External representations (ERs) and their constituent symbolism are of enormous pedagogical value to instructors, especially in the teaching of the submicroscopic world of biology, inherent in disciplines such as biochemistry, immunochemistry, molecular biology and physiology. Whereas symbolic conventions are rigorously applied in physics and chemistry to enhance learning, this is not always true in biology where inappropriate use of symbolic language often leads to confusing ER designs and a range of conceptual, visual, and reasoning difficulties. In this chapter, we present a synthesis of research conducted by our group within these important areas of biology education. We commence by describing a model of seven factors affecting students’ ability to interpret and learn from ERs. We then apply the model as a guiding theoretical framework in the classification of various cognitive skills or reasoning abilities, identified from a synthesis of literature. We also show how the model can inform the design of assessment tasks aimed at both assessing (summative) and guiding the development (formative) of students’ ER-related reasoning ability. We then describe various student difficulties identified by our group. In particular, we focus on visual, reasoning, and conceptual difficulties related to the decoding and interpretation of the diverse symbolic language used to visually represent protein structure, selected biochemical and physiological processes, and in the communication of modern molecular biology. We then show how the seven-factor model can be used as an analytical tool for identifying the nature and source of the difficulties and for designing potential remediation strategies for addressing the difficulties. We conclude by discussing the implications of our research on the use of the CRM model for biology education practitioners and researchers in improving the learning, teaching and assessment of biology related to ERs.


The final publication is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4192-8_2


conceptual and reasoning difficulties; CRM model; ERs; remediation strategies

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