Undergraduate students commonly exhibit confusions and misunderstandings about fundamental topics in biology, even after instruction. In ecology, topics that require interpretation of mathematical equations or graphical representations, such as competition theory, are often particularly difficult for students. We have begun a multiphase study to identify areas of difficulty in ecology, and to assess new methods of addressing these problems. In the preliminary phase of this study, we developed a test to measure student recall and comprehension of terms and concepts associated with competition theory. We began with a set of questions modified from lecture exams and ecology textbooks. We held a series of semi-structured interviews with undergraduate biological science majors. The research subjects ranged in previous ecological instruction from introductory courses to upper-level ecology. We used subjects’ written and verbal responses to the test and interview questions to identify areas of confusion, and modify the test questions.
Through our initial testing and interviews, we identified several trends in student confusion about competition theory. Regardless of previous training in ecology, students were rarely able to identify or describe common growth equations, and often had trouble interpreting graphical representations of population growth. Frequently, students incorrectly defined basic terms. Students with training in ecology did not always outperform introductory level students on conceptual understanding. The final 22-item test comprises open-ended and multiple-choice questions, and covers common terminology, basic concepts, as well as growth equations and graphs. We will use the final version of this test to document post-instructional confusions about competition theory, and to compare the effectiveness of traditional and interactive digital textbooks.