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What do Cells Really Look Like? An Inquiry into Students’ Difficulties in Visualising a 3-D Biological Cell and Lessons for Pedagogy

Abstract

In our explorations of students’ concepts in an inquiry science classroom with grade 6 students from urban schools in India, we uncovered a variety of problems in their understanding of biological cells as structural and functional units of living organisms. In particular, we found not only that they visualised the cell as a two-dimensional (2-D) structure, instead of a closed three-dimensional (3-D) functional unit, but that they had a strong resistance to changing their 2-D conception to a 3-D one. Based on analyses of students’ oral as well as written descriptions of cells in the classroom, and of models they made of the cell, we were able to identify the causes of students’ difficulties in correctly visualising the cell. These insights helped us design a pedagogy involving guided discussions and activities that challenges students’ 2-D conceptions of the cell. The activities entail very simple, low-cost, easily doable techniques to help students visualise the cell and to understand that it would not be able to function if its structure were 2-D. We also present the results of our investigations of conceptions of grade 7 students and biology undergraduates, revealing that the incorrect 2-D mental model can persist right up to the college level if it is not explicitly addressed. The classroom interactions described in this study illustrate how students’ ideas can be probed and addressed in the classroom using pedagogical action research.

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Notes

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    The transcripts in the paper have been edited slightly to convert them from spoken to written language for the purpose of clarity.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the students who participated in our study. We are grateful to the reviewers for their comments and suggestions which improved our manuscript and to our colleagues for their input. A. M. Shaker and R. Vaity helped us conduct the survey among college students. A. Farkade, P. Konde, M. Tata and A. Unmesh provided assistance with this report. M. Nair provided technical support. J. Isbert, Arvind Kumar and B. Eilam gave valuable feedback on a draft of the paper.

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Correspondence to Jyotsna Vijapurkar.

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Vijapurkar, J., Kawalkar, A. & Nambiar, P. What do Cells Really Look Like? An Inquiry into Students’ Difficulties in Visualising a 3-D Biological Cell and Lessons for Pedagogy. Res Sci Educ 44, 307–333 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-013-9379-5

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Keywords

  • Inquiry
  • Pedagogical action research
  • Conceptual change
  • Cells
  • Models