Date of Award

Winter 12-18-2015

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master's of Science in Teaching (MST)


Science Education


Molly Schauffler

Second Committee Member

John Thompson

Third Committee Member

Christopher Gerbi


This exploratory study investigated three aspects of introductory undergraduate biology students’ understanding about cells. The study, which took place at the University of Maine with voluntary students in Basic Biology (“BIO100”) in the summer and fall of 2009, examined (1) students’ pre-course perceptions of cells as they exist in a living context and (2) gains in students’ perception and knowledge about cells after completing the one-semester course (BIO100). Results are based on lecture exam scores, pre-post surveys developed as a part of this thesis, and interviews with two groups of biology students. A total of 498 students participated in the study. Of that group, 25 students participated in either the pre- and post-instruction survey or an interview (summer survey (n=15) and fall interview (n=10)). Results suggest that (1) students enter BIO100 with inaccurate perceptions about how living cells vary in shape, size, and function, and that, (2) students’ factual knowledge about cells (such as the ability to identify parts of a cell) significantly improves during BIO100 but their contextual understanding (such as that cell size can range from a microscopic bacterium to a large ostrich egg) does not improve during the course. Suggestions are offered for how high school or undergraduate curriculum and assessments might be aligned not only to emphasize content knowledge, but also to help students acquire a more accurate perception of the diversity of cell structure and function in living contexts.