Teaching quantitative concepts with ICT in pre-university biology education:The case of datalogging the heart

University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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The teaching of quantitative concepts in pre-university biology education has widely been reported as being problematic due to a lack of effective teaching materials. In this study, we explored the broad question how this problem can be addressed and what supportive role Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-based teaching materials might play in an eventual solution.

As a first step, we explored the role of quantitative concepts in the Dutch pre-university biology curriculum. A quantitative curriculum analysis showed that quantitative concepts play a role in more than a quarter of the objectives and half of the National exam questions. This prevalence was biased to scientific domains in which mathematics, physics and chemistry traditionally play a dominant role, such as human physiology, biochemistry, and ecology. By analyzing the test scores of National exams, we could identify some potentially problematic “quantitative” domains. Based on both this analysis and the many opportunities for the use of ICT-based teaching materials, we selected the domain of human physiology for further study.

To address in more detail the problems with quantitative concepts, we conducted a study based on the principles of design research (Cobb, Confrey, DiSessa, Lehrer & Schauble, 2003). Accordingly, we focused on a particular domain that had to do with human physiology, namely the domain of the working of the heart. We started with an explorative study on the use of quantitative concepts in a section about in pre-university biology textbooks, namely sections. This analysis revealed that representations of quantitative concepts such as complicated heart-related graphs (ECG, blood pressure) are often idealized and depleted from the context in which they emerged. Hence these graphs offer insufficient resources for interpretation by novice graph readers such as students. A test among 48 pre-university biology students (11th grade) from three different schools indeed showed that students experienced difficulties with interpreting the representations of quantitative concepts in such graphs.

It was hypothesized that the introduction of students to original measurements could contribute to the solution to the problems we had observed. This ‘recontextualizing’ of idealized graphs might contribute to students’ development of understanding of graphs and inherent quantitative concepts. More so, using ICT for these measurements, particularly dataloggers, might support this ‘recontextualizing’. This hypothesis was tested by the design of a prototypical teaching sequence, based on the problem-posing approach (Kaper & ten Voorde, 1991; Klaassen, 1995), for 11th grade pre-university students, which was brought twice into teaching practice in collaboration with teachers. After each test, the teaching section was adjusted based on the findings. The outcome was positive in the sense that the measurement of heart-related graphs enabled students to assign meaning to heart-related graphs. This, on turn, contributed to the development of understanding of quantitative concepts represented in these graphs.

Nevertheless, while assigning meaning to quantitative concepts represented by the graphs many students still used incomplete and unsound theoretical explanations for particular inherent patterns in the graphs. This was due to the teaching setting in which a clear need to develop such explanations lacked. As well, this observation particularly counted for quantitative concepts that were indirectly related to the measured quantitative concepts and as such not directly observable during heart-related measurements.


Cobb, P., Confrey, J., DiSessa, A., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32, 9-13.

Kaper, W. H. & ten Voorde, H. H. (1991). Problemen in de begripsontwikkeling in relatie tot de aanpak van docent en studieboek-schrijver [Problems in the development of understanding in relation with the approach of teacher and textbook-writer]. Tijdschrift voor Didactiek der ß-wetenschappen, 9, 3-28.

Klaassen, C. W. J. M. (1995). A problem-posing approach to teaching the topic of radioactivity. (Doctoral Dissertation, Utrecht University). CD-ß Press, Utrecht.

Full reference for the dissertation

Van Eijck, M. W. (2006). Teaching quantitative concepts with ICT in pre-university biology education: The case of datalogging the heart (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Amsterdam). Amsterdam: Eigen Beheer. 256 pages (including a 6 page summary in both Dutch and English). ISBN 978-9-07-383887-1. dare.uva.nl/en/record/193143

Publications presenting the PhD work

Kamp, M. (2006) Proefschrift Michiel W. van Eijck. Tijdschrift voor Didactiek der ß-wetenschappen, 23 (1 & 2), 40-44 [Review in Dutch].

Van Eijck, M., Goedhart, M., Ellermeijer, T. (2005). Logging the heart with Microcomputer-Based Labs. Journal of Biological Education, 39, 171–173.

Van Eijck, M., Goedhart, M., Kaper, W., & Ellermeijer, T. (2004). Een probleemstellende benadering van het onderwijzen van de werking van het hart vanuit een medische ‘context’? [A problem-posing approach to teaching the working from a medical “context”?]Tijdschrift voor Didactiek der ß-wetenschappen, 21 (1), 20–46. [With a summary in English]

Van Eijck, M., Ellermeijer, T., & Goedhart, M. (2003). The use of quantitative data in upperlevel biology education. In J. Lewis, A. Magro & L. Simonneaux (Eds.), Biology Education for the Real World. Student – Teacher – Citizen. Proceedings of the IVth ERIDOB Conference (pp. 59–73). Toulouse: Ecole National de Formation Agronomique.

Van Eijck, M. (2003). The use of quantitative data and Microcomputer-Based Laboratories in the advanced upper level of secondary biology education in the Netherlands. In D. Krnel (Ed.), Proceedings of the Sixth ESERA Summerschool (pp. 252–257). Ljubljana: Faculty of Education, University of Ljubljana.

Key words

Biology education, quantitative concepts, ICT, curriculum development of understanding, design research, developmental research

Correspondence and information

This research project was conducted at the Amsterdam Mathematics Science and Technology Education Laboratory of the University of Amsterdam. For more information about the project, see: www.science.uva.nl/research/amstel/dws/loggingtheheart

The dissertation is available as a downloadable copy (see URL in reference) and as a book that can be ordered at the CMA foundation (www.cma.science.uva.nl).

All correspondence concerning this research project should be addressed to:

Michiel van Eijck, PhD

Pacific Centre for Scientific and Technological Literacy

University of Victoria

Victoria, BC V8N 2C1, Canada

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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