Microbiological Misconceptions in Secondary School Science

by Christine Dunnington Fenton M.Sc.

National Convenor Special Interest Group Education, New Zealand Microbiological Society -


  • Christine Dunnington Fenton M.Sc, Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki
  • Michael Fenton M.Sc, Dip Tchg; Inglewood High School
  • Steve Flint PhD, Fonterra Research Institute
  • Robin Simmonds PhD, Dip Tchg, Otago University
  • Edward Smolinski, Fonterra Clandeboye
  • Lynn McIntyre PhD, Massey University

"Science facts are science facts and where and how they are assessed should make no difference. Or so I thought..."

Many errors were created by the contextual type of questioning - with a generalised, stock answer that often, in that particular context, was wrong.

I love publishers that send me free books! Teaching resource books or publications often cross my desk in the hope that we will recommend them to our classes and add them to our text book list. When I get hold of these books I devour their contents. My career has evolved from being a scientist to a science educator but the content, knowledge and the information that is my scientific discipline still fascinates me. I am always on the look out for a good text and good readily available remedial books.

It is a fact, that in the tertiary sector, you can no longer take it for granted that a student leaving secondary school has achieved a full education in basic scientific concepts and many of the more mature students may have never completed a secondary school maths or science course. So, the cheap, concise revision aid has great value. The fact that most of these revision booklets are orientated at the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) as our national qualification at secondary school makes no matter. Science facts are science facts and where and how they are assessed should make no difference. Or so I thought.

When one such booklet crossed my path, I turned straight to the section on microbiology. In particular, NCEA level 1, achievement standard 90188: Describe aspects of biology. I was shocked with how wrong the information was. I was at that time, the national convenor of the Special Interest Group (SIG) in Education for the New Zealand Microbiological Society and had been seeking a project that the SIG could participate in. This Special Interest group's purpose is to promote, disseminate and support knowledge of microbiology in the education sector in New Zealand.

I had found my project! I quickly contacted various members of the NZMS that had expressed an interest in education and formed a panel consisting of academics at university, industry microbiologists, those in research, and some microbiologists with teaching qualifications and experience with NCEA. I sent them the booklet and contacted the publisher with my concerns. The publisher was more than happy for us to review the book and submit a report but he felt confident that his content and his authors were correct and that people in the tertiary education sector often misunderstand what is required at the secondary level.

A 4500 word report compiled from the comments of all the reviewers was written outlining the errors in the booklet reviewed and submitted to the publisher. To the credit of the publisher, most of the errors were quickly altered, and another edition was quietly released.

It has now been the topic of conversation at two national conferences - how did the information get so wrong?

Further investigation has shown that many of these types of publications are based on actual external NCEA questions and so a review of all the NCEA questions relating to this achievement standard was done and a report was submitted to the NZQA.

The response from Dr Karen Poutasi (CEO) was positive and included the following comment:

"Assessment schedules are neither designed nor published to replace textbooks or to inform publishers." And, "I am able to advise you that the National Assessment Facilitator for Biology will be conveying the concerns you have raised to a meeting of the examiners."

Analysing all the sources of information that is commonly on hand to a science teacher in most secondary schools in NZ we find 3 major microbiological misconceptions. Many errors were created by the contextual type of questioning - with a generalised, stock answer that often, in that particular context, was wrong.

The NZMS had real fears that any student that had a more than superficial knowledge of the content could lose marks for applying their knowledge correctly and not answering with the generalised, stock answer. There was evident in some NZQA marking criteria statements that related to viral replication that applied generalised answers to specific contextual questions making the answer effectively incorrect.

We do understand that at level 1 the examiner would not be looking for in-depth subject knowledge, but as a professional society of scientists, we would like to clarify the most common misconceptions in the hope of supporting the teacher and the learner both.






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