Students in a college nonscience majors' biology course took tests designed to reveal their conceptions of respiration and photosynthesis before and after course instruction. Even though most students had taken at least a full year of biology, serious misconceptions persisted. Most students gave definitions of respiration, photosynthesis, and food which were markedly different from those generally accepted by biologists. These incorrect definitions were associated with more fundamental misunderstandings about how plants and animals function. Most students could not explain how animal cells use either food or oxygen. They understood plants as vaguely analogous to animals, taking in food through their roots instead of mouths. Previous biology instruction seemed neither to improve student performance on the pretest nor to prepare them to master these conceptions during the course. Course instruction did improve student's understanding, but misconceptions persisted for many students. These results raise fundamental questions about the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction in current high school and college biology courses.