Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)

Document Type





Curriculum and Instruction

First Advisor

Dr. J. Truman Stevens


Constructivist learning theory is based upon the tenets that students come to learning experiences with prior knowledge and experiences that the learner will choose from to make sense of the present situation. This leads to a mixture of understandings among students. This study proposed to reveal students‟ understanding of atomic structure and cell structure as well as the relationships between atoms and cells.

High school students from one private school participated in a paper-and-pencil test to uncover conceptual understanding and content knowledge of atoms and cells. The 120 participants were from grades: 9 (13m, 15f), 10 (9m, 20f), 11 (21m, 17f), and 12 (17m, 8f). All 120 students took the paper-and-pencil test and 16 students (4 per grade) participated in a follow-up interview. Drawings were analyzed by individual characteristics then using groups of characteristics models classes were formed. Openended questions were scored holistically by rubric scores and then deconstructed into individual content statements.

A limited number of findings follow. Students were more likely to draw a Bohr model. Freshmen were less likely to indicate living materials contained atoms and more likely to indicate forms of energy contained atoms. As students progressed through high school, details included in cells decreased. Students failed to recognize that the sum of the products from cell division will be larger than the original cell due to the two growth periods included in the division cycle. Students were often able to provide the correct yes or no answer to are atoms and cells similar, different, or related but the follow-up answers often included non-scientific conceptions.

Recommendations include implementing instructional strategies that promote long-term retention of conceptual understanding and the underlying content knowledge. Design evaluation methods to monitor student understanding throughout a unit of study that go beyond traditional closed-ended questions. Many limitations related to this study suggest that results should not be generalized beyond the targeted population.

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