Student understanding of pH: 'I don’t know what the log actually is, I only know where the button is on my calculator'
In foundation Biochemistry and Biological Chemistry courses, a major problem area that has been identified is students' lack of understanding of pH, acids, bases and buffers and their inability to apply their knowledge in solving acid/base problems. The aim of this study was to explore students' conceptions of pH and their ability to solve problems associated with the behaviour of biological acids in order to understand the source of student difficulties. The responses given by most students are characteristic of an atomistic approach in which they pay no attention to the structure of the problem and concentrate only on juggling the elements together until they get a solution. Many students reported difficulty in understanding what the question was asking and were unable to interpret a simple graph showing the pH activity profile of an enzyme. The most startling finding was the lack of basic understanding of logarithms and the inability of all except one student to perform a simple calculation on logs without a calculator. This deficiency in high school mathematical skills severely hampered their understanding of pH. This study has highlighted a widespread deficiency in basic mathematical skills among first year undergraduates and a fragmented understanding of acids and bases. Implications for the way in which the concepts of pH and buffers are taught are discussed.
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education
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