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219246 (2017)

Research Article

Exploring the Relationship Between Secondary Science Teachers Subject

Matter Knowledge and Knowledge of Student Conceptions While Teaching
Evolution by Natural Selection
Margaret M. Lucero,1 Anthony J. Petrosino,2 and Cesar Delgado3
Department of Education, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara,
California 95053
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
Department of STEM Education, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina

Received 27 July 2015; Accepted 24 July 2016

Abstract: The fundamental scientific concept of evolution occurring by natural selection is home to
many deeply held alternative conceptions and considered difficult to teach. Science teachers subject matter
knowledge (SMK) and the pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) component of knowledge of students
conceptions (KOSC) can be valuable resources for helping students learn difficult science concepts such as
natural selection. However, little research exists that explores the relationship between science teachers
SMK and their KOSC on evolution by natural selection. This study explores the relationship between SMK
and KOSC through the participation of four biology teachers at a single high school and thus deepens our
understanding of the teacher knowledge base. Main data sources are teacher interviews in which each teacher
answered SMK-type questions and predicted what their students most common alternative conceptions were
by using the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection (CINS). Other data sources include student responses
on the CINS and classroom observations. Findings revealed relative independence between SMK and KOSC,
although there is likely a minimum threshold of SMK to recognize student alternative conceptions. However,
our work also revealed ways in which teachers were not leveraging their KOSC and suggest potential
avenues for future inquiry. # 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 54: 219246, 2017
Keywords: pedagogical content knowledge; subject matter knowledge; teacher knowledge of student
conceptions; evolution; natural selection

Lee Shulmans (1986, 1987) seminal work identified three dimensions of teacher knowledge:
subject matter knowledge (SMKunderstanding the disciplinary content teachers are going to
teach), pedagogical knowledge (PKknowledge of education, schooling, pupils, and teaching in
general), and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). PCK itself is a multidimensional construct
that incorporates both a teachers knowledge about pedagogical processes (PK) as well as his/her
knowledge of subject matter (SMK) (see Gess-Newsome & Lederman, 1999) and includes such
components as knowing how best to teach a specific topic, knowledge of student ideas, the most
useful representations, and likely obstacles to student learning (Shulman, 1986). While it makes
intuitive sense that teachers would need all three types of knowledge to be effective, several policy

Correspondence to: M. M. Lucero; E-mail:

DOI 10.1002/tea.21344
Published online 31 August 2016 in Wiley Online Library (

# 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


documents stress SMK almost exclusively. For instance, the No Child Left Behind legislation
defines the term highly qualified as a teacher who has an undergraduate degree or equivalent
coursework in the academic subject he or she will be teaching, thus stressing SMK. Similarly,
alternative certification programs like Teach for America require an undergraduate degree
in the subject but offer limited pedagogical training, thus downplaying PK and PCK
(Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, & Heilig, 2005; Heilig & Jez, 2014). Various measures of
SMK, such as education level attainment and scores on certification examinations, are used by
local, state, and federal agencies to describe the quality of teachers, but are regarded as proxy
variables because they do not assess the conceptual understanding of various specific science
topics that is needed to actually teach students (Sadler, Sonnert, Coyle, Cook-Smith, & Miller,
2013, p. 3).
In a constructivist perspective, students build their knowledge of various concepts based on
their existing ideas and knowledge (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott, 1994). Therefore,
as a component of PCK, knowledge of student conceptions (KOSC) is essential to the teacher
knowledge base. Science teachers are advised to become familiar with their students alternative
conceptions so that they may be identified and used as resources within their classrooms (Abell &
Siegel, 2011; Magnusson, Krajcik, & Borko, 1999; Smith, diSessa, & Roschelle, 1993). Yet,
relatively little research exists that explores how the science teacher knowledge areas of SMK and
KOSC are related. Investigations that explore teachers SMK and KOSC have been conducted in
the realms of physics (Berg & Brouwer, 1991), physical science (Sadler et al., 2013), and genetics
(Gottheiner & Siegel, 2012) but research within evolution is scarce.
This lack of work in SMK and KOSC in evolution is especially important since scientists
agree that evolution is the unifying theme in biology and advocate for its teaching in schools
(National Academy of Sciences [NAS], 2008; National Research Council [NRC], 2012).
Evolutions powerful framework is evident in that its ideas and concepts can be applied to all grade
levels and serve as a guide for instruction and curriculum alignment (Haury, 1996). It is difficult to
dispute the fact that at all levels of complexity, populations change over time. Scientists may argue
over how evolution occurs, but they do not dispute its actuality. Yet, teaching evolution continues
to be viewed with controversy especially by those in positions of power and decision-making. For
many years, the pedagogical issues surrounding the teaching of evolution have been traditionally
heightened in various regions of the world, such as the United States and Turkey (Miller, Scott, &
Okamoto, 2006). However, recent literature indicates there has been a rise in creationist beliefs
across Europe as well (Curry, 2009). Biology teachers find that students may enter their
classrooms with minimal scientific understanding of evolutionary processes, but possess many
beliefs about evolution (Cavallo & McCall, 2008). Even when a persons beliefs are not in conflict
with the theory itself, evolution is still a difficult and complex topic to learn (Sinatra, Southerland,
McCounaghy, & Demastes, 2003).
Using a framework set forth by Magnusson et al. (1999), the present study sets out to explore
two specific aspects of the science teacher knowledge base in hopes of determining and eventually
teasing out the role SMK is playing in teachers KOSC when teaching evolution by its main
mechanism of natural selection. This exploration was completed by analyzing the SMK and
knowledge of students natural selection alternative conceptions that a group of high school
science teachers possess through the use of the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection (CINS)
(Anderson, Fisher, & Norman, 2002).
The present study used the CINS to determine the SMK of four high school science teachers.
The CINSlike most concept inventoriesis a paper-and-pencil instrument developed
specifically to test conceptual understanding. It uses common student alternative ideas
(determined by empirical research) as answer options in addition to the normative scientific
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

explanation. The CINS was also used to determine the teachers KOSC by asking them to predict
their students most common incorrect answers and then comparing their predictions to the actual
student answers on the CINS. This methodology of using a single instrument applied to teachers
and their students could be potentially useful in larger-scale studies that examine the relative
impact a teachers KOSC and SMK has on student learning for a variety of key topics in the
secondary science curriculum. With the present study, we specifically demonstrate how our
methodology can be employed for the topic of natural selection through the participation of a
group of biology teachers from a single study site and their respective students. This empirical
analysis is informative because it goes through all the steps required to determine the relative
importance of KOSC and SMK on student learning. Our current work shows how a research
agenda could be established to empirically inform policy and practice in teacher preparation, that
is, the structure and content of teacher preparation programs and certification requirements.
To be clear, we emphasize and aim to explore the SMKKOSC relationship in the present
study by capturing teachers SMK about evolution by natural selection and KOSC through
classroom practice and predictions the teachers made about student alternative conceptions.
Furthermore, we acknowledge and infer that PCK is a prerequisite to effective teaching practice
which explains why we collected data just from instructional practices and not the full dimensions
of PCK. Nevertheless, since KOSC is a component of PCK, it is essential that we review the PCK
framework which is discussed below.
Theoretical Background
In Shulmans (1986, 1987) earlier work, PCK originated as one of seven categories that
formed a knowledge base for teaching. PCK was described as the knowledge for teaching specific
topics within particular domains and those teachers with rich PCK are able to communicate
concepts quite effectively to other individuals; and SMK was described as not just how much
knowledge of concepts a teacher has within a specific subject, but also the organization of the
subject and the way the disciplines principles and concepts provide a framework for relating its
facts (Shulman, 1986).
Magnusson et al. (1999) expanded upon Shulmans work by developing a model of the
science teaching knowledge base. This widely used transformative model informs the present
study. These researchers believe combinations of knowledge components (i.e., orientation to
teaching science, knowledge of students understanding of science, knowledge of assessment,
knowledge of science curricula, knowledge of instructional strategies to teach science) create
PCK, but that SMK (and personal beliefs) is separate and influences PCK in a bidirectional
relationship (for a full discussion of the science teaching knowledge components, refer to
Magnusson et al., 1999). A teacher will possess SMK and intend to transform it for the benefit of
students learning by using his/her PCK which may combine four or five components. According
to this model, each of the individual components requires subject-specific knowledge. For
example, orientations (teachers knowledge and beliefs about the purposes and goals for teaching
subject matter at a particular grade level) and knowledge of assessment (teachers knowledge of
the aspects of student learning that are important to assess within a particular unit of study and the
methods used to assess that learning) will differ for chemistry teachers and world history teachers.
It is not the intention of this study to explore all the dynamics of the complex PCKSMK
relationship. Rather, this study focuses on interactions of two aspects of the science teacher
knowledge base specifically when teaching evolution by natural selection: subject matter
knowledge and knowledge of students understanding of science (specifically student concep-
tions). The focus on how the aforementioned aspects interact with one another is consistent with
research that calls for an attempt to understand the interaction of teacher knowledge components
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and how they relate to one another in addition to examining individual components (Abell, 2008;
Friedrichsen, van Driel, & Abell, 2011).

Conceptual Framework
We review the literature on each of the relevant components of the Magnusson et al. (1999)
model. The discussion below summarizes the following: (1) the importance and implications of
teachers either possessing or lacking SMK; (2) the value of teachers having awareness and
knowledge of their students conceptions; and (3) the premise behind and purpose of concept
inventories as a means of identifying alternative conceptions.

Subject Matter Knowledge. SMK includes the facts, concepts, and procedures in a discipline
or topic; for instance, in the present study, we focus on how natural selection and heritability of
traits underlie evolution. SMK also requires understanding the structures of the subject matter. . .
[and] ways in which the basic concepts and principles of the discipline are organized to incorporate
its facts (Shulman, 1986, p. 9). Sanders, Borko, and Lockard (1993) examined the role of SMK in
teacher knowledge by researching the practices of three experienced teachers when they were
teaching within and outside their respective content areas. They found that when the teachers were
planning within their content areas, the teachers knew how to present the key concepts in an
organized and logical manner, how much content to present at any one time, and the various
interrelationships that existed between different parts of the subject matter. The teachers also
realized that their SMK had to be transformed for their students. However, when they were
planning outside their content areas, the teachers in this study had difficulties with sequencing of
lessons and recognizing how different concepts were related to one another. Gess-Newsome and
Lederman (1993) also reported that teachers knowledge had an effect on how different concepts
were taught with a group of biology teachers who had a range of teaching experience. Overall,
these teachers content knowledge was rather fragmented and the teachers expressed doubt
about their ability to present different biological concepts as part of an integrated whole. Teachers
had less difficulty with making real-world connections and integrating a wider range of knowledge
when teaching aspects of the content area in which they claimed greater expertise.
Overconfidence with content can have its issues as well. When Kind (2009) compared pre-
service teachers perceptions of their teaching within and outside content specialization, she found
that perceived possession of good SMK can result in overconfidence which in turn may translate to
lessons with poorer quality than those lessons that were taught outside the content area. Not
surprisingly, many of these pre-service teachers discovered that they had become too specialized
in a particular content area and experienced conflict when trying to sort out the information needed
to teach effectively because the topics to which they had been exposed in their content-specific
college courses were very different from the courses they taught in their own classrooms. Nathan
and Petrosino (2003) had a similar finding with the expert blind spot phenomenon when
examining the relationship between the subject matter expertise of 48 pre-service secondary
mathematics teachers and their ability to predict students learning difficulties associated with
solving algebra problems. These researchers posited subject matter expertise alone was
insufficient for predicting students difficulties as learners and to understand how students learn
content. The pre-service teacher participants in that study were well versed in mathematics
content but not sure of how to most effectively represent content for students to facilitate student
learning, hence the problematic issue of possessing the expert blind spot.

Knowledge of Students Conceptions. One component of PCK is an understanding of

what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions
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that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to. . .learning (Shulman,
1986, p. 9). Knowledge of students conceptions is essential for teachers in two currents of
constructivist thought if for different reasons. Student ideas that differ from normative
scientific understandings can be seen as misconceptions that are obstacles to be
overcome (e.g., McCloskey, 1983). If instead envisioned as resources, student conceptions
or fine-grained ideas can be used as a basis for further growth and development of ideas
and ultimately lead to meaningful understanding of scientific concepts (Delgado & Lucero,
2015; diSessa, 1994; Elby, 2000; Hammer, Elby, Scherr, & Redish, 2005; Larkin, 2012;
Scott, Asoko, & Leach, 2007). In both perspectives, teachers need to be familiar with their
students ideas in order to design instructional activities that confront these ideas or draw
attention to the contexts in which these ideas are useful or inappropriate.
However, despite science teachers acknowledging the importance of student ideas and
their alternative frameworks, many of them remain unaware or unsure of how to
incorporate these frameworks into instruction (Davis, Petish, & Smithey, 2006; Gomez-
Zwiep, 2008; Meyer, 2004; Morrison & Lederman, 2003; Otero & Nathan, 2008). For
instance, in spite of having heard about the idea of student [alternative] conceptions, one-
third of 30 elementary teachers across seven different districts were unable to give one
example of a student alternative conception from their own experienceseven after
examples were provided (Gomez-Zwiep, 2008). In their study of four experienced
secondary science teachers, Morrison and Lederman (2003) found that even though the
teacher participants believed it was important to learn what students already knew prior to
instruction, they rarely used any formal assessment tools to probe for student understand-
ing and most initial student conceptions were left unexplored by the end of instruction. In
some cases, the teachers tended to view the presence of alternative conceptions after
instruction as an indicator that re-teaching was necessary, and correct or accurate
information was then needed to be transmitted to students (Davis et al., 2006). In a similar
vein, Otero and Nathan (2008) found teachers who either (1) did not respond to student
thinking; (2) responded only to scientifically normative ideas; or (3) responded to their
students prior experience-based ideas (which may form an alternative framework) and
scientifically normative knowledge but did not link the two.
In researching novice secondary science teachers practices Windschitl, Thompson, and
Braaten (2011) tracked changes in teachers views on the role of student ideas in planning
instruction. As part of their project, Windschitl et al. developed various categories (e.g., working
with students ideas) for measuring the extent to which teachers used student ideas in their
practices. A three-level rubric for working with students ideas evaluated the teachers use of
student ideas in their practices. The first level they identified was labeled monitoring, checking,
reteaching ideas. At this level Windschitl et al. indicated that the teachers began instruction
without knowledge of student ideas and focused their instruction on ensuring that correct
information was delivered to students. Checks for understanding took the form of whole-class
discussions and teachers engaged in individual tutoring to ensure that students learned what
was covered during various lessons. The next level identified was eliciting students initial
understandings. Even though the teachers at this level elicited students ideas through the
use of student questions, conceptual frameworks, or hypotheses about scientific phenomena,
they did not consciously use this information about their students to shape their subsequent
instruction. The most sophisticated of the three levels was termed references students ideas
and adapts instruction. At this level, teachers elicited their students ideas about science
and used this information to influence classroom conversations. This approach is consistent
with the concept of formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998a, 1998b; Hickey, 2015) in
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

which student ideas are elicited and instruction is shaped accordingly. One particular method
of eliciting student ideas that is practical in the classroom is the use of concept inventories,
discussed next.
Concept Inventories
Among different science domains concept inventories (CI) are research-based instruments
designed to measure student conceptual understanding in areas where students are known
(through rigorous research) to hold common misconceptions (Garvin-Doxas, Klymkowsky, &
Elrod, 2007, p. 277). According to Piaget (1983), student ideas are the raw material of classroom
learning and they may be refined, shaped, revised, connected, and built upon by both teachers and
students alike. It is worth noting that the framework document for the Next Generation Science
Standards (NRC, 2012) has placed emphasis on students ideas to be used in this manner:

Some of childrens early intuitions about the world can be used as a foundation to build
remarkable understanding, even in the earliest grades. Indeed, both building on and refining
prior conceptions is important in teaching science at any grade level. (p. 30)

CIs usually take the form of a multiple-choice assessment with one correct answer choice and
three distracter answer choices that represent common alternative conceptions. The distracter
answer choices used in CIs are composed with students thoughts and ideas in mind, especially
since the item development is guided by students rationale for specific responses and analyses of
written, open-ended answers to related questions (Richardson, 2005). CIs have been developed
for a variety of science topics, including force and motion (Hestenes, Wells, & Swackhammer,
1992) and genetics (Smith, Wood, & Knight, 2008).
As opposed to other formal varieties of assessment (i.e., high stakes state tests) which often do
not relay valuable information about student conceptions to teachers, CIs identify specific ideas
that students possess. CIs thus have the potential to stimulate discussions among educators about
student learning because of their goals of probing conceptual understanding. In using the recently
developed Host Pathogen Interaction Concept Inventory (HPI-CI) among undergraduates,
Marbach-Ad et al. (2010) discovered the instrument became the best catalyst (p. 415) to get
instructors to begin discussions about student learning. The HPI-CI results brought about internal
professional development opportunities with the various instructors and Marbach-Ad et al. went
on to say, As a teaching community we found that the HPI-CI anchored and deepened discussions
of student learning . . . Confronting our expectations of student learning with student responses
challenged us to think and converse in a reflective manner (p. 415).

Study Goals
The purpose of this study is to explore the relationship between two teacher knowledge
components that occur within the context of teaching evolution by natural selection in high school
biology teachers: SMK and the specific PCK component of knowledge of student conceptions
(KOSC). In accomplishing the studys goals, we developed a measure to help operationalize
KOSC and explored the measures utility. In addition, we collected data on these teachers
pedagogical practices to identify possible patterns in addressing students alternative conceptions.
We emphasize the exploratory nature of our study, but believe the insights gleaned from such
classroom data may prove useful in future research directions and professional development.
Ultimately, we noted four biology teachers SMK, the student alternative conceptions predictions
made by the teachers, and the student outcomes for each teacher to answer the following
overarching research questions:
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

RQ #1: Is secondary teachers SMK of evolution by natural selection related to the specific
pedagogical content knowledge they have of their students alternative conceptions?

RQ #2: How do secondary teachers classroom practices reflect their KOSC, if at all?

In order to address RQ #1, teachers predicted their students answer choices on an assessment
(the CINS) as a measure of KOSC. This method happens to be identical to Sadler et al.s 2013
study; however, data collection for our study took place before the publication of Sadler et al.s
work. Teachers SMK was measured by asking them to take the CINS themselves. RQ #2 was
addressed through classroom observations.

Our study took place at a large (approximately 1,700 students) urban high school in the
southwestern U.S. The study site serves grades 912 and is located within a predominantly (81%)
Latino community. At the time of data collection, about 90% of the study sites student population
was of Latino origin, 69% were classified as at-risk, 14% were English learners, and 87% were
economically disadvantaged. Approximately 1 year before our study was conducted, the state
education agency rated the campus as academically acceptable, but the campus failed to meet
the U.S. governments Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard due to inadequate math
performance on the state assessment. There are many schools across the United States that
demonstrate similar characteristics to our study site and our study site was chosen purposefully for
this reason. Our study site serves as an example of how teachers within secondary schools of this
nature may think and approach instruction of evolutionary concepts. We believe it is not the
separate and absolute frequencies and occurrences of various events, CINS scores, and KOSC
measures that is important within our study, but the relationships among these variables.
Biology Course
During the academic year in which our study took place, all freshmen at the study site enrolled
in a biology course (Biology 1A and 1B) that spanned two 20-week semesters. According to
district sequencing guides, the teaching of evolution was scheduled for the second semester of
biology (Biology 1B); therefore, data for our study were collected among the Biology 1B classes
during the spring semester. The course used Miller and Levine (2004) as the textbook; the teacher
participants used this textbook and its ancillary materials to some extent, but looked to other
resources (different textbooks and online materials) as well in order to plan instructional activities.
The teacher participants respective instructional units on evolution were selected for
investigation. These particular instructional units occurred at the approximate mid-point of the
spring semester with instructional units on genetics immediately preceding the units on evolution.
All content courses at the study site followed traditional scheduling where students attended eight
4550 minutes periods. Each teacher participant planned for a unit that would span approximately
910 class meetings.

The Teacher Participants

As the initial study in our line of inquiry, the grain size of a discipline (i.e., biology) within an
academic department (i.e., science) was chosen purposefully in order to observe interactions of
teachers with their students. Using teachers from one academic department within a single school
as a study focus enabled greater access to teacher and student interactions that were valuable in
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

data analysis. Had there been many teachers across multiple sites the opportunity to view
interactions such as those in the current study may have been compromised. We believe the grain
size of a discipline within an academic department proved to be useful especially considering
studies where teachers within academic departments are a center of investigation are not as
prevalent in education research.
Since the teaching of evolution by natural selection was the central focus of our study, we
successfully recruited all the teachers (n 4) who taught any/all biology classes at the study site.
These four biology teachers had 10 other colleagues who taught other science classes (e.g.,
physics, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology, etc.), but these colleagues did not teach any biology
classes and were not recruited for the study. The teacher participants were recruited through
informal interviews with the first author and informed that there were no incentives for their
participation in our study other than being afforded the opportunities to learn more about their
students alternative conceptions and reflect upon their teaching practices. The teacher
participants respective students were recruited through an in-person announcement made by the
first author to each teachers biology classes. As a result, 339 students provided consent to be part
of the study. Teacher participants are referred to by the pseudonyms Teachers A, B, C, and D. All
four teachers claimed to place a high value on student ideas and trying to foster a learning
environment where students shared ideas. Each teachers education level, number of biology
courses taught, experience teaching biology, and number of students enrolled in the study are
shown in Table 1.
Teachers A, B, and D all had a positive working relationship with one another and these three
teachers constantly kept one another informed about upcoming lessons and their sequencing.
Teachers A and D, in particular, kept their instruction in synchronization with one another with
regard to time spent teaching different concepts and topics. They were always within the same 1
2 days of the biology curriculum and this may be due to the fact that from the beginning of Teacher
Ds tenure at the study site, Teacher A had become a de facto mentor to Teacher D and these two
teachers met almost every day to informally discuss the days upcoming events or what had
transpired during the first two class meetings of the day. Teacher B was usually behind Teachers A
and D by several more days. Teacher C, on the other hand, rarely interacted with his fellow biology
teachers. He was rarely in the same place in the biology curriculum as his colleagues and usually
weeks behind his colleagues.
Data Collection
The major data sources of data for this study were (1) individual teacher think-aloud
interviews among four biology teachers where each teacher was asked to answer questions on the

Table 1
Teacher participant personal data for current study

Yrs. of No. of
Biology Highest Biology No. of
Teaching Degree Classes Biology
Teacher Experience Earned Undergraduate Major Teaching Students
A 7 B.S. Zoology 6 94
B 3 B.S. Biology & land surveying 5 81
C 2 B.A./B.S. Chemistry, biology, & biochemistry 5 82
D 1 semester B.S. Biology 6 82

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CINS while (at the same time) predicting and providing the rationale for his/her students most
common alternative conceptions (using the CINS as well); (2) students (n 339) responses on
the CINS; and (3) video-recorded classroom observations of each teacher. Data sources 1 and 2
were analyzed to address research question #1 regarding the relationship between SMK and
KOSC. Data source 3 informed research question #2 concerning classroom practice.
The CINS was our chosen instrument to assess both teachers and students, as it was an
efficient means for gathering a large number of student responses and had previously been
established within the research literature (see Anderson et al., 2002). In addition, the teacher
participants had no prior knowledge of the CINSs questions or use. The CINS consists of 20
closed-response questions with a series of distracters derived from well-documented alternative
conceptions. Ten concepts (biotic potential, carrying capacity, limited resources, limited survival,
genetic variation, origin of variation, variation is inherited, differential survival, change in
population, and origin of species) related to natural selection are represented on the CINS (two
questions per concept). The students individually took a slightly modified version of the CINS as a
pre-test before their respective teachers instructional units on evolution began.
We chose not to conduct think-aloud interviews with various samples of students to explain
their answer choices on the CINS. Instead, we conducted think-aloud interviews with the teacher
participants (discussed below) who explained their rationales behind the predictions of their
students most common alternative conceptions. While we believe investigating student rationales
is warranted for future study, our decision was based solely on the current studys scope and
purpose of exploring teacher knowledge. In emphasizing teacher knowledge, one of the main
goals of our study was to operationalize KOSC by exploring the utility and application of our
prediction accuracy measure through the administration of the CINS to a large number of students.
Data on student rationales would have taken focus away from the exploration of our prediction
accuracy procedure.
In order to adapt the CINS for high school use, the original instrument underwent slight
modifications using feedback that was generated when the original version was administered to a
group of approximately 1520 volunteer eleventh grade students enrolled in a general chemistry
class at the study site one year prior to formal data collection taking place (Lucero & Petrosino,
2012). Specifically, the modified version of the original CINS had various vocabulary terms
explained (e.g., iridescent reflective) that may have posed difficulty to high school students,
included illustrations of the animals from each CINS reading passage, and removed citations. The
issues surrounding the CINSs use in this setting are fully discussed in a separate article (Lucero &
Petrosino, 2016).
The teachers KOSC was assessed with the CINS during formal audio recorded interviews in
which in addition to individually answering all 20 questions (the studys measure of SMK), they
were asked to annotate on their hard copy what their students were most likely to select as the
most popular incorrect answers (the studys measure of KOSC), while providing the rationale
for their predictions. The explanation of rationale was done in an individual think-aloud format
where each teacher was free to verbally explain his/her reasoning for each individual prediction.
Teachers A, B, and D were able to complete the SMK and KOSC tasks with one interview, whereas
Teacher C completed the tasks over a period of three interviews. This task was accomplished in the
presence of the first author so that she might ask follow-up or clarification questions if necessary.
All interviews took place before each teachers instructional unit on evolution began, were
transcribed, and member-checked for accuracy.
Video-recorded classroom observations were guided by an observation instrument developed
by Morrison and Lederman (2003). This observation instrument was used to first note the types of
interactions that occurred with each teacher and his/her student(s), namely the questioning
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

strategies used by each teacher, the types of questions students would ask, and how each teacher
presented content-related information. Any teacher/student questions and presentation of
information involved in the potential identification of student conceptions was noted and recorded
with the use of this observation tool (see coding scheme described in Data AnalysisExamining
Classroom Practice section below). Since the first author was the sole observer and video recorder,
a schedule was created to consistently observe and video record one afternoon class from each
teacher during the instructional unit. As a result, the following teachers classes were formally
observed and video recorded: Teacher Ds 5th period, Teacher Cs 6th period, Teacher Bs 7th
period, and Teacher As 8th period. With the exception of Teacher Cs Pre-Advanced Placement
biology 6th period class, all observed classes were regular biology classes. All observed classes
had approximately 2025 students per class. Each teachers instructional unit on evolution
spanned 910 days. In order to capture all instances of when each teacher included natural
selection concepts in his/her instruction, each day of the teachers individual instructional units
was video recorded. Therefore, each teachers specific afternoon class had a total of 910
observations and video recordings. All classes were scheduled to meet every day and observations
lasted the entire length of each class. Classes were observed and video recorded only when the
teachers were present. All classes were approximately 4550 minutes in length.
Data Analysis
Our analysis was guided by the research questions posed at the end of the study goals section
of this article. The first author conducted member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) with the
teacher participants after each of stage of data analysis, as well as during the initial draft of our
Measuring SMK. The teachers SMK was first determined by asking each teacher to answer
the CINS questions during the verbal think-aloud prediction interviews that were described in the
previous section. Each teachers knowledge was then quantified by determining the number of
correct answers he/she had on the CINS.
Determining KOSC. In answering our studys first research question, the teachers KOSC was
assessed by determining how accurately each teacher predicted his/her students alternative
conceptions. This was done by comparing the teachers predictions to their students actual
answers. The prediction accuracy for each question was calculated using the following

(1) Establish the actual distribution of student answers among the multiple-choice options
through percentages.
(2) Determine the number of predictions among multiple-choice options a teacher offered.
(3) Among the teacher predictions, compute the total percentage of students who actually
answered those options.
(4) For the number of predictions a teacher offered, compute the total percentage of
students who answered the most popular options.
(5) Divide the result from step #3 by result from step #4.

For example, imagine an item in which students answers were distributed as follows: 40% A,
30% B, 20% C, and 10% D. If a teacher predicted her students would answer A most frequently,
then she would have a prediction accuracy of 1.0 (40%/40%). If instead she predicted C, then
she would have a prediction accuracy of 0.5 (20%/40%; 20% numerator coming from those
students who actually answered C and 40% denominator coming from the single answer choice
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

most heavily represented within the actual distribution, i.e., answer choice A). If she predicted
C and D, she would then have a prediction accuracy of 0.43 (20% 10%)/(40% 30%). In
some cases, the teachers predicted their students would have no difficulty with a particular
question and predicted the correct answer choice for them. Whenever this occurred, a prediction
accuracy score was still calculated by determining the percentage of the respective teachers
students who in fact answered the specific question correctly. So, if a teacher predicted that his/her
students would have no difficulty with a question and 100% of his/her students did answer
correctly, the teacher would receive a prediction accuracy of 1.0; however, if only 40% of his/her
students had answered correctly, the prediction accuracy would be 0.4.
The prediction accuracy score was developed in order to allow the comparison across teachers
who selected diverse numbers of responses. We must acknowledge that even though the prediction
accuracy measure is easily calculated and can be used across different classroom settings, it still
requires further adjustment, particularly if a teacher predicts all answer choices for a specific
question. In cases such as this, follow-up questioning would be necessary (i.e., rationale for
choosing all answers, realistically estimating the distribution of student answers). Standardizing
the procedure (e.g., relaying to a teacher how many answer choices he/she may predict on each
question or asking a teacher to estimate the percentage of his/her students who may answer each
option) will help in decreasing the amount of ambiguity that may result with some predictions.
Nevertheless, from its exploratory use, we found this measure to be a potential viable alternative
from methodologies found in previous studies (e.g., Berg & Brouwer, 1991; Sadler et al., 2013) in
that it is a direct and sensitive method of quantifying KOSC that practitioners and researchers both
can easily use.
In order to gain additional insight into the relationship between these teachers SMK and
KOSC, we also examined the teachers rationales for their predictions. More specifically, we
wanted to see how the teachers thought of these natural selection concepts as their students did and
if there was a connection among the natural selection concepts with which the teachers grappled
(or did not) and the sorts of rationales they offered for the predictions they made on these same
Examining Classroom Practice. Each teachers classroom practice was examined in order to
determine whether and how their classroom practices reflected their KOSC. As mentioned
previously, the observation tool from Morrison and Lederman (2003) was first used to indicate the
sorts of interactions and activities (i.e., student to teacher questioning and teacher to student
questioning through teacher presentation/facilitation of information; class assignments, such as
the use of writing prompts, concept maps, worksheets, quizzes, lab write-ups, etc.) used to elicit
student knowledge within the teachers classrooms. Initial data from the observation tool
indicated that while the teacher participants had other instructional methods for gauging/eliciting
their students knowledge (e.g., small projects and written short/multiple choice answer
assessments), their most popular strategy on average was to use informal questioning 6085% of
the time during the context of presenting information through a discrepant event, straight lecture,
demonstration, and/or formal discussion of any of the various class assignments mentioned above.
As a result, these teacher-facilitated interactions became the main focus of analysis for achieving a
sense of how each teacher participant responded to their students conceptions.
Classroom transcripts were created from all observed and video recorded classes from each
teacher participant and any instances in which their students were engaged in off-task talk were
neither transcribed nor analyzed. Relevant whole-class interactions were identified from these
classroom transcripts and relevancy was based on the substance and type of teacher and/or student
interactions, namely those whole-class interactions that were involved with lectures,

Journal of Research in Science Teaching


demonstrations, and discussions of science concepts; and any other in-class activities (e.g., small
group/individual presentations). The Morrison and Lederman (2003) observation instrument
again served as a guide here in that it listed the types of questioning strategies that could potentially
be used by teachers (and students) during whole-class interactions, thus allowing a classroom
observer to further identify the sorts of interactions occurring during classroom instruction. The
teacher questioning strategies from the observation instrument were as follows: teacher asking for
an explanation, teacher asking for predictions that show alternative conceptions, teacher asking
questions that directly elicit alternative conceptions/prior knowledge, teacher asking for recall of
facts/definitions, teacher asking open-ended questions with many responses, teacher asking about
prior experiences, and student alternative conceptions not recognized by the teacher. The student
questioning strategies were as follows: student asking a question that shows an alternative
conception, student asking for an explanation, and student asking for clarification. These various
questioning strategies then became the codes by which the whole-class interactions were
analyzed. The whole-class interactions from each teacher participant were independently coded
by the first author and a Ph.D. in science education using the above coding scheme and both coders
achieved an inter-rater agreement of >95%. Any differences in coding were resolved by
With the relevant classroom interaction excerpts and transcripts from each teacher
participant, we continued our analysis by focusing on teacherstudent conversations in which a
student alternative conception became apparent. Within this subset of classroom interactions and
using a grounded theory approach, we identified emerging patterns in the teacher participants
management of these interactions. In these specific interactions, we identified the ways each
teacher participant and students contributed to the alternative conception conversation by noting
who was talking and the substance of that talk.
Our results are organized by research question. To answer our first question on the
measurement of and possible relationship between the teachers personal SMK of natural
selection and KOSC of natural selection, we present the teachers individual performance results
on the CINS and prediction accuracy measurements for their students alternative conceptions.
Furthermore, in order to gain a sense of the teachers thought processes when making their
individual predictions during their think-aloud interviews, we present the rationales each teacher
used to make predictions on two CINS concepts. When presenting these rationales, we chose one
CINS concept that each respectively exhibited relative high and low SMK and prediction accuracy
measurements. To answer our second question, we focus on the teachers instructional practices
by examining classroom interactions that dealt specifically with the handling of student alternative
conceptions. We discuss ways teacher KOSC may or may not have been leveraged during these
interactions. For the findings of both research questions, it is important to focus on the possible
relationships among the teaching practice variables for this population and not solely on CINS
scores and the frequencies or occurrences of various classroom events.
Results for RQ #1: Teacher SMK of Natural Selection and Measurement of Teacher
Table 2 first provides each teachers SMK and overall KOSC as measured by the average
prediction accuracy across all 20 CINS items. The teachers SMK varied from 65% to 80%. When
considering the teachers as a group, certain CINS concepts posed more conceptual difficulty than
others. For example, natural resources, limited survival, and variation within a population were
three CINS concepts that almost every teacher answered correctly; whereas change in a
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

Table 2
Teachers SMK, overall KOSC as measured by prediction accuracy (optimal score is 1.0) across all CINS
items, and prediction accuracies of their students alternative conceptions on the CINS for number of
questions answered correctly and incorrectly by teachers

No. of No. of
% of Correct Incorrect
CINS Total Prediction Questions Total Prediction Questions Total Prediction
Items Accuracy Across (n 20) Accuracy (n 20) Accuracy
Answered All CINS Items Answered (Correct Answered (Incorrect
Teacher Correctly (n 20) on CINS Questions) on CINS Questions)
Aa 75 0.87 (SD 0.21) 15 0.84 (SD 0.23) 5 0.89 (SD 0.16)
Bb 75 0.76 (SD 0.27) 15 0.70 (SD 0.27) 5 0.81 (SD 0.27)
Cc 65 0.85 (SD .21) 13 0.87 (SD 0.23) 7 0.82 (SD 0.17)
D 80 0.87 (SD 0.22) 16 0.80 (SD 0.23) 4 0.93 (SD 0.15)
Teacher A predicted her students would have no difficulty with three questions (#3 and #12population stability; #16
variation within a population).
Teacher B predicted her students would have no difficulty with two questions (#3 and #16).
Teacher C predicted his students would have no difficulty with one question (#11biotic potential).

population had the lowest number of correct responses. However, out of the entire 20-question
CINS, only six questions were answered correctly by all four teachers. The results were very
inconsistent across concepts and questions, signaling the differences with which these teachers
think about the CINS concepts.
The teachers overall prediction accuracy varied from 0.76 to 0.87. The overall prediction
accuracy results are separated further according to the questions the teachers correctly or
incorrectly answered in Table 2. Table 2 indicates that Teacher C had the most number of questions
(n 7) counted in the incorrectly-answered measure due to his own alternative conceptions.
Teachers A and B had similar numbers with questions that demonstrated personal alternative
conceptions (n 5 and n 5, respectively) and questions with non-predictions of student
alternative conceptions (n 3 and n 2, respectively). Teacher D had the least number of personal
alternative conceptions (n 4) and was the only teacher who made student alternative conceptions
predictions on every CINS item. As mentioned previously, the non-predictions for student
alternative conceptions made by Teachers A, B, and C were still calculated in the prediction
accuracy measure by determining the percentage of students who actually answered these
particular questions correctly. As can be seen from Table 2, every teacher was still able to predict
with relative accuracyhis/her students natural selection alternative conceptions before
classroom instruction on natural selection formally began, even on the questions they personally
missed. For example, despite incorrectly answering the most questions, Teacher C was still
relatively accurate with his predictions of student alternative conceptions. His prediction accuracy
on those questions he personally answered incorrectly was 0.82.
Table 3 summarizes the explanations the teachers offered when making predictions for how
their students would answer the two CINS questions that dealt with the natural selection concept
of inheritable variation. Across all four teachers, this concept had an average prediction accuracy
score of 0.84 (question #7 prediction accuracy 0.85; question #17 prediction accuracy 0.82).
The teachers used five different rationales to explain their predictions and three of the four teachers
answered both questions correctly. With the exception of Teacher C, the teachers were consistent
in making single predictions and providing single rationales.
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

Table 3
Rationales used by teachers for predictions of student answers on CINS questions (#7 and #17) addressing
inheritable variation

Rationales used by teachers (1) Believing students think if certain traits (e.g., physical strength)
helped a group of organisms to survive, then those same traits must be
passed on and bad traits do not get inherited
(2) Believing students will think a learned behavior is a result of an
organisms environment
(3) Believing students will relate answer choice to personal experience
where learned behaviors are inherited from parent to child, like
learning to drive a car, how to cook, etc.
(4) Believing students may relate answer choice back to humans and
how human skin color is inherited.
(5) Believing students might think certain answer choices sound more
technical or smarter than other choices that are actually correct
Teacher Answer Choice Rationale Used for Answer Choice Rationale Used for
Prediction(s) for
Prediction(s) on Prediction(s) for
Prediction(s) on
Question #7 Question #7 Question #17 Question #17
A B Rationale #1 C Rationale #1
B B Rationale #1 A Rationale #3
Cc A, C Rationale #2 for both A, D First prediction:
predictions Rationale #2
Second prediction:
Rationale #4
D B Rationale #1 B Rationale #5
Correct answer choice for question #7 is C.
Correct answer choice for question #17 is D.
Teacher C incorrectly answered questions #7 and #17.

Table 4 summarizes the explanations all the teachers offered when making predictions for
how their students would answer the two CINS questions that dealt with the concept of change in a
population. In contrast to inheritable variation, this concept had an average prediction accuracy
score of 0.64 (question #4 prediction accuracy 0.59; question #13 prediction accuracy 0.69)
across all four teachers. In addition, this concept posed more conceptual difficulty to the teachers
in that three of the four teachers incorrectly answered one or both questions that assessed this
concept. Similar to inheritable variation, five different rationales were used by the teachers to
explain their predictions with change in a population, but multiple predictions and rationales were
more apparent.
Findings for RQ #2: Teachers KOSC and Classroom Practice
In order to make classroom instruction more responsive to student ideas (Black &
Wiliam, 1998a, 1998b; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000), teachers must have
knowledge of student conceptions and also respond to these ideas. We examined whether
and how the teacher participants responded to their students alternative conceptions on
the fly once they became apparent in real time in the classroom. The present research
question addresses how the teachers used their KOSC to deal with the student questions,
comments, and responses that were revealed to be alternative conceptions on the specific
topic of evolution by natural selection. Every teacher had a certain amount of interactions
dedicated to specifically asking for predictions (within particular hypothetical scenarios)
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

Table 4
Rationales used by teachers for predictions of student answers on CINS questions (#4 and #13) addressing
change in a population

Rationales used by teachers (1) Believing students think successful traits are directly related to
survival and those traits definitely get passed along to future
(2) Believing students are quite familiar with mutations, from popular
culture and prior learning, and that some of those mutations are good
(3) Believing students think organisms will do whatever it takes or
needs to ensure survival
(4) Believing students think parents personality is passed down to
children and are inclined to think learned behaviors are passed down
as well, like learning to drive a car, how to cook, etc.
(5) Believing students have trouble with thinking evolution occurs in
populations and not in individuals
Teacher Answer Choice Rationale Used for Answer Choice Rationale Used for
Prediction(s) for
Prediction(s) on Prediction(s) for
Prediction(s) on
Question #4 Question #4 Question #13 Question #13
A C, D First prediction: C, D First prediction:
Rationale #1 Rationale #1
Second prediction: Second prediction:
Rationale #2 Rationale #2 & #3
Bc C Rationale #4 C Rationale #5
Cc,d B, C First prediction: A, B First prediction:
No rationale offered Rationale #5
Second prediction: Second prediction:
Rationale #4 Rationale #5
D A Rationale #5 A, C First prediction:
Rationale #5
Second prediction:
Rationale #4
Correct answer choice for question #4 is B.
Correct answer choice for question #13 is B.
Teachers A, B, and C incorrectly answered question #4.
Teachers A and C incorrectly answered question #13.

that show alternative conceptions and eliciting their students alternative conceptions and
prior knowledge on a particular topic (see Table 5), but revelations of student alternative
conceptions were not limited to these two interaction types. Revelations also occurred
when students were asked for recall of definitions/facts and/or explanations. Our classroom
analysis revealed key themes of discourse among these specific interactions when the
teacher participants encountered alternative conceptions during their instructional units on
evolution. These themes are listed and described below.
Referring Students to Textbook or Scientists for Authoritative Knowledge. In some instances
when a student alternative conception became apparent, the teacher would refer their students to
sources that were viewed to be ultimate authorities of scientific knowledge. Of the three
themes discussed for RQ #2, this was the least frequently occurring theme, which took place in
about 1520% of the whole-class interactions. In the following example, Teacher B and her
students were reviewing various terms in preparation for an upcoming test and as various
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

Table 5
Total number and frequency of different types of teacher-facilitated interactions that occurred during each
teacher participants instructional unit on evolution
No. of Total Interactions (%) Interactions
Teacher-Facilitated Coded as Interactions (%) (%) Coded as
Classroom Eliciting Interactions Coded as Asking Not
Interactions in Alternative (%) Coded for Predictions Interactions (%) Recognizing
Instructional Unit Conceptions as Asking That Show Coded as Asking Student
(Academically and Prior for an Alternative for Recall of Alternative
Teacher Related) Knowledge Explanation Conceptions Facts/Definitions Conceptions

A 279 24 7 17 30 8
B 188 43 24 <5 27 <5
C 98 37 22 12 18 12
D 146 36 15 10 27 9

Note: Other teacher-facilitated interaction types (i.e., asking open-ended questions with many possible responses, asking
about prior experiences) occurred at a minimal (05%) frequency for each teacher participant.

definitions were elicited from the students, Teacher B would write the correct definitions on the
class white board for all the students to see:

1850 Teacher B: Whats adaptation?

1851 Student #1: When an organism adapts to survive to its environment. . .

1852 Teacher B: Are we supposed to use adapt in a definition for adaptation?

1853 Students: No. . .When you change. . .

1854 Teacher B: Alright. . .so. . .Whats. . .

1855 Student #2: When an organism. . .

1856 Student #3: Changes to make themselves better. . .

1857 Student #2: Inaudible response

1858 Student #1: When an organism. . .

1859 Student #4: An inherited characteristic. . .

1860 Student #1: Camouflage or whatever. . .

1861 Student #2: When they like their environment. . .

1862 Student #1: When they change to survive. . .

1863 Teacher B: When they change to survive?

1864 Student #4: Getting used to an environment. . .

Journal of Research in Science Teaching


1865 Teacher B: What does your book say?

1866 Student #5: A characteristic that can make them survive. . .No, their chances for
survival. . .

1867 Student #6: Adaptation is when you get used to where youre living. You adapt to your

1868 Teacher B: Do not use adapt in a definition that has adapt in it, OK? So whats the
definition for adaptation? You guys are on the right track. I just want to hear a better

1869 Student #7: When you get used to an environment. . .

1870 Student #6: An inherited characteristic that increases an organisms chances for

1871 Student #8: The ability for an organism to change. . .

1872 Teacher B: What was that?

1873 Student #4: Any inherited characteristic that increases an organisms chances for

1874 Teacher B writes this definition on the whiteboard.

1875 Teacher B: So characteristics. . .whether be the physical or behavioral that help an

organism survive in its environment. (Class lesson, Day 10)

Within this sequence, Teacher B asks for a definition of adaptation from her students and they
offer their ideas for the definition. These include a teleological alternative conception (lines 1856
and 1862)that species evolve in order to reach an end statewhich Teacher B repeats in a
questioning tone (line 1863). She then refers her students to the textbook used for the class (line
1865). Without consulting the textbook, Students #5 and #6 offer their ideas (lines 18661867),
but Teacher B stresses her request of wanting to hear a better definition (line 1868). After
consulting the textbook, Students #6 and #4 (lines 1870 and 1873) offer the definition from the
textbook and this is the definition Teacher B writes for the students on the class white board.
In the next example, Teacher D and her students were discussing common ancestry, but some
student questions remained:

910 Student #1: So then were related to. . .we came from plants too?

911 Teacher D: Its not that we came from plants.

912 Student #1: So we were once plants?

913 Students: Oh my God. . .No. . .Plants dont have arms!

914 Teacher D: Its saying that we all have a common ancestor.

Journal of Research in Science Teaching


915 Student #1: Well, its because thats what she [Teacher D] said!

916 Varied student chatter ensues.

917 Teacher D: Were all related to a common ancestor. Millions and millions of years back,
theyre saying living things came from like the ocean and then. . .Ill show you. Ill bring
pictures tomorrow. . .

918 Another student raises his hand with a question, but Teacher D does not call on him.

919 Teacher D: Ill answer everything at the end of class. I have to make sure we get through
this, okay? But I will answer your questions. (Class lesson, Day 6)

Student #1s alternative interpretation of human common ancestry to include the evolution
from plants allowed for an emphatic rebuke from other students and Teacher Ds clarification of a
scientific concept, that is, common ancestry. Toward the end of this interaction, Teacher D refers to
individuals (i.e., scientists) as the ultimate authorities on the subject (line 917theyre
saying. . .) to quell the students questions and refocus the students attention to the presentation
with which she was trying to continue.
These two excerpts provide evidence of teachers distinctly referring to seemingly more
authoritative experts for student comments/questions that reveal alternative conceptions. It is
important to note at what point during the classroom discourse the teachers made these references.
In the beginning of both excerpts, Teachers B and D are listening to their students ideas and/or
questions, but they both reach a point where they feel the need to proceed with instruction.
Whereas Teacher D is rather nuanced in her reference, Teacher B is more explicit in her
communication to her students.
Allowing Students to Intervene and Directly Address Alternative Conceptions From Peers. In
some instances when a student alternative conception was made known, various students would
directly address a students idea. This theme accounted for approximately 3035% of the teachers
whole-class interactions. The following example involves Teacher C and has other students
addressing a fellow students idea. One of Teacher Cs instructional activities required his students
to create a 30-second music video of the evolution of any one thing (living or non-living). In this
instance, a student has just presented her video on the evolution of prescription drugs to the class,
is explaining its content, and Teacher C is attempting to ask a follow-up question:

726 Student #1: By like how doctors back then. . .they didnt have that much medicine and
what they did. . .like they helped us, but now. . .now that we have the medicine that we need,
were just abusing like. . .

727 Teacher C: And how does that affect. . .

728 Student #2: It kills us.

729 Teacher C: How does that affect evolution?

730 Student #3: The environment. . .

731 Student #4: Its making us stupider. . .

Journal of Research in Science Teaching


732 Student #1: Like our generation. . .were dumber than. . .to be smarter? I dont know. . .

733 Student #5: No. I think what shes trying to say is all the chemicals that you put in your
body is getting your DNA weakened, so your next generation or your kids are gonna come
out a little bit abnormal than what you think they should be. . .from using the drugs.

734 Teacher C: So then youre saying taking something. . .thats supposed to be beneficial
and abusing it, eventually youre gonna. . .youre saying theres going to be causes on it.
(Class lesson, Day 7)

In this interaction, Student #5 (line 733) was attempting to synthesize his fellow students
comments about what Student #1 was trying to articulate. Teacher C then also intervened and
attempted to rephrase the students alternative idea that DNA mutations (once acquired from
prescription drug abuse) are passed down to immediate generations (line 734). Teacher C
acknowledged Student #1s idea, even though the students might still have been left with the
overall alternative conception that evolutionary change for many species occurs quite quickly
within one generation and acquired traits in a humans lifetime can be inherited.
Overall, Teacher Cs interactions demonstrated a discourse pattern that allowed for his
students to react to their peers alternative conceptions, but these alternative conceptions never
reached a resolution, as could have been done by exploring further with follow-up questioning
and/or an instructional activity. Teacher C first attempted to steer the student-to-student discourse
toward a more normative idea by asking a specific question (line 729). Teacher C then attempted to
synthesize Student #5s comments, but did not follow these specific comments with a question that
probed Student #5s thinking further. Based on this excerpt, it is unclear if Teacher C was familiar
with the normative idea of macroevolutionary change occurring over many generations.
Addressing Student Alternative Conceptions by Asking Leading Questions and/or Providing
Explanations. There were instances where a teacher addressed an alternative conception through
different sequences of questions that eventually led students to a normative idea. During these
sequences, the teachers would draw on students knowledge of concepts that had been previously
learned or taught and ask leading questions. This was the predominant theme among the teacher
participants, accounting for approximately 50% of the whole-class interactions. Here is one such
example from Teacher Bs class:

503 Student #1: If we evolved from fish, why arent people evolving to (inaudible).
why arent we evolving into different things now?

504 Teacher B: Are we not?

505 Student #1: Yeah. . .like why arent we right now?

506 Teacher B: Are we not?

507 Students: No. . .We are. . .

508 Teacher B: When were the first humans found?

Varied inaudible student chatter. . .

Journal of Research in Science Teaching


509 Teacher B: Millions of years, right? The first humanoids were millions of years before.
So is it possible that were still evolving? (Class lesson, Day 1)

In this particular example, Student #1 held the alternative conception that evolution occurs
within a relatively short time frame (line 503)that one should be able to see obvious evidence of
a transformation. Here, Teacher B took notice of this alternative conception and attempted to lead
Student #1 to the normative understanding by repeating the question Are we not? before
leveraging the students possible prior knowledge about fossils and the age of the human fossils, in
particular, with her follow-up question of When were the first humans found? This interaction
suggests that Teacher B is employing a combination of SMK and PCK in that she used her personal
SMK of the timeframes for different evolutionary processes to occur and immediately recognized
that she could address the alternative conception by drawing students attention toward a fact that
was previously taught (either by her or another prior teacher). Upon hearing Teacher Bs response
to how long humans have been on Earth and her repeated leading questions (lines 504 and 506),
Student #1 and other students may have realized that evolution is a gradual process and they were
not likely to witness transformative changes in the human species during their lifetimes. This
example is demonstrative of the alternative conceptions surrounding deep time and how this
concept is often a roadblock to understanding evolution (e.g., Catley & Novick, 2009; Delgado,
2014; Dodick & Orion, 2003).
In addition to leading questions, there were instances where teachers provided explanations
as a means to scaffold student understanding. The next example from Teacher A exemplifies this
type of discourse. In the following class excerpt, Teacher A and her students were reviewing the
different modes of natural selection (i.e., directional, stabilizing, disruptive) by making sense of
data present in the courses textbook and relating the data to a previous class activity.

1137 Teacher A: When we discussed the finches. . .when I had you guys as finches and you
moved to an island where theres lots of big seeds, what happened to your beak size over

1138 Student #1: It grew.

1139 Teacher A: It grew. It got bigger. So if we have a regular, normal bell-shaped curve for
your average beak size, over time, which way did it shift? To big or little?

1140 Student #1: Big.

1141 Teacher A: So the whole thing shifted towards big. Thats what its showing in that
bottom graph. The dotted line was the original population. The solid line was the population
as the natural selection occurred and it shifted towards having bigger beaks. It shifted in one

1142 Teacher A: Could it have shifted to smaller beaks?

1143 Student #1: No.

1144 Teacher A: Yeah. . .If the situation was such that you had to have a small beak to get
food. . .maybe theres no more big seeds. . .then it would shift towards having a little beak.

1145 Student #1: So the birds can control the size of their beaks?

Journal of Research in Science Teaching


1146 Teacher A: They. . .no, no, no. Let me rephrase. Not individually. . .were talking about
the population as a whole over a long period of time. Cause remember when you first got to
the island, there was that natural variation. Some of you had big beaks. Some of you had little

1147 Teacher A: What happened to the ones that had smaller beaks?

1148 Students: They died.

1149 Teacher A: They didnt last as long and they didnt produce as many kids. Their beaks
didnt get any bigger. So their genes didnt get carried on. The ones that had big beaks. . .their
genes. . .they had kids. So their genes kept going. So over time the whole population got
larger beaks. Alright. . .so that ones directional. (Class lesson, Day 8)

In this instance, Teacher A has her students examine different graphs of traits that exhibit the
various modes of natural selection and asks a combination of leading and close-ended questions to
ensure her students understand the characteristics of each mode of natural selection (directional
selection in this example). Teacher A poses an initial question to the whole class (line 1137) and
Student #1 answers (line 1138). Teacher A responds by repeating Student #1s answer and then
poses another question to the class about another feature of the textbook graph as it relates to a
previous instructional activity where students participated in a simulation in which they portrayed
a population of birds with beaks of different sizes (line 1139). Student #1 continues to be the only
student who responds (line 1140) and Teacher A provides an explanation to the entire class (line
1141). During the next exchange between Teacher A and Student #1, Student #1 reveals an
alternative conception with her answer (line 1143). When Teacher A hears the incorrect answer,
she provides the correct one and the proper explanation (line 1144). Student #1 then has a question
of her own that reveals another alternative conception (line 1145). Upon recognizing Student #1s
alternative conception, Teacher A immediately revises (line 1146) her previous explanation so
that other students do not come away with the idea that populations can somehow control the
future of their traits. After addressing Student #1s alternative conception, Teacher A moves on to
ask another question (line 1147) and ultimately closes this discourse sequence with a synthesis of
directional selection (line 1149).
As mentioned previously, informal teacher questioning was the primary means of checking
for student understanding and identifying student alternative conceptions. When the student
responses were revealed to be alternative conceptions, the teachers usually began to ask a series of
leading questions and/or provided explanations themselves. Therefore, there certainly were
alternative conceptions that were not acknowledged by each teacher and may have been entirely
overlooked in some cases. In these cases, the teachers explained they would have been quite eager
to explore their students thoughts and ideas, but that their time schedule and curricular demands
did not warrant the extra time spent with student thinking.
Discussion and Implications
With its results from a core group of science teachers, the present study attempted to
gauge some of the relationship dynamics between two aspects of the teacher knowledge
basethe specific PCK area of knowledge of students understanding of science (with
regard to their ideas and alternative conceptions) and SMKthrough the use of a
prediction accuracy measure and by examining classroom interactions among teachers and
students. We believe the findings of this study expand the scholarship of PCK practice and
SMK research by adding empirical evidences and methodology to previous literature. This
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section describes how the present studys specific findings can potentially contribute to the
existing research base.
This group of teachers SMK ranged from 65% to 80% on the CINS, indicating
performance that is relatively consistent with that of individuals with bachelors degrees
(61%), physical scientists (84%) (Kelemen, Rottman, & Seston, 2013), and undergradu-
ate biology majors (63%) (Nehm & Schonfeld, 2008). Overall, the teacher participants
performance level was higher than that of the undergraduate non-majors (47%) who had
previously taken the CINS (Anderson et al., 2002). Nevertheless, this group of teachers
results suggests that SMK can be improved, especially given the fact that some of the
teachers themselves held alternative conceptions in several cases.
The teacher participants similar prediction accuracy patterns of CINS questions they
answered correctly or incorrectly seem to indicate that SMK is independent from KOSC.
However, we believe there is a floor effect in that SMK of natural selection has to reach a
minimum threshold in order to recognize student alternative conceptions. Moreover, the SMK
floor effect reinforces questions about the overall importance of SMK influencing PCK especially
with regard to KOSC guiding lesson planning and implementation.
Nevertheless, upon closer inspection of individual CINS questions (i.e., questions where
teachers made a prediction that students would have no problems) and prediction rationales, a
degree of uncertainty remains with some of the teachers KOSC. Three of the four teachers
believed the majority of their students would have no problem with at least one question and we
believe a teacher who makes a prediction of no problem on any question reveals just as much
insight as one who makes predictions of specific alternative conceptions held by their students.
However, our empirical findings that students did in fact have problems with these questions
seem to indicate a lack of knowledge for student ideas within certain domains of evolutionary
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we believe that making multiple predictions and offering
multiple rationales for those predictions is related to the SMK floor effect discussed above. As
evidenced by the number of predictions and rationales the teachers offered for the two natural
selection concepts discussed in the Results section, there are particular natural selection
concepts that exhibit more clarity to teachers than others. With regard to SMK and KOSC, teachers
thought of inheritable variation with a more clear and consistent focus; whereas change in a
population demonstrated more difficulty and inconsistency. The fact that various science
concepts, like natural selection, are nuanced and pose a level of difficulty to teachers is not
surprising; but teachers should be afforded more opportunities to ponder and reflect how they
think of concepts such as these. However, it may be difficult for teachers to participate and engage
in such an activity without a structured task that enables them to do so. We believe that asking
teachers to predict students alternative conceptions would allow for this opportunity to take place
and result in a rich and substantive discussion about the teachers personal and students
alternative conceptions.
This study makes a potential addition to the methodology for examining PCK. Using a
prediction accuracy measure as a tool made an aspect of PCK (i.e., KOSC) more explicit and
accessible. Various methodological attempts have been made to portray the KOSC construct (see
Berg & Brouwer, 1991; Sadler et al., 2013), and rely on either a complex series of quantitative
calculations or need a substantial sample size of teachers to extract meaningful data. The present
studys findings revealed little apparent difference among teachers prediction accuracy measures,
ranging between 0.76 and 0.87. Further research in a variety of settings is necessary to establish
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

that the methodology can detect levels lower than 0.76 or higher than 0.87. It may be that levels of
prediction accuracy near 100% precise are implausible due to students changing from year to year
and the specific mix of conceptions can be expected to change as well. Additional research is
needed to help understand different levels of prediction accuracy. The distribution of KOSC scores
across a larger sample of teachers would help us understand how 0.76 and 0.87 compare in terms
of standard deviation units, for instance.
A single prediction accuracy score generated using this studys methodology provides some
information, but it must be supplemented with additional data, as we have reported in this article.
A given score may stem from a teachers prediction that students will pick the same answer as the
teacher did, when the answer is actually wrong (indicating low SMK but high KOSC), or from
predicting incorrect student responses when the teacher knows the right answer (indicating high
SMK and KOSC). Additionally, that score may be generated by the teachers selection of one or of
various common student responses. A further consideration is that the CINS itself is not a perfect
measurement tool (see Nehm & Schonfeld, 2008).
However, we still believe the measure can potentially operationalize KOSC from multiple-
choice assessments. Besides its use for research purposes, the prediction accuracy measure can
also be used as a reflection tool for teachers by assisting them in identifying those student
alternative conceptions that are aligned with their existing KOSC and those that are not. We
anticipate and look forward to future lines of research inquiry that will investigate the refinement
of this prediction accuracy measure.
Leveraging Student Conceptions
Consistent with Magnusson et al.s (1999) model, we believe KOSC is an essential component
of science PCK and can impact other PCK components as well. In addition to orientation to
teaching science, the Magnusson et al. model includes components specific for knowledge of
instructional strategies, knowledge of assessment of science learning, and knowledge of science
curricula. That is, when science teachers view their practice through the lens of student ideas and
conceptions, other PCK areas can be affected. For example, if a teacher possesses a strong KOSC,
the types of instructional strategies, assessment, and curricula he/she uses in the classroom may
become modified over time in order to leverage student conceptions in a more effective manner.
The present studys teachers demonstrated apparently strong KOSC according to our
prediction accuracy measure, but were unsure of how to best modify their instructional practices
so that student ideas could be used for productive learning. The lack of appropriate teacher
response to these ideas was a major obstacle especially within the context of teaching an already
conceptually challenging concept like natural selection (e.g., see Chi, Kristensen, & Roscoe,
2012; Shtulman & Calabi, 2012). The fact that teachers are unable to fully leverage their students
alternative conceptions during instruction on natural selection is already well known, but we
believe it is important to demonstrate how this lack of attention to student ideas manifested itself
during instruction on this conceptually difficult topic. There were isolated instances of exploring
alternative conceptions in some manner, as seen with students intervening on the behalf of another
student whose class response demonstrated an alternative conception. Many whole-class
questions from this group of teachers probed for recall of definitions, facts, or concepts and as a
result, students rarely received opportunities to offer explanations for specific natural selection
concepts. The overall patterns seen with this group of teachers indicates that when student
alternative conceptions did become apparent, the teachers either corrected or did not acknowledge
them. This finding is consistent with results from earlier studies (e.g., Davis et al., 2006; Morrison
& Lederman, 2003; Otero & Nathan, 2008) that describe teacher views and reactions to student
alternative conceptions. Furthermore, in certain cases the teachers became authority seekers in
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

that they referenced knowledge from textbooks and/or scientists in response to student alternative
ideas. The idea of teachers as authority seekers was earlier described by Southerland, Johnston,
and Sowell (2006) in reference to teachers conceptual ecologies for the nature of science (NOS).
We did not investigate NOSs conceptual ecologies within the present study, but it is interesting to
note how teachers will position natural selection during instruction and while addressing student
ideas. Future research could investigate if the pattern of teacher as authority seeker is consistent
with other less controversial scientific concepts that are taught at the secondary level.
In conceptualizing the mathematical knowledge needed for teaching, Ball, Thames, and
Phelps (2008) expanded Shulmans (1986) framework by describing several different domains.
One of these domains is knowledge of content and students (KCS). Ball et al. describe this domain
as knowledge that combines knowing about students and knowing about mathematics (p. 401).
In addition to anticipating what students are likely to be thinking and find confusing about a topic,
Ball et al. state that Teachers must also be able to hear and interpret students emerging and
incomplete thinking as expressed in the ways that pupils use language (p. 401). They go on to say,
Each of these tasks requires an interaction between specific mathematical understanding and
familiarity with students and their mathematical thinking (p. 401). It is not too far-fetched to
think that the same sort of conceptualization can be done for the knowledge needed to teach
evolution by natural selection. The teachers in the present study demonstrated varying specific
natural selection understanding, but had strong familiarity with knowing which errors their
students were most likely to make. Because of the limited way students alternative conceptions
were explored during classroom instruction, one may begin to question the strength of the Ball
et al.s KCS teaching domain, especially among teachers working within high-stakes testing
environments such as those at this study site. The present studys teacher participants were all too
aware of the pressures placed on them to have their students ready and prepared for the state
assessment. As a result of this awareness, the majority of these teachers strived to keep up with the
districts recommended pacing of biology topics. According to these teachers, such pacing meant
having to proceed with subsequent topics despite leaving student ideas unexplored.
Another important factor affecting PCK practice is classroom experience (e.g., Angell,
Ryder, & Scott, 2005; Lederman, Gess-Newsome, & Latz, 1994; Sperandeo-Mineo, Fazio, &
Tarantino, 2006). The findings from these various research studies highlight major changes that
occur in the early months and years of working as a teacher. For example, teachers perceptions of
science can adjust from knowing the subject at a very high level to recognizing how the subject is
understood and interpreted in a school context. The teachers in these various studies learned to
adapt their subject matter expertise by taking students needs and ideas into account. Three of the
four teachers in the present study had less than 5 years of teaching experience and may be currently
prioritizing other elements in their teaching practice, such as meeting administrative demands and
lesson planning, thus making it more difficult to pay closer attention to students ideas during
We believe our studys conclusions generalize most directly to other biology teachers in high
schools similar to the one in this study; but based on our experiences with teachers in other
classroom settings, it is our opinion that these patterns of instruction are likely to characterize
teachers in a wide range of less disadvantaged settings. In fact, it seems likely that teachers with
less experience and training and lower SMK would be even less likely to possess high KOSC and
exhibit effective instructional patterns for addressing alternative conceptions.
Implications for Professional Development
The lack of attention to student ideas during classroom instruction has additional implications
for the types of professional development (PD) teachers are receiving. Teachers could benefit
Journal of Research in Science Teaching

from an examination of various classroom discourse practices that focus on the identification of
alternative conceptions and other student ideas. This sort of PD could be implemented particularly
through the use of video. Given its situated nature, video (along with other classroom artifacts
such as lesson plans and student work) can provide an effective context for teacher learning during
PD (Borko, Jacobs, Eiteljorg, & Pittman, 2008; Putnam & Borko, 2000). Furthermore, PD that
maximizes teachers full potential as intellectuals and reflectors of their own practices would also
go a long way in supporting teacher goals of spending more time with student ideas. Possible
activities during such PD sessions could include discussing alternative conceptions of students
and a closer examination of the types of responses students are giving when completing
assignments particularly with tasks that require deeper conceptual thought. Teachers may also
examine whether such assignments are adequately designed to diagnose alternative conceptions
and demonstrate student learning of scientific concepts. Ultimately, teachers need to be afforded
opportunities with which to engage in student thinking and alternative conceptions. Having these
opportunities may enhance this aspect of teachers PCK and eventually, student learning
outcomes. Research into this line of inquiry may provide further insight into the complex aspects
of PCK.

We would like to thank the teachers and students of the study site for allowing access and
participating in this study. We also thank the study sites assigned undergraduate tutors from
the local university for their assistance with the on-site organization of data sources. This
research was made possible with the major support of James Barufaldi and the Center for
STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Our sincere appreciation goes to
Angelo Collins and anonymous reviewers for their comments on drafts of this manuscript.

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