Examining Reasoning Practices and Epistemic Actions to Explore Students’ Understanding of Genetics and Evolution

  • Noa AgeitosEmail author
  • Blanca Puig
  • Laura Colucci-Gray


This article focuses on students’ discursive moves and reasoning practices while engaged in a task that requires making explanatory links between sickle cell disease and malaria. Both diseases pertain to key areas of the biology curriculum, namely, genetic variability and natural selection, and are connected to the theory of evolution of living organisms. Specifically, this study examines the intersections among rhetoric, argumentation and epistemic actions in supporting students’ understanding of complex biological dynamics, which are interlinked across time and space, but are often addressed separately in the curriculum. Data were collected over the course of two school years (2014–2016) with a group of 20 15–17-year-old students and their biology teacher. The findings indicate that while rhetorical moves helped students mobilize data, the use of evidence to support claims remained limited. Conversely, the type of epistemic actions enacted by the students appears to be directly related to the type of data being analysed. Hence, rhetorical moves in combination with argumentation practices appear to account for students’ differential performances in building more complex explanations of evolutionary topics. We conclude that further understanding of reasoning practices and how these are shaped by discursive moves is required in biology education, in order to help students view biological processes in a wider context, and thus gain a better understanding of evolutionary phenomena.



This work was supported by FEDER Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities-National Agency of Research/Project Code: PGC2018-096581-B-C22; and by FEDER and the State Innovation Agency of Research Project code EDU2015-66643-C2-2-P.

This study was developed under the ESERA Travel Awards for Doctoral Students and Post-doctoral Researchers 2016. The authors gratefully acknowledge María Pilar Jiménez Aleixandre for her valuable insights and helpful comments on drafts of this manuscript and also thank the anonymous referees for their valuable contributions to improve this paper. The authors thank the teachers and students for their participation.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidade de Santiago de CompostelaSantiago de CompostelaSpain
  2. 2.Moray House School of Education and SportUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUnited Kingdom

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