Date of Award

December 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Science Education

Committee Member

Eliza D. Gallagher

Committee Member

Lisa Benson

Committee Member

Kelly B. Lazar

Committee Member

Dylan Dittrich-Reid

Committee Member

Nashieli Marcano


Multiple problems facing society in the 21st century, including climate change and global concern over pandemics, require a greater number of STEM graduates with content knowledge and critical thinking skills. This has led to additional funding and research in teaching and learning, but much of the published literature in the context of biology education has investigated the impact of specific instructional practices across a spectrum of classrooms (undergraduate and professional) or the learning strategies specifically of medical students.

As the science of learning has developed, it has become clear that the process of learning is context-dependent. Despite continued attention to the improvement of undergraduate biology education, we still understand little about the context-dependent cognitive processes and pathways students use while learning the life sciences. This research seeks to fill this gap by collecting and analyzing data on the cognitive processes and pathways that undergraduate students use while undertaking the task of learning anatomy and physiology. This work addresses the specific research question: What are the differences and similarities in cognitive processes and pathways for undergraduate students enrolled in anatomy and physiology courses?

Students enrolled in two different anatomy and physiology course sequences at a highest research university in the southeastern United States completed a 20-question survey to identify those planning to take both courses in each two-semester sequence and to categorize them as either surface or deep learners. From those, I recruited 11 students to participate in qualitative data collection as part of a comparative case study. These participants were interviewed three times and provided written feedback to weekly reflection prompts for 24 weeks across the two semesters. Participants also completed two quantitative survey instruments: the revised Student Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F) and the homeostasis concept inventory (HCI) at various times during the academic year. Prior to analysis, interview and weekly diary data were block coded for themes present in two previous studies conducted with medical students. Analysis proceeded with two cycles of coding with multiple passes in each cycle. First cycle coding involved open coding of the previous block-coded passages, using the constant comparative method. At the conclusion of first cycle coding, a code map was generated. Second cycle coding involved elaborative codes, which is the process of analyzing textual data to develop theory further. The themes that emerged were synthesized as individual case descriptions to compare differences in curriculum. I then compared cases to identify similarities and differences between the cases.

Two additional analyses were conducted. First, participant definitions of the common terms "learning," "memorizing," "studying," and "understanding" were analyzed. Code categories were developed and definitions were grouped after discussion with research team members of any coding differences. Multiple definition groups emerged for each term. Learning, memorizing, and studying had definition groups which highlighted processes, outcomes, or a combination of both a process and outcome. Understanding definition groups focused solely on an outcome. These findings highlight the need for communication between students and instructors in regard to the use of these terms. Second, initial review of interview transcripts raised concerns about the validity of the R-SPQ-2F instrument for the current population. Findings suggest that the R-SPQ-2F was not able to group students by deep or surface approach in the context of an undergraduate anatomy and physiology course and requires additional refinement and testing to be a valid instrument for this population. Further, six interviews demonstrated a new theme of "Surface Leading to Deep" with participants indicating that memorization was necessary for the purpose of gaining a full understanding of the course material. This finding has significant implications for instruction, as memorizing and other surface strategies are often minimized and discouraged, yet they are an important step in student learning.

Findings from the comparative case study indicate few differences in the cognitive processes and pathways used by undergraduate anatomy and physiology students in different curricular structures that either separated or integrated the study of anatomy and physiology. Eight main categories emerged for learning activities undertaken by participants. However, participants enrolled in the separated curricular structure displayed greater negative affect related to the outcome of completing assessments when compared to those in the integrated course structure. This may be due to students not taking advantage of formative assessment opportunities in the course. Additional study is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.



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