Research in Science Education

, Volume 43, Issue 4, pp 1361-1375

First online:

Is DNA Alive? A Study of Conceptual Change Through Targeted Instruction

  • Stephen B. WitzigAffiliated withDepartment of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) Education, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Email author 
  • , Sharyn K. FreyermuthAffiliated withDepartment of Biochemistry, University of Missouri (MU)
  • , Marcelle A. SiegelAffiliated withDepartment of Biochemistry, University of Missouri (MU)Department of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum, MU Science Education Center, University of Missouri (MU)
  • , Kemal IzciAffiliated withDepartment of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum, MU Science Education Center, University of Missouri (MU)
  • , J. Chris PiresAffiliated withDivision of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri (MU)

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We are involved in a project to incorporate innovative assessments within a reform-based large-lecture biochemistry course for nonmajors. We not only assessed misconceptions but purposefully changed instruction throughout the semester to confront student ideas. Our research questions targeted student conceptions of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) along with understanding in what ways classroom discussions/activities influence student conceptions. Data sources included pre-/post-assessments, semi-structured interviews, and student work on exams/assessments. We found that students held misconceptions about the chemical nature of DNA, with 63 % of students claiming that DNA is alive prior to instruction. The chemical nature of DNA is an important fundamental concept in science fields. We confronted this misconception throughout the semester collecting data from several instructional interventions. Case studies of individual students revealed how various instructional strategies/assessments allowed students to construct and demonstrate the scientifically accepted understanding of the chemical nature of DNA. However, the post-assessment exposed that 40 % of students still held misconceptions about DNA, indicating the persistent nature of this misconception. Implications for teaching and learning are discussed.


Deoxyribonucleic acid DNA Conceptual change Assessment Student conceptions