Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.)

Degree Granting Department

Biology (Integrative Biology)

Major Professor

Luanna Prevost, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Peter Stiling, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Scott Lewis, Ph.D.


biology education, text analysis, active learning, modeling, science education


Science education research continues to demonstrate improved learning with active-learning techniques compared to lectures. However, the question of which active-learning methods are the most effective for learning complex scientific principles in various context still remains. Models are commonly used in activities that allow students to simplify complex systems and understand how components interact. I investigated the outcomes for student learning and engagement of two model-based activities - concept models and game simulations. The activities were conducted in an introductory biology course in sixteen discussion sections. Eight sections were assigned to the concept model activity and eight to the simulation activity. To assess engagement, students filled out a Likert-scale questionnaire on enjoyment and usefulness of activity (concept model: 130 students for food web activity and 131 for carbon cycle activity; game simulation: 131 students for food web activity and 126 game simulation students during the carbon cycle activity). To assess student learning, 152 students completed pre-post homework assignment based on conservation and transformation of matter. Over 80% of students enjoyed both the concept-mapping and simulation activities. Students reported that the hands-on nature of the concept activity was helpful for understanding the connections in food webs. For the homework assessment, all students significantly increased in their scores from pre to post on the MC (paired t-test, meanpre = 4.86±1.6; meanpost = 5.23±1.6;p<.05) and TF assessments (paired t-test; meanpre = 2.06±1.0 meanpost = 2.32± 1.0; p<0.05). For the TF assessments, we observed the trend that students in the simulation group showed a greater improvement in their scores than students in the concept-mapping group (t-test; meanΔconcept = 0.11±1.4; meanΔsimulation =0 .43±1.0 p=.059). There was no difference between student improvement for the two groups on the MC assessment ( t-test meanΔconcept = 0.27±2.1; meanΔsimulation = 0.51±1.8 p=.474). Students’ responses to short answer questions showed those students’ ideas about the concept of matter conservation varied from naive to scientific. For example, students failed to conserve matter during nutrient cycling. More scientific responses demonstrated principled reasoning such as references to conservation of matter. The students within the two activities did not demonstrate large differences between their text responses for the short answer. Overall, students in both activity type demonstrated learning gains, though there was no significant difference between the activity types.