Misconceptions in Cell Biology

“Every living thing is made of cells, and everything a living thing does is done by the cells that make it up.”
L.L. Larison Cudmore

Cells are the building blocks of all biology.  Every living organism is composed of cells.  All cells came from preexisting cells.  If you are a trained biologist, you recognize the last two sentences as The Cell Theory, one of the core theories of modern biology.  A lot of The Cell Theory seems basic considering what we know.  However, remember cells are smaller than can be seen by the naked eye.  Until the invention of microscopes, we didn’t even know cells existed.  The word cell was first used by Robert Hooke in the 1660s while examining thin slices of cork.  Hooke used the word cell to describe the structures he observed because they reminded him of the rooms of monks.

Additionally, it wasn’t until Loise Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment in 1859 that the idea of spontaneous generation, life spontaneous occurring out of organic material, was disproven.  Therefore, every cell must come from a preexisting cell. With the importance of The Cell Theory, it is not surprising that students spend a lot of time learning about the structure, function, and behavior of cells.  However, because cells are not visible to the naked eye, it is not surprising that many students have misconceptions concerning cells.

What is a misconception? Scientific misconceptions “are commonly held beliefs about science that have no basis in actual scientific fact. Scientific misconceptions can also refer to preconceived notions based on religious and/or cultural influences. Many scientific misconceptions occur because of faulty teaching styles and the sometimes-distancing nature of true scientific texts.”  When we teach students biology, how good are we at dealing with misconceptions?  The critical questions are what the student’s misconceptions are and how do we deal with them?

Musa Dikmenli looked at the misconceptions that student teachers had in his article Misconceptions of cell division held by student teachers in biology: A drawing analysis.  In the study, Dikmenli examined the understanding of 124 student teachers in cell division.  According to the study, these student teachers “had studied cell division in cytology, genetics, and molecular biology, as a school subject during various semesters.”  Therefore, the student teachers had already studied cell division at the college level.

At a basic level, cell division is the process of a single cell dividing to form two cells.  Scientists organize cell division (the cell cycle) into 5 phases Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telophase.  The cell cycle is often depicted using a circle. 

Figure of the cell cycle at different levels of detail. Created by PJ Bennett
Figure of the cell cycle at different levels of detail. Created by PJ Bennett

Instead of answering quiz questions or writing essays, the students were “asked to draw mitosis and meiosis in a cell on a blank piece of A4-sized paper. The participants were informed about the drawing method before this application.” (Dikmenli) The use of drawing as an analysis method has several advantages.  The most important of which is that it can be used across languages and by students in multiple nationalities.

After analyzing the drawings, almost half of the student teachers had misconceptions about cell division.  Some of the most come misconceptions are, when DNA synthesis occurs during mitosis and mistakes about the ploidy, the number of chromosome copies, during meiosis.  The research results mean that individuals that are going to teach biology at the primary and high school level are likely to pass their misconceptions along to their students.

So, where does the problem with student misconceptions start?  Students learn misconceptions from their teacher about cell division.  However, the teachers all have biology degrees from colleges, and their college faculty failed to address their misconceptions. However, perhaps we are not asking the correct questions.  Instead of trying to decide who, K-12 or College, is responsible for correcting student misconceptions, we should ask why students get through any level of school with misconceptions?

I can hear all the teachers now, while obviously, students get through school with misconceptions because it’s difficult to correct misconceptions. However, we know a lot about teaching to correct misconceptions.  Professor Taylor presents one method, refutational teaching in the blog post GUEST POST: How to Help Students Overcome Misconceptions.  With a quick Google search, you can find other supported methods.  In all cases getting the student to overcome the misconception, the student must actively acknowledge the misconception while confronting countering facts.

It is unlikely that the problem is that it is hard to teach to misconceptions, let’s be honest most teachers at any level are willing to use whatever techniques work.  No, I suspect the real problem is that most teachers don’t realize their students have misconceptions. So, then the real questions are why instructors don’t realize students have misconceptions.  In this case, I suspect it is the method of assessment.

Most classroom assignments and assessments ask the students to provide the “right” answer.  The right answer is especially prevalent in the large lecture class where multiple-choice questions are common.  However, the fact that a recent review article A Review of Students’ Common Misconceptions in Science And Their Diagnostic Assessment Tools covers 111 research articles suggest that identifying misconceptions is not complicated if teachers use the correct methods.  Therefore, the incorporation of the proper assessment methods alongside teachers’ standard methods will help teachers identify student misconceptions.

However, it is not good enough to identify misconceptions. The misconceptions must be identified early enough in the course so the teacher can address them.  Finding misconceptions is a perfect justification for course pretests either comprehensively at the beginning of the course or smaller pretests at the start of unites.  In an ideal world, pretests would be a resource that departments or schools would build, maintain and make available to their teachers ideally as a question bank.  Until schools provide resources to identify misconceptions, think about adding a pretest to determine your student’s misconceptions.  It will help you do a better job in the classroom

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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