Students' understanding of primary and secondary protein structure: Drawing secondary protein structure reveals student understanding better than simple recognition of structures



The interdisciplinary nature of biochemistry courses requires students to use both chemistry and biology knowledge to understand biochemical concepts. Research that has focused on external representations in biochemistry has uncovered student difficulties in comprehending and interpreting external representations in addition to a fragmented understanding of fundamental biochemistry concepts. This project focuses on students' understanding of primary and secondary protein structure and drawings (representations) of hydrogen-bonding in alpha helices and beta sheets. Analysis demonstrated that students can recognize and identify primary protein structure concepts when given a polypeptide. However, when asked to draw alpha helices and beta sheets and explain the role of hydrogen bonding their drawings students exhibited a fragmented understanding that lacked coherence. Faculty are encouraged to have students draw molecular level representations to make their mental models more explicit, complete, and coherent. This is in contrast to recognition and identification tasks, which do not adequately probe mental models and molecular level understanding. © 2013 by The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 41(6):369–376, 2013