(The FASEB Journal. 2009;23:632.12)

Impact of teleological thinking on student understanding of physiology

William H Cliff
Biology, Niagara University, Lewiston, NY

Science educators have debated the impact of teleological reasoning on student learning of the sciences. This investigation examined the occurrence of teleological thinking among students in an undergraduate physiology class and compared its prevalence with course performance. 104 students in four separate classes were asked to identify the cause of physiological phenomena on a ten item conceptual diagnostic test where one or two out of four possible answers were formulated teleologically. Overall, 39 % of the answers chosen on the test were teleological. Moreover, percentages ranged from 6% to 76% for individual items, indicating considerable variance in the preference for teleological answers to explain different physiological phenomena. There was no correlation between the total number of teleological answers chosen by individual students and final course grade. This result implies that a preference for teleological answers on the conceptual diagnostic test did not interfere with student ability to think or reason mechanistically in other contexts. Structured interviews indicated that some students internally translate the teleological wording of test answers into mechanistic processes. This apparent internal restructuring indicates that students may accept teleological formulations as answers without necessarily embracing teleological reasoning as a means of explanation. These results suggest that instructors need not hesitate to use teleological formulation in the class room for its heuristic value, as long as students are able to finish with satisfactory mechanistic explanations for physiological phenomena.

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