the instructor and the students who participated in this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 FF. Zhao and A. Schuchardt.


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