High School Biology Textbooks: A Benchmarks-Based Evaluation

Research on Commonly Held Student Ideas Provided to Analysts for the High School Biology Textbooks Evaluation

Research indicates that students have a number of difficulties with the key ideas related to the topics Matter and Energy Transformations and Natural Selection and Evolution. Summaries of relevant research are found in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993) and Making Sense of Secondary Science (Driver, Squires, Rushworth, & Wood-Robinson, 1994). At the time of the evaluation, no research base outlined commonly held student ideas related to Cell Structure and Function and the Molecular Basis of Heredity; thus, the analysts did not rate the textbooks for the criteria "Alerting teachers to commonly held student ideas" and "Addressing commonly held ideas" for those two topics.

Matter and Energy Transformations
The following commonly held student ideas are among those that may interfere with students learning the key ideas in this topic.

  1. Students think that food is whatever nutrients organisms must take in if they are to grow and survive rather than those substances from which organisms derive the energy they need to grow and the material of which they are made (AAAS, 1993, pp. 120, 342; Driver et al., 1994, p. 27).
  2. Students think that food is a requirement for growth rather than a source of matter for growth (AAAS, 1993, p. 343; Driver et al., 1994, p. 60).
  3. Students think that plants get their food from the environment (mainly from the soil) rather than manufacture it themselves (AAAS, 1993, p. 342; Driver et al., 1994, p. 30).
  4. Students think that plants have multiple sources of food rather than that plants make food from water and carbon dioxide in the air, and that this is their only source of food (AAAS, 1993, p. 342; Driver et al., 1994, pp. 31, 60).
  5. Students may think that organisms and materials in the environment are very different types of matter and are not transformable into each other (AAAS, 1993, p. 342).
  6. Students may not believe that a plant's mass may increase mainly due to the incorporation of matter from carbon dioxide (a gas) (Driver et al., 1994, pp. 32, 39).
  7. Students may think that plants do not respire, or that they respire only in the dark (Driver et al., 1994, p. 34).
  8. Students tend to regard food that is eaten and used as a source of energy as belonging to a food chain, while the food that is incorporated into the body material of eaters is often seen as something different and is not recognized as the material that is the food at the next level (Driver et al., 1994, p. 35).
  9. Students may think that dead organisms "rot away"; they do not realize that the matter from the dead organisms is converted into yet other materials (AAAS, 1993, p. 343).
  10. Middle school students seem to know that some kind of cyclical process takes place in ecosystems. 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 of the processes in terms of creating and destroying matter rather than in terms of transforming matter 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. Students may see no connection between the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle and other processes involving the production, consumption, and use of food (AAAS, 1993, p. 343; Driver et al., 1994, p. 65).
  11. Students may think that matter and energy are converted back and forth in everyday (non-nuclear) phenomena (Schneps & Sadler, 1988).

Natural Selection and Evolution
The following commonly held student ideas and confusing terms are among those that may interfere with students learning the key ideas in this topic. 

Commonly held ideas:

  1. In contrast to the idea that the environment selects from existing phenotypes, students often think the environment causes particular changes (AAAS, 1993, p. 343; Driver et al., 1994, pp. 51-52, 63).
  2. In contrast to the idea that organisms either survive or don't (or survive well or poorly), students often think that organisms can adapt (AAAS, 1993, pp. 343-344; Driver et al., 1994, pp. 26, 52-53).
  3. In contrast to the idea that variation can increase the likelihood that some organisms will survive under changed conditions, students are confused about the origin and role of variation (Driver et al., 1994, pp. 51-52).
  4. In contrast to the idea that random mutations in genes or recombination among existing genes are the source of new phenotypes, students are confused about how new phenotypes might arise (AAAS, 1993, p. 343).
  5. In contrast to understanding that new heritable traits can arise by chance or that the combination of genes passed on to a particular offspring occurs by chance, students do not understand the role of chance (AAAS, 1993, p. 343; Driver et al., 1994, p. 53).  
  6. Students often fail to distinguish changes occurring among individual organisms from changes occurring within populations of organisms (AAAS, 1993, p. 343; Driver et al., 1994, p. 53).

Terminology that may be confusing:


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1990). Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(5), 415–427.

Brumby, M. (1979). Problems in learning the concept of natural selection. Journal of Biological Education, 13(2), 119–122.

Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P., & Wood-Robinson, V. (1994). Making sense of secondary science: Research into children's ideas. New York: Routledge.

Fingerman, M. (1992). The theory of evolution is not "just a hunch." In R. G. Good, J. E. Trowbridge, S. E. Demastes, J. H. Wandersee, M. S. Hafner, & C. L. Cummins (Eds.), Toward a Research Base for Evolution Education: Report of a National Conference. Proceedings of the 1992 Evolution Education Research Conference (pp. 101-102). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

Schneps, M. H., & Sadler, P. M. (1988). A private universe. New York: Annenberg/CPB.