How do biology undergraduates “explain” photosynthesis? Investigating student responses to different constructed response question stems

TitleHow do biology undergraduates “explain” photosynthesis? Investigating student responses to different constructed response question stems
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsWeston, M, Haudek KC, Prevost LB, Lyons C, Urban-Lurain M, Merrill JE
Refereed DesignationRefereed
Conference NameNARST
Date Published03/2012
PublisherNARST
Conference LocationIndianapolis
KeywordsAACR, AACR-pub, Biology, Explanation, Lexical analysis, photosynthesis, text analysis
AbstractOne goal of assessment is to provide instructors with formative feedback about their students’ understanding or difficulties with class material. When compared to selected- response (e.g. multiple choice) items, constructed response (open, written answer) questions can give a richer picture of what students know, as long as the question stem is written carefully to elicit student thinking. In previous work with a constructed response question on how plants gain biomass, we found that many students did not respond to the question by explicitly naming a process. This study investigated how responses change when the question stem is altered to explicitly ask for the process by which biomass is added to plants. The two versions of the stem were administered to 1237 students across three semesters. We analyzed the responses using IBM SPSS Text Analytics for Surveys software to extract relevant terms and categorize them. The process category photosynthesis showed a significant increase in frequency from the first version of the stem to the second. The responses to stem version two that named photosynthesis as their only process were less likely to use carbon dioxide and glucose than the responses to stem version one that named photosynthesis as the only process. Our results suggest novices (students) and experts (faculty) have different understandings of what constitutes an “explanation” in a scientific context and that constructed response questions must be worded carefully so that students interpret the questions correctly.
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