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The 'system of pasta' - an introduction to dichotomous keys

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Familiarity with species and species identification seems to be a prerequisite for understanding biodiversity and many syllabuses and practitioners emphasise the use of dichotomous keys. Previous studies revealed that pupils using illustrated identification books often coped better with identification tasks than pupils using dichotomous keys. One reason might be that pupils were confronted with two cognitive tasks simultaneously: how to use the key, and identifying the species. This article introduces a dichotomous key based on the identification of 'species' of pasta, familiar to pupils from their everyday life. Their task is to learn how the key itself works rather than focusing on identification. In a subsequent lesson, pupils focus on amphibian identification. Pupils who had used the pasta system performed significantly better than a control group, suggesting that training on dichotomous keys should be fostered by using familiar items.
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SSR September 2008, (90)330 1
System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
The ‘system of pasta’ – an
introduction to dichotomous keys
Christoph Randler and Anna Birtel
ABSTRACT Familiarity with species and species identication seem to be a prerequisite
for understanding biodiversity and many syllabuses and practitioners emphasise the use of
dichotomous keys. Previous studies revealed that pupils using illustrated identication books often
coped better with identication tasks than pupils using dichotomous keys. One reason might be
that pupils were confronted with two cognitive tasks simultaneously: how to use the key, and
identifying the species. This article introduces a dichotomous key based on the identication of
‘species’ of pasta, familiar to pupils from their everyday life. Their task is to learn how the key itself
works rather than focusing on identication. In a subsequent lesson, pupils focus on amphibian
identication. Pupils who has used the pasta system performed signicantly better than a control
group, suggesting that training on dichotomous keys should be fostered by using familiar items.
To gain insight into biodiversity and to understand
ecology and ecological interactions, at least some
basic knowledge about species, their natural
history and life history, is essential (Lindemann-
Mathies, 2002, 2005). Animals are highly
esteemed by children, especially at the school
level, and species can be used in a ‘bottom-up’
approach to ecology, starting with single species
and then widening the scope to cover interactions,
trophic webs and predation. Therefore, some
training in species identification is a useful
tool for biology education. Some basics should
be considered when pupils are taught species
identification. The number of species used should
be limited (Randler and Bogner, 2006). Also,
studies have revealed that pupils often learn better
if they have the opportunity to explore new fields
of knowledge autonomously in a pupil-centred
environment, to feel competent and learn in a
social context (self-determination theory).
In such a learner-centred environment
familiar materials can be used for teaching
pupils the use of dichotomous identification
keys (e.g. Randler and Zehender, 2006). Many
syllabuses and curricula explicitly suggest
using dichotomous keys as a scientific tool.
Dichotomous keys are based on making a decision
between two alternatives, followed by another
pair of alternatives unless the final species name
(or other taxonomic level, such as genus or
family) is reached. If coloured printed keys or
books are used for identification, pupils often
focus on the pictures alone. The benefit of using
dichotomous keys is that pupils have to take a
closer and more detailed look at the objects or
models. Further, in comparison with books, such
keys are scientifically more precise and foster the
understanding of scientific terms. Despite those
clear benefits of dichotomous identification keys,
Randler and Knape (2007) found pupils who used
illustrated identification material (a selection of
pictures for identification) scored significantly
higher in learning and retention. One reason why
dichotomous keys yield worse results may be
found in the ‘cognitive load theory’ (Sweller, van
Merrienboer and Paas, 1998; see Box 1). <BOX
1>
The aim of this present study was to enhance
learning and retention when pupils were working
together in small groups on an identification-skill
training exercise using a dichotomous key for
identifying amphibians. We developed educational
material to introduce the structure and functioning
of a dichotomous key, using familiar objects
(pasta ‘species’) that do not provide difficulties of
identification (hence less intrinsic load, perhaps
none). This, in turn, enables pupils to focus on
the instructional material (extraneous cognitive
2 SSR September 2008, (90)330
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Randler and Birtel System of pasts
System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
load; see Box 1). In the subsequent lessons, pupils
were therefore already familiar with the system
and structure of a dichotomous key, and we hoped
they would benefit more from the lesson on
amphibian identification because the extraneous
cognitive load had been reduced.
BOX 1 Theory of cognitive load (Sweller et al.,
1998)
According to this theory, brain capacity can
be divided into a short-term working memory
and an effectively unlimited long-term memory.
The theory assumes a limited-capacity working
memory that includes partially independent
subcomponents to deal with auditory/verbal
material and visual more-dimensional
information (Sweller et al., 1998). The unlimited
long-term memory holds schemas that vary in
their degree of automation. Three aspects of
cognitive load are mentioned:
l The intrinsic cognitive load represents the
learning content itself, in this specific case
the different amphibian species. There is a
moderate element interactivity, that is, if you
have learnt one of the species this helps you
in learning the other one as amphibian species
can be grouped taxonomically. Hence intrinsic
load could be considered moderate.
l The instructional design poses an
extraneous cognitive load in the working
memory, that is, materials are presented
differently. In this case, the dichotomous key
poses an extraneous cognitive load since
following such a key is difficult itself and
this cognitive load reduces working memory
capacity that should be available for learning
the species’ names. Such an extraneous
cognitive load is caused entirely by the format
of instruction.
l Germane cognitive load is used for schema
construction, which is essential for long-term
memory. This is necessary to construct a
‘picture’ or schema, for example of different
species of frog, toad or newt. By reducing the
extraneous cognitive load more brain capacity
is available for a ‘germane’ load which aids
schema representation (and construction in the
long-term memory).
Details of methodology
Training unit ‘System of pasta’
The training unit ‘System of pasta’ was adapted
from an idea presented in Probst, 2002. In this,
pupils were encouraged to construct a ‘system
of pasta’ from a constructivist viewpoint.
We developed the idea further, establishing a
dichotomous identification key for different
‘species’ of pasta, such as lasagne, tortellini,
spaghetti, macaroni, and others (see Figure 1).
The benefit of the pasta system is that pupils are
familiar with it and can therefore focus on the use
of the key. The different species of pasta were also
presented in the classroom to make use of real
objects.
Selection of amphibian species
We chose eight autochthonous amphibian species
that live and reproduce in Saxonia (Sachsen in
German), one of Germany’s sixteen federal states.
The species were: fire salamander (Salamandra
salamandra), common newt (Triturus vulgaris),
great crested newt (Triturus cristatus), natterjack
toad (Bufo calamita), common toad (Bufo bufo),
tree frog (Hyla arborea), edible frog (Rana kl.
esculenta) and common frog (Rana temporaria).
Criteria for selection were abundance, population
size and distribution estimated from grid maps.
All species were exhibited in the classroom both
as naturalistic models and as photographs (A 4
size, coloured). These models closely resembled
live amphibians. They were obtained from a
scientific producer (SOMSO; Schlüter Biologie,
Winnenden, Germany). Pupils primarily worked
with the colour prints.
Educational programme and test instrument
Pupils worked together in groups of four, and
every group received a set of amphibian pictures.
Every pupil further received a coloured sheet
where the species were depicted in a smaller size
and where identification traits could be written.
After pupils had finished their work, results were
discussed and corrected in classroom discussion.
We used a pre-test, an immediate post-test
and a retention test (delayed four weeks). Pupils
received a coloured sheet where they had to label
the respective species as precisely as possible. As
pupils often have less prior knowledge we chose
four species for the pre-test. During the immediate
post-test all eight species were presented and
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System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
the pupils were asked to label them. Two further
questions were asked during the post-test:
l the difference between frogs and toads (skin);
l the difference between newts and salamanders
(round versus flat tail).
The retention test, again, used all eight amphibian
species.
The test sheet contained coloured photographs
of live amphibians. To minimise effects of
repeated testing, we altered the order of species
presentation between the tests, and used different
photographs for each of the three tests. This
avoids the possibility that pupils may memorise
species, for example, by their gaze direction (e.g.
if the common newt is facing right and the fire
salamander facing left, then retention effects may
arise because pupils have learned the direction of
gazing rather than the species’ characteristics). We
scored every correct identification at the species
level with 1.0 and every correct identification
at the genus level with 0.5. Others received the
value 0. This was added to a total score for each
participant. The logic behind this scoring is that
an increase in knowledge is reflected in a correct
identification at the genus level. For example, the
common newt may be unknown to someone but
after an educational intervention it is identified on
the genus level (e.g. as a newt). This is considered
as an improvement or refinement of a concept (see
discussion in Randler and Bogner, 2006).
Emotional variables and pupils’ responses
Emotional variables were measured from the
inventory proposed by Gläser-Zikuda et al.
(2005). These constructs are based on four
different dimensions: interest, well-being,
boredom and difficulty of the task, based on a
five-point Likert-scale. We used one item per
emotional construct.
A further question was ‘Would you make use of
such a key in your spare time? and the treatment
group (which received the pasta training) was
asked ‘Did you find the training helpful?
Pupil sample and randomisation
104 pupils (42 boys, 62 girls), all 5th graders
(age 10–12 year-olds), from four different classes
participated in our study and filled out all three
tests. The treatments were randomly assigned to
two classes each (quasi-experimental approach).
Two classes received the pasta training unit in
advance (N = 42) and two others did not (N = 62).
(It is a coincidence that the number receiving the
advance training was the same as the number of
boys; it does not mean that all the boys received
the training whilst the girls did not.) Three classes
(77 students) came from the Gymnasium, a name
given in Saxonia to classes selected by ability.
Figure 1 Some examples of the pasta system
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Randler and Birtel System of pasts
System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
One class (27 students) was from the middle
school (lower ability).
Statistics
For comparison of the means we used t-tests
and to investigate differences in a more complex
manner and controlling for covariance and
interactions a general linear model was applied
(GLM). All tests were carried out two-tailed. We
used SPSS version 13.0. Means ± standard errors
(s.e.) are given.
Results
Species identification
Pupils from both groups differed significantly
in their prior knowledge (Table 1; Figure 2).
Differences between both groups remained highly
significant immediately after the educational
intervention, and again after four weeks.
As both groups differed in their prior
knowledge (Figure 2), we applied a multivariate
general linear model (GLM) with pre-test as
covariate, and gender, school stratification
(medium versus high stratification) and
intervention (pasta training yes/no) as factors.
After accounting for the covariate pre-test,
the influence of the pasta training remained
significant (see Table 2). Further, there were
no significant effects of gender or of school
stratification, nor any significant interaction
between the variables. These results suggest
that both boys and girls benefited equally from
the programme, and that both stratification
levels scored similarly after accounting for prior
knowledge. Figure 3 depicts the results after
accounting for differences in prior knowledge
(covariate-adjusted means). Although the effect
is smaller, differences remain significant. The
amount of explained variance (as measured by
partial eta
2
) indicates a moderate effect size,
which emphasises an educationally relevant effect.
Partial eta
2
was 0.06 in the post-test and 0.11 in
retention, suggesting a higher impact of the pasta
training on retention.
Emotional variables
There were no significant differences between
the groups in emotional variables (p always
>0.05). However, when pooling <post-test results
of?>both groups we found rather high interest
(4.33 ± 0.08 on the Likert scale), high well-being
(4.15 ± 0.10) and low boredom (1.47 ± 0.09).
Pupils assessed their task as less difficult (1.97
± 0.11) but would not necessarily make use of a
dichotomous key in their spare time (3.29 ± 0.13).
Pupils who received the pasta training unit found
the key helpful (3.83 ± 0.20). In detail, 18 pupils
found it very helpful (42.9%) and 11 helpful
(26.2%).
Discussion
These results suggest that an additional training on
‘pasta species’ prior to an educational programme
of species identification significantly increases
knowledge immediately thereafter and after a
delay of four weeks. We therefore suggest and
emphasise the use of dichotomous identification
keys but only after proper preparation of the
pupils (with training such as that suggested
here). Further, we believe that the pasta training
Table 1 Comparison of the test scores (means and standard errors)
Pre-test Post-test Retention
Pasta training group 2.26 ± 0.11 8.68 ± 0.17 6.71 ± 0.15
Control group 1.64 ± 0.11 7.38 ± 0.22 5.23 ± 0.20
t-test t = 3.78; df = 104; t = 4.19; df = 104; t = 5.16; df = 102;
p <0.001 p < 0.001 p <0.001
Figure 2 Differences between <control and
treatment?> groups in the three different tests;
the treatment group received the additional pasta
training
SSR September 2008, (90)330 5
System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
System of pasta Randler and Birtel
Randler and Birtel System of pasts
indeed reduces the extraneous cognitive load and
enhances brain capacity so that pupils are able to
focus on the educational content – in this case the
amphibian identification task.
Table 2 Results of a general linear model using pre-test as covariate, gender and treatment as factors.
Post-test and retention test were used as dependent variables.
Wilks–Lambda F Significance (p-value) Explained variance
(partial eta
2
)
Pre-test .801 11.895 <.001 .199
Gender .971 1.450 .240 .029
Stratification level .999 .033 .967 .001
Treatment .871 7.140 .001 .129
Gender stratification .996 .192 .826 .004
Gender treatment .993 .326 .723 .007
<Does table need more explanation?>
Figure 3 Differences between <control and
treatment?> groups after accounting for
differences in the pre-test; covariate adjusted
means derived from a general linear model
This study provides an example of how
results from strict psychological studies (see Box
1) – which are often obtained under laboratory
conditions – can be transferred meaningfully
into everyday teaching and learning. Further, we
believe that this study could be generalised within
the field of science education.
There were no gender differences and we
assume that both boys and girls benefited equally
from the educational programme.
Educational implications
The educational implications seem clear.
After some discussion about the usefulness of
dichotomous keys (e.g. Randler and Knape,
2007), we have emphasised their usefulness.
Pupils using such keys learn a scientific method
and foster their methodological skills. Use of the
pasta system is one example of how to familiarise
pupils with the method per se before starting to
apply the key to real situations.
Acknowledgements
We appreciate the cooperation of the principals, teachers and pupils of the Evangelisches Schulzentrum
involved in this study. Anna Birtel carried out the educational treatment and the tests in the school and
input the data into the computer. Christoph Randler made the statistical analyses and wrote the paper.
This study was partially funded by the University of Leipzig.
References
Gläser-Zikuda, M., Fuß, S., Laukenmann, M., Metz, K. and Randler, C. (2005) Promoting students’ emotions and
achievement – instructional design and evaluation of the ECOLE-approach. Learning and Instruction, 15(5), 481–495.
Lindemann-Matthies, P. (2002) The influence of an educational program on children’s perception of biodiversity. Journal of
Environmental Education, 33(2), 22–31.
Lindemann-Matthies, P. (2005) ‘Loveable’ mammals and ‘lifeless’ plants: how children’s interests in common local
organisms can be enhanced through observation of nature. International Journal of Science Education, 27(6), 655–677.
6 SSR September 2008, (90)330
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Probst, W. (2002) Das System der Nudeln. In Biologie im Supermarkt: mit der Klasse in den Supermarkt, ed. Probst, W. and
Scharf, K-H. pp. 36–37. Koln: Aulis Verlag Deubner.
Randler, C. and Bogner, F. X. (2006) Cognitive achievements in identification skills. Journal of Biological Education, 40(4),
161–165.
Randler, C. and Zehender, I. (2006) Effectiveness of reptile species identification – a comparison of a dichotomous key with
an Identification book. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 2(3), 55–65.
Randler, C. and Knape, B. (2007) Comparison of a dichotomous, language-based with an illustrated identification key for
animal tracks and signs. Journal of Science Education, 8, 32–35.
Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G. and Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998) Cognitive architecture and instructional design.
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Christoph Randler is ????????? at Padagogic Hochschule, Didatik der Biologie, Im Neuenheimer
Feld 561-2. D-69120 Heidelberg Germany. Email: randler@ph-heidelberg.de
Anna Birtel is ???????? at University of Leipzig, Institute of Biology I, Didactics of Biology,
Johannisallee 21-23, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany.
... Keys may have several shortcomings with respect to promoting efficient species memorisation. According to cognitive load theory (Randler and Birtel 2008), constraints on working memory limit the amount of information that the mind can process and translate into learning (Sweller 1994). A 'keying-out' activity is a complex task with a high cognitive load that is likely to reduce the working memory available for species memorisation (Randler and Birtel 2008). ...
... According to cognitive load theory (Randler and Birtel 2008), constraints on working memory limit the amount of information that the mind can process and translate into learning (Sweller 1994). A 'keying-out' activity is a complex task with a high cognitive load that is likely to reduce the working memory available for species memorisation (Randler and Birtel 2008). A key that relies on botanical terminology will add to cognitive load, since the beginner is required to master a new set of vocabulary at the same time. ...
... In Experiment 1, we compared species retention produced by three teaching methods used in a group-learning environment: a text-based dichotomous key; learner-generated mnemonic aids; and a pictorial card game. Text-based keys have the advantage of encouraging close attention to the characters in the key rather than reliance on matching specimens to photographs or illustrations (Randler and Birtel 2008;Randler 2008). The keys used here were tailored to plant groups and minimised the use of botanical terminology to make them accessible for complete beginners with varying levels of literacy (Ohkawa 2000). ...
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Im Neuenheimer Feld 561-2. D-69120 Heidelberg Germany. Email: randler@ph-heidelberg.de Anna Birtel is
  • Christoph Randler
Christoph Randler is ????????? at Padagogic Hochschule, Didatik der Biologie, Im Neuenheimer Feld 561-2. D-69120 Heidelberg Germany. Email: randler@ph-heidelberg.de Anna Birtel is ???????? at University of Leipzig, Institute of Biology I, Didactics of Biology, Johannisallee 21-23, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany.
Das System der Nudeln
  • W Probst
Probst, W. (2002) Das System der Nudeln. In Biologie im Supermarkt: mit der Klasse in den Supermarkt, ed. Probst, W. and Scharf, K-H. pp. 36-37. Koln: Aulis Verlag Deubner.