Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Education Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. Rebecca M. Krall


This mixed methods status study examined 32 fourth grade students’ conceptual understandings of energy flow through ecosystems prior to instruction and 40 eighth grade students’ conceptual understandings of the same topic after five years of daily standards-based instruction in science. Specific ecological concepts assessed related to: 1) roles of organisms; 2) the sun as the original energy source for most ecosystems; and 3) interdependency of organisms.

Fourth and eighth grade students were assessed using the same three-tiered forced-choice instrument, with accompanying tasks for students to defend their forced-choice selections and rate their level of confidence in making the selections. The instrument was developed for the study by a team of researchers and was based on similar tasks presented in the research literature. Distractor options were embedded in each assessment task using common non-scientific ideas also reported in the research literature. Cronbach’s alpha values at or greater than .992 for each task indicated inter-rater consistency of task answers, and Rasch analysis was employed to establish the reliability of the instrument.

Qualitative and quantitative analyses were employed to assess the data. Constant comparative methods were employed to analyze students’ written responses, which were coded and grouped into emerging themes. These themes were further developed to characterize students’ conceptual understandings. Student open responses also were scored and coded by a team of researchers using a rubric to identify level of scientific understanding. Quantitative analyses included Rasch analysis used to normalize survey data. Independent samples t-tests were then employed to compare students’ forced-choice responses to their written responses and to the confidence ratings, as well as to compare fourth and eighth grade students’ responses.

Findings indicated that eighth grade students generally outperformed the fourth grade on both the forced-choice and written responses, but both groups demonstrated conceptual difficulties in all three topics assessed. Thus, results from the current study support the assertion that students’ understanding of concepts related to energy flow in ecosystems is not at the expected level according to national science education standards and frameworks. Conceptual difficulties identified in the study are discussed along with implications and curricular recommendations.