Research in Science Education

, Volume 42, Issue 5, pp 891–913 | Cite as

Students’ Communicative Resources in Relation to Their Conceptual Understanding—The Role of Non-Conventionalized Expressions in Making Sense of Visualizations of Protein Function

  • Carl-Johan RundgrenEmail author
  • Richard Hirsch
  • Shu-Nu Chang Rundgren
  • Lena A. E. Tibell


This study examines how students explain their conceptual understanding of protein function using visualizations. Thirteen upper secondary students, four tertiary students (studying chemical biology), and two experts were interviewed in semi-structured interviews. The interviews were structured around 2D illustrations of proteins and an animated representation of water transport through a channel in the cell membrane. In the analysis of the transcripts, a score, based on the SOLO-taxonomy, was given to each student to indicate the conceptual depth achieved in their explanations. The use of scientific terms and non-conventionalized expressions in the students’ explanations were investigated based upon a semiotic approach. The results indicated that there was a positive relationship between use of scientific terms and level of education. However, there was no correlation between students’ use of scientific terms and conceptual depth. In the interviews, we found that non-conventionalized expressions were used by several participants to express conceptual understanding and played a role in making sense of the visualizations of protein function. Interestingly, also the experts made use of non-conventionalized expressions. The results of our study imply that more attention should be drawn to students’ use of scientific and non-conventionalized terms in relation to their conceptual understanding.


Science communication Life science Scientific terms Visualization Conceptual understanding SOLO Taxonomy 



We would like to thank Martin Eriksson and Mari Stadig Degerman, who have made their diploma theses in this project. They have made a valuable contribution in the collection of data. This project has been sponsored by The Municipality of Norrköping, The Swedish Science Council (grant 2003-4275) and The Swedish National Graduate School in Science and Technology Education Research (FONTD).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carl-Johan Rundgren
    • 1
    Email author
  • Richard Hirsch
    • 2
  • Shu-Nu Chang Rundgren
    • 3
  • Lena A. E. Tibell
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Mathematics and Science Education (MND)Stockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  2. 2.Department of Culture and CommunicationLinköping UniversityLinköpingSweden
  3. 3.The Center of Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education Research (SMEER) & Department of Chemistry and Biomedical SciencesKarlstad UniversityKarlstadSweden
  4. 4.Visual Learning and Communication, Department of Science and Technology, ITNLinköping UniversityNorrköpingSweden

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