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Learning genetics with multiple external representations: Preliminary findings in a laptop school

Chi-Yan Tsui and David F. Treagust
Curtin University of Technology
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This paper discusses the preliminary findings of a case study of two Year 10 classes (n = 48) in a laptop school for girls in Perth. The case study was part of a larger research study on the teaching and learning of genetics with multiple external representations (MERs). Taught by two experienced biology teachers, the students learnt genetics over six weeks with different representations that included the computer-based MERs in BioLogica, an interactive program for learning introductory genetics, and MERs in some web-based multimedia about human and molecular genetics. MERs, as researchers claim, support student learning by complementing information/processes, constraining interpretation, and constructing understanding. Classroom observations, and teacher and student interviews indicated that most of the students enjoyed learning using the MERs of genetics particularly those in web-based multimedia on human genetics. Preliminary findings based on students' pre-instructional and post-instructional online reasoning tests and questionnaires show that students' class-wide genetics reasoning substantially improved after instruction but only in the easier reasoning types. However, the gene conceptions of some high-achievers were found to be sophisticated. The findings reveal some issues of student learning in a multi-representational learning environment and the important role of teachers in making better pedagogical use of MERs.


This paper reports a case study of two Grade 10 classrooms in a girls' school with laptops when they learnt genetics over six weeks with computer multimedia that feature linked multiple external representations (MERs). The original focus on the use of BioLogica (Concord Consortium, 2001) was extended to some online multimedia on human and molecular genetics. The major objective of the study reported here is about the extent to which computer multimedia brought about students' conceptual change along the epistemological, social/affective and ontological dimensions.


This study is significant because few studies on learning with multimedia use a multidimensional conceptual change framework. Genetics has now become privotal in the biological sciences and increasingly related to human affairs. While international researchers over the past two decades have reiterated that genetics remains conceptually and linguistically difficult to teach and learn (e.g., Bahar, Johnstone, & Hansell, 1999; Johnstone & Mahmoud, 1980), the Australian counterparts have had similar findings (Hackling & Treagust, 1984; Venville & Treagust, 1998). This paper reports a multidimensional analysis of students learning genetics in a laptop school for girls. Secondly, we attempted to examine the status of students' conceptions based ontological progression in their mental models of the genes (Venville & Treagust, 1998).

Theoretical underpinnings

New computational perspectives about MERs

Genetics reasoning used in problem solving has to be built upon understanding of biological subcellular processes underlying the concepts and their relations (Kindfield, 1992). Human teachers have long been using different representation technique to present information to students, such as text, diagrams, practical demonstrations, abstract models or semi-abstract simulations. Only very recently have researchers begun to look at the functions of multiple external representations (MERs) from new computational perspectives (e.g., Ainsworth, 1999). These MERs, as some researchers claim, can support student learning by providing complementary ideas and processes, by constraining interpretations or by promoting a deeper understanding of concepts but not without new costs and challenges (Ainsworth, 1999).

Conceptual change models and status analysis

Since Posner, Strike, Hewson, and Gertzog (1982) authoritatively proposed the conceptual change model, researchers have been advancing the model beyond the epistemological dimension. However, the social/affective dimension has largely been ignored (e.g., Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993). Since then, Tyson, Venville, Harrison, and Treagust's (1997) multidimensional conceptual change model has proved to be a robust framework for interpreting conceptual learning (e.g., Harrison & Treagust, 2001; Venville & Treagust, 1998). We have also examine the ontological progression of the students' mental model of the genes (Venville & Treagust, 1998). As Hewson and Lemberger (2000) argue, "status ( a construct originating in conceptual change theory ( is the hallmark of all forms of conceptual learning" (p. 123).

Research design and procedures

Research approach

An interpretive approach (Erickson, 1998; Gallagher, 1991) was used with a multiple-case embedded design (Yin, 1994) using multiple data collection methods (Merriam, 1988). This study was the third of four case studies in a research project on genetics learning. Quantitative and qualitative methods were combined for more meaningful interpretations of the case. As a naturalistic study, the teacher taught in an authentic classroom situation by integrating multimedia activities in their classroom teaching. The multimedia included BioLogica a hypermodel (Horwitz & Tinker, 2001) for learning high school genetics, and other online multimedia, in particular those from the website "Your genes, your health" (Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, 2002) BioLogica enables students to manipulate processes at different, but dynamically related levels of life function and visualise the changes made (Concord Consortium, 2001).

Data sources

Multiple sources of data were collected and generated: teacher and student semi-structured interviews and online pretests and posttests (that focus on genetics reasoning, gene conceptions and perceptions about their learning), computer log files (that tracked user interaction with BioLogica), classroom observation field-notes and transcripts (based on field notes and audiotapes), researcher's journals and various documents (mined from the classroom and school). The major source of data for this paper was from the semi-structured interviews and the online test data. The teachers and nine students were interviewed twice, before and after instruction. Some student interviewees' peers were also invited to take part in the second interview. One student whose conceptions were most sophisticated was interviewed for the third time.

School context

The study took place in a private girls' school in the metropolitan Perth area of Western Australia. The school highli ghts academic excellence, independent learning and student confidence in using information and communication technologies (ICT). The Year 10 students have each their own laptop computer which has wireless networking provided within the school campus and unlimited access to the Internet. The two participating science teachers, Ms Claire and Mrs Dawson (pseudonyms), had over 20 years of teaching experience and several years of using the laptops in their teaching in this school.

Data collection, analysis and interpretation

The first author spent about nine weeks in the classroom persistently observing most of Ms Claire's lessons (91%) and Mrs Dawson's lessons (75%) when genetics was being taught, conducting the interviews and collecting other data. All the interviews and five selected lessons including an experiment of DNA extraction, were fully transcribed verbatim and teacher interview transcripts "member-checked" by the teacher. Students' conceptual learning was interpreted within Tyson et al.'s (1997) framework along the epistemological dimension (genetics reasoning), the social/affective dimension (motivation and interest in interacting with MERs in multimedia they used), and ontological dimension (their conceptual change across ontological categories). We have also examined the ontological progression in her mental model of genes based on the interview data. The two authors often had meetings to discuss the research progress with the second author acting as a debriefer. Like member checking, peer debriefing is one of the techniques used by the qualitative researcher to increase the credibility of the data being collected, analysed and interpreted (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). The analysis of the verbal data follows qualitative traditions (e.g., Merriam, 1988), aided by the computer software NUD*IST (acronym for the software Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing, Searching and Theorising for analysing verbal data).


  1. Most students improved their genetics reasoning but only in easier types; such improvement differed across the two classes.

  2. Most students were highly motivated and enjoyed learning genetics with multimedia on their laptop computers but they preferred those from the websites on human genetics more than BioLogica.

  3. Although the major ontological conceptual change was still within the category of matter (thing), some students had conceptual change across categories (from matter to process).

  4. While the conception status of most of the students was only intelligible and plausible, that of one high-achiever in the teacher-made tests was found to be intelligible, plausible, and fruitful.

  5. Students' learning outcomes appeared to be consistent with their interest and prior knowledge, the classroom discourse, and the kind of multimedia they used most often in their learning.

Discussion and conclusion

The findings of this study have implications for making better pedagogical use of multiple representations in teaching for conceptual change and that the teacher's role appears important. As we found in a previous case study (Tsui & Treagust, in press), BioLogica appeared to be an effective tool in engendering student motivation and understanding but there are a number of challenges that teachers using BioLogica may face. For example, in this laptop school, teachers might have heavy workload so that there was insufficient time to try out the software. Also, for the teachers in the laptop school there may be limited possibilities for integration into an already well-established curriculum, and there is a need to provide adequate scaffolding for students with limited prior knowledge. Preliminary findings indicated that besides providing complementary information and processes, the manipulable multiple representations in BioLogica might have encouraged students to construct deeper understanding by constraining their interpretations of phenomena of genetics. To conclude, we believe that BioLogica demands that teachers (1) adopt an active role as a guide or facilitator, (2) familiarise themselves with the computer activities so that they can better scaffold students through these activities, and (3) select those computer activities that match their teaching objectives.


We wish to thank Dr Paul Horwitz of the Concord Consortium of the USA for granting permission to use BioLogica for research in Australian schools. We are also grateful to the two participating teachers, the students, and staff in the laptop school, who gave us support and help during our study there.


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Authors: Chi-Yan Tsui and David F. Treagust, Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC), Curtin University of Technology. Email: C-Y.Tsui@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Tsui, C.-Y. and Treagust, D. F. (2002). Learning genetics with multiple external representations: Preliminary findings in a laptop school. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2002. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2002/tsui.html

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