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15. The Research Base

  1. The Role of Research
  2. The Nature of the Research Literature
  3. Research Findings By Chapter and Section
    1. The Nature of Science
    2. The Nature of Mathematics
    3. The Nature of Technology
    4. The Physical Setting
    5. The Living Environment
    6. The Human Organism
    7. Human Society
    8. The Designed World
    9. The Mathematical World
    10. Historical Perspectives
    11. Common Themes
    12. Habits of Mind
  4. References

The references that follow are organized to match chapters and sections of Benchmarks, which in turn mostly match those of Science for All Americans. The list is very selective and includes only those references that met two criteria. One was relevance—some excellent papers were not included because they did not bear on one of the Benchmarks topics. The other criterion was quality—papers, however relevant, were bypassed if they were seen to have design flaws or their evidence or argument was weak. Even then, however, not all relevant and good papers are included. In many cases, a single paper has been used as representative of a number of similar reports.

It will immediately be clear that mathematics and the physical sciences have had the benefit of many more studies than have other fields. Perhaps that is because the subject matter lends itself to research more easily; in the next few years, though, perhaps the attention to cognitive research will increase in all fields.

Research Findings for Chapter 5: The Living Environment

Several areas related to The Living Environment have received considerable research attention over recent years. These include student meanings of the terms animal, plant, and living; students' ideas about plant nutrition; and their understanding of genetics and natural selection. Little has been published about students' understanding of cells, or the dependence of organisms on one another and the environment, or the flow of energy through the living environment. Research has focused on what students understand about the living environment at isolated points in time or on how this understanding evolves naturally in students. Research on instructional interventions that improve students understanding is limited. Reviews of research can be found in Carey (1985), Good et al. (1993), and Mintzes et al. (1991).

Classification of organisms

Some research indicates that in 2nd grade there is a shift in children's understanding of organisms from representations based on perceptual and behavioral features to representations in which central principles of biological theory are most important. Children at this age can begin to understand that animals of the same species have similar internal parts and offspring (Keil, 1989). When asked to group certain organisms, lower elementary-school students form groups of different status—for example, organisms that are able to fly and organisms that fight each other. Upper elementary-school students tend to use a number of mutually exclusive groups rather than a hierarchy of groups. Some groups are based on observable features; others on concepts. By middle school, students can group organisms hierarchically when asked to do so, whereas high-school students use hierarchical taxonomies without prompting (Leach, et al., 1992).

Meaning of the words "animal" and "plant"

Elementary- and middle-school students hold a much more restricted meaning than biologists for the word "animal" (Mintzes et al., 1991). For example, most students list only vertebrates as animals. Elementary- and middle-school students use such criteria as number of legs, body covering, and habitat to decide whether things are animals. High-school students frequently use attributes that are common to both plants and animals (e.g., reproduction and respiration) as criteria (Trowbridge & Mintzes, 1985). Because upper elementary-school students tend not to use hierarchical classification, they may have difficulty understanding that an organism can be classified as both a bird and an animal (Bell, 1981). Elementary- and middle-school students also hold a much more restricted meaning than biologists do for the word "plant." Students often do not recognize that trees, vegetables, and grass are all plants (Osborne & Freyberg, 1985).

Living and nonliving

Elementary- and middle-school students typically use criteria such as "movement," "breath," "reproduction," and "death" to decide whether things are alive. Thus, some believe fire, clouds, and the sun are alive, but others think plants and certain animals are nonliving. (Bell & Freyberg, 1985; Leach et al., 1992). High-school and college students also mainly use obvious criteria (e.g., "movement," "growth") to distinguish between "living" and "nonliving" and rarely mention structural criteria ("cells") or biochemical characteristics ("DNA") (Brumby, 1982; Leach et al., 1992).

By the end of 2nd grade, students know that children resemble their parents and realize that reproduction underlies this resemblance. Students at this age can also begin to understand the difference between learned resemblance and inherited resemblance (Carey, 1985).

When asked to explain how physical traits are passed from parents to offspring, elementary-school, middle-school, and some high-school students express the following misconceptions: Some students believe that traits are inherited from only one of the parents (for example, the traits are inherited from the mother, because she gives birth or has most contact as children grow up; or the same-sex parent will be the determiner). Other students believe that certain characteristics are always inherited from the mother and others come from the father. Some students believe in a "blending of characteristics." It may not be until the end of 5th grade that some students can use arguments based on chance to predict the outcome of inherited characteristics from observing those characteristics in the parents (Deadman & Kelly, 1978; Kargbo, Hobbs, & Erickson, 1980; Clough & Wood-Robinson, 1985b).

Early middle-school students explain inheritance only in observable features, but upper middle-school and high-school students have some understanding that characteristics are determined by a particular genetic entity which carries information translatable by the cell. Students of all ages believe that some environmentally produced characteristics can be inherited, especially over several generations (Clough & Wood-Robinson, 1985b).

Preliminary research indicates that it may be easier for students to understand that the cell is the basic unit of structure (which they can observe) than that the cell is the basic unit of function (which has to be inferred from experiments) (Dreyfus & Jungwirth, 1989). Research also shows that high-school students may hold various misconceptions about cells after traditional instruction (Dreyfus & Jungwirth, 1988).

Relationships between organisms

Lower elementary-school students can understand simple food links involving two organisms. Yet they often think of organisms as independent of each other but dependent on people to supply them with food and shelter. Upper elementary-school students may not believe food is a scarce resource in ecosystems, thinking that organisms can change their food at will according to the availability of particular sources (Leach et al., 1992). Students of all ages think that some populations of organisms are numerous in order to fulfill a demand for food by another population (Leach et al., 1992).


Middle-school and high-school students may believe that organisms are able to effect changes in bodily structure to exploit particular habitats or that they respond to a changed environment by seeking a more favorable environment (Jungwirth, 1975; Clough & Wood-Robinson, 1985a). It has been suggested that the language about adaptation used by teachers or textbooks to make biology more accessible to students may cause or reinforce these beliefs (Jungwirth, 1975).


Students of all ages tend to use the term "food" in ways that are consistent with the everyday meaning of the term, not the biological meaning. They see food as substances (water, air, minerals, etc.) that organisms take directly in from their environment (Anderson, Sheldon, & Dubay, 1990; Simpson & Arnold, 1985). In addition, some students of all ages think food is a requirement for growth, rather than a source of matter for growth. They have little knowledge about food being transformed and made part of a growing organism's body (Smith & Anderson, 1986; Leach et al., 1992).

Organisms as chemical systems

Middle-school and high-school students have difficulty thinking of the human body as a chemical system and have little knowledge about the elements composing the living body (Stavy, Eisen, & Yaakobi, 1987). In particular, middle-school students think organisms and materials in the environment are very different types of matter. For example, animals are made of bone, muscle, skin, etc.; plants are made of leaves, stems, and roots; and the nonliving environment is made of water, soil, and air. Students see these substances as fundamentally different and not transformable into each other (Smith & Anderson, 1986).

Plant and animal nutrition

Some students of all ages hold misconceptions about plant nutrition (Bell & Brook, 1984; Roth & Anderson, 1987; Anderson et al., 1990). They think plants get their food from the environment rather than manufacturing it internally, and that food for plants is taken in from the outside. These misconceptions are particularly resistant to change (Anderson et al., 1990). Even after traditional instruction, students have difficulty accepting that plants make food from water and air, and that this is their only source of food. Understanding that the food made by plants is very different from other nutrients such as water or minerals is a prerequisite for understanding the distinction between plants as producers and animals as consumers (Roth & Anderson, 1987; Anderson et al., 1990).

Some students of all ages have difficulty in identifying the sources of energy for plants and also for animals (Anderson et al., 1990). Students tend to confuse energy and other concepts such as food, force, and temperature. As a result, students may not appreciate the uniqueness and importance of energy conversion processes like respiration and photosynthesis (Anderson et al., 1990). Although specially designed instruction does help students correct their understanding about energy exchanges, some difficulties remain (Anderson et al., 1990). Careful coordination between The Physical Setting and The Living Environment benchmarks about conservation of matter and energy and the nature of energy may help alleviate these difficulties (Anderson et al., 1990).


Some middle-school students think dead organisms simply rot away. They do not realize that the matter from the dead organism is converted into other materials in the environment. Some middle-school students see decay as a gradual, inevitable consequence of time without need of decomposing agents (Smith & Anderson, 1986). Some high-school students believe that matter is conserved during decay, but do not know where it goes (Leach et al., 1992).

Matter cycling

Middle-school students seem to know that some kind of cyclical process takes place in ecosystems (Smith & Anderson, 1986). Some students see only chains of events and pay little attention to the matter involved in processes such as plant growth or animals eating plants. They think the processes involve creating and destroying matter rather than transforming it from one substance to another. Other students recognize one form of recycling through soil minerals but fail to incorporate water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide into matter cycles. Even after specially designed instruction, students cling to their misinterpretations. Instruction that traces matter through the ecosystem as a basic pattern of thinking may help correct these difficulties (Smith & Anderson, 1986).

Natural selection

High-school and college students, even after some years of biology instruction, have difficulties understanding the notion of natural selection (Brumby, 1979; Bishop & Anderson, 1990). A major hindrance to understanding natural selection appears to be students' inability to integrate two distinct processes in evolution, the occurrence of new traits in a population and their effect on long-term survival (Bishop & Anderson, 1990). Many students believe that environmental conditions are responsible for changes in traits, or that organisms develop new traits because they need them to survive, or that they over-use or under-use certain bodily organs or abilities (Bishop & Anderson, 1990). By contrast, students have little understanding that chance alone produces new heritable characteristics by forming new combinations of existing genes or by mutations of genes (Brumby, 1979; Clough & Wood-Robinson, 1985b; Hallden, 1988). Some students believe that a mutation modifies an individual's own form during its life rather than only its germ cells and offspring (see almost any science-fiction movie). Students also have difficulties understanding that changing a population results from the survival of a few individuals that preferentially reproduce, not from the gradual change of all individuals in the population. Explanations about "insects or germs becoming more resistant" rather than "more insects or germs becoming resistant" may reinforce these misunderstandings (Brumby, 1979). Specially designed instruction can improve students' understanding of natural selection (Bishop & Anderson, 1990).


Middle-school and high-school students may have difficulties with the various uses of the word "adaptation" (Clough & Wood-Robinson, 1985a; Lucas, 1971; Brumby, 1979). In everyday usage, individuals adapt deliberately. But in the theory of natural selection, populations change or "adapt" over generations, inadvertently. Students of all ages often believe that adaptations result from some overall purpose or design, or they describe adaptation as a conscious process to fulfill some need or want. Elementary- and middle-school students also tend to confuse non-inherited adaptations acquired during an individual's lifetime with adaptive features that are inherited in a population (Kargbo et al., 1980).

Evolution and reasoning ability

Some research suggests that students' understanding of evolution is related to their understanding of the nature of science and their general reasoning abilities (Lawson & Thomson, 1988; Lawson & Worsnop, 1992; Scharmann & Harris, 1992). Findings indicate that poor reasoners tend to retain nonscientific beliefs such as "evolutionary change occurs as a result of need" because they fail to examine alternative hypotheses and their predicted consequences, and they fail to comprehend conflicting evidence. Thus, they are left with no alternative but to believe their initial intuitions or the misstatements they hear.

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