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Generating puzzlement in genetics

Jeremy S Keens
School of Biomedical Sciences, RMIT
This paper examines the implementation of an approach to online simulations designed to engage students in reflection. Student evaluations of the course and this exercise suggest that the process was useful and stimulating, and their comments will be examined. In addition, personal observations on the advantages and difficulties of implementing a structured approach will be presented.


Consideration of the design and implementation of computer-based educational media have been a concern as the technology became more widespread (see Hedberg, 1989, for example). Amongst other tools, interactive simulations have become commonly used tools for introducing students to real world examples, using a wide range of forms such as microworlds, simulated labs, role playing and more (Frayer and West, 1991; Alessi, 2000). Within the sciences, the expansion of computer-based and online teaching, combined with reduced teaching time, have stimulated the development and use of laboratory simulation (Bell, 1999). A useful simulation will develop active learning through inquiry (Bell, 1999), and which reflects a real-life situation with fidelity (Standen and Herrington, 1997; Alessi, 2000). In addition, the task has to be placed in a learning environment that enhances engagement (Bell, 1999; Alessi, 2001), one that 'affords' students to learning through the simulation (Laurillard et al, 2000).

In 2000, Dr Kate Patrick of RMIT Education Program Improvement Group ran a project titled 'Generating Puzzlement: strategies for engaging with electronic simulations', funded through a CUTSD grant. The project objective was to equip staff with strategies for appraising and using simulations to enhance student learning. Laurillard's (1993) model of learning suggests that students' assumptions need to be challenged by the simulation, particularly the result, prompting them to engage in reflection and a reappraisal of their approach to the problem (Soper, 1997). However, simulations can be simply inserted into current practices, without exploring the deeper potential (Bain et al, 1998). The project was designed to develop the former while avoiding the latter.

This paper discusses the impact of the Generating Puzzlement approach within a genetics course.


Generating Puzzlement

The project was designed to help and direct staff to effectively introduce existing simulations into their teaching, rather than create new ones. The process involved bringing groups of 8 to 10 teachers and 2 facilitators together regularly. Following the first more general meeting, at each workshop two members would preview their simulation to the group.

There were two essential components to the process. First, the distillation of a 'key concept'. Simulations are often used without consideration of their implementation, but identifying the key concept is a means of focussing the activity. Therefore, rather than merely present a simulation, it was important to develop an activity which would use the simulation to explore the key ideas that the teacher had identified, and through surprising the student get them to reconsider their presumptions or understanding.

Secondly, students were expected to work in pairs, following a learning cycle, of making predictions, running a simulation and then reflecting on the results. In the workshops, two staff members would work through the planned activity, assessing it and the simulation and providing comments. This process of reflection and negotiation mirrored the students' approach.

Generating Fruit Fly

For my genetics subject I used an online laboratory (Flylab) hosted by Benjamin-Cummings, which is a realistic recreation of fruit fly genetics and breeding. Students purchase a manual which gives them access to the program, and as it is web-based, they can run it from any computer, at university, home or elsewhere (the program is described in Bell, 1999).

However, rather than follow the manual, I created a series of experiments. The first focussed on simple Mendelian traits, and was primarily designed to allow the students to get used to the program. The next experiment involved a sex-linked and a lethal trait, and the final experiment involved a variety of inheritance patterns around eye-shapes.

The key concept was two staged - firstly an appreciation of the simple Mendelian pattern of dominant/recessive genes, followed by recognition that there are important variations (recessive wild type, for example). The puzzlement was involved in that second part, where crosses didn't follow the 'F1: wild type, F2: 3:1 wild:non-wild' pattern.

While tutorials were used to do some of the work, students were expected to undertake the breeding test in their own time as well, in groups of two or three. The group report was expected to outline not only the outcome of the matings and the explanation of the inheritance pattern, but also the logic behind their breeding sequence.

Outcome - student response

The activity was run in 2000 and 2001 with students undertaking a Bachelor of Applied Science (Human Biology), and feedback was sought through an online survey. In 2000 28 out of 37 students completed the survey, while 16 of 32 did so in 2001. Questions related to the FlyLab covered a range of aspects with some multiple choice, true/false and subjective comments. The following table compares some of the results of the 2 years.

Where did you mainly access
FlyLab from?
28% home64% RMIT33% home67% RMIT
(How) did you mainly work?32% alone32% pair
36% 3 or more
50% alone42% pair
8% 3 or more
Estimate how long you spent, outside of prac time, on FlyLabVery varied - from less than an hour to 20. The mean would be around 10.A broader range - up to 30-40 hours. Split evenly between less than 4 and 10 or more.
Working with FlyLab wasTrue (%)False (%)True (%)False (%)
  • helpful in understanding Mendelian genetics
  • interesting and enjoyable
  • made me think about genetic processes

The students were also asked whether they used the 'prediction/run simulation/interpretation' model and if it helped. In both years the majority (about 75%) said that they had used the model and found it useful. Comments beyond the simple 'yes' included:

While others said When asked about the best aspects, there were responses which reflected the aims of the project. Most comments related to the value of putting the genetic theory into practice (especially visually), and increasing their understanding. In 2000 three people commented on working in pairs ('made it more fun', helped 'to understand it better') and in 2001 one student said 'The way that it made you think, which I found was a good way to learn'.

Teaching reflection

In considering the outcome of this project, it is valuable to look at both the broader context and the specific implementation.

The Puzzlement Project

The development phase was very important - and not just because of the discipline imposed through the meetings. The groups represented a broad diversity of fields - from psychology to engineering - and so the responses reflected a range of familiarity with the problem, mirroring what you could expect with a student group. Their comments, suggestions and asides were helpful in shaping a valuable experience for the students. Alternatively, having to try and understand a simulation in a discipline divorced from your own reinforced the complexity which may confront a student and the need to maintain a student focus.

Interestingly, an attempt to get participants to engage further through a discussion forum was unsuccessful - staff were willing to make comments at the meetings (into the forum, to create a permanent record and stimulate use), or when specifically required, but generally left it at that. This reflects our experience with student groups (Keens and Inglis, 2001) and represents an impediment to introducing these forums to the non-virtual campus.

Puzzling Flies

As suggested by their comments, students found that the procedure did make them focus on the activity, and provided them with a narrative to work through puzzling or complex results. Indeed, their main concern, also evident in a general course survey, was that the activity itself, repeated breedings, became boring.

The relatively low student response rate is an issue with online surveys, particularly where the subject does not have a laboratory time when students can be asked to complete the form. From observations of students in class and review of their reports, the survey probably over estimates the proportion of the class that used the model. However, those that had appeared to be able to explain their results more clearly.

The interaction of pair dynamics in this form of exercise deserves a closer investigation: relationships varied from teacher/pupil through equal members to disinterested observers of the other working away. However, in the two years only one student asked to do a separate report as the relationship with their two other partners had collapsed, and two students had difficulty due to their colleagues illness.


Based on the students' response, the model used by Dr Patrick for introducing simulations into teaching situations was successful. The students engaged with the program, reflecting on their results and felt that had increased their understanding of genetic processes. From a teacher's perspective, engaging in that process during development of the exercise was similarly helpful.


The Generating Puzzlement project is described in detail, with archived discussions, at

Alessi, S. (2000). Building versus using simulations. In J. M. Spector and T. M. Anderson (Eds), Integrated and Holistic Perspectives On Learning, Instruction and Technology: Understanding Complexity. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston and London.

Bain, J.D., McNaught, C., Mills, C. and Lueckenhausen, G. (1998). Understanding CFL practices in higher education in terms of academics' educational beliefs: Enhancing Reeves' analysis. Proceedings ASCILITE '98, University of Wollongong.

Bell, J. (1999). The Biology Labs On-Line Project: Producing educational simulations that promote active learning, Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning, 2(1),

Frayer, D. A. and West, L. B. (1997). Creating a new world of learning possibilities through instructional technology. In J. L. Morrison (Ed), Technology Tools For Today's Campuses. [verified 15 Aug 2002]

Hedberg, J. G. (1989). Rethinking the selection of learning technologies. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 5(2), 132-160.

Keens, J. and Inglis, A. (2001). First year students' attitudes to online discussion. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 379-388. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge, London and New York.

Laurillard, D., Stratfold, M., Luckin, R., Plowman, L. and Taylor, J. (2000). Affordances for learning in a non-linear narrative medium. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2000:2 [verified 15 Aug 2002]

Soper, J.B. (1997). Integrating interactive media in courses: The WinEcon software with workbook approach. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1997:2 [verified 15 Aug 2002]

Standen, P. and Herrington, J. (1997). Acumen: An interactive multimedia simulation based on situational learning theory. Proceedings ASCILITE 1997, Curtin University, Perth. [verified 15 Aug 2002]

Author: Dr Jeremy S Keens, School of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Life Sciences, RMIT

Please cite as: Keens, J. S. (2002). Generating puzzlement in genetics. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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