Microbiology misconceptions in secondary schools

M.Fenton, C.D. Fenton & A. Raynes.

Nexus Research Group, New Plymouth Boys' High School, New Plymouth, NEW ZEALAND

(presented at the 2001 New Zealand Microbiological Society (NZMS) conference in Wellington, November.

The Royal Society expressed particular interest in this paper, presenting our findings to the Ministry of Education)

  1. Abstract
  2. Materials and Methods
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Conclusion
  6. References/Bibliography




The standard and type of questions asked in School Certificate examination papers is a fair reflection of the perceptions and understanding most teachers have about Microbiology. This is of concern because misconceptions are easily perpetuated when teachers use past examination scripts and model answers to prepare their students for future assessments. However, the new National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) will replace School Certificate in 2002.

A survey of secondary schools in Taranaki and other regions in the North Island was carried out by means of a questionnaire. We were interested in determining how schools routinely obtain, use and dispose of cultures, how many staff possess expert or specialist knowledge in Microbiology, and what resources could be produced for schools.

The findings highlight the need and opportunity to produce relevant, concise and accurate resource material for the NCEA.


A survey of secondary schools in the North Island was carried out by means of a questionnaire. The questionnaire1 was designed to examine the current teaching practices in High Schools and the needs of science teachers involved with teaching Microbiology.

Most of the survey forms were sent out to High Schools within four regions of the North Island: Auckland, Waikato, Taranaki and the Manawatu.

The forms were created and later analysed on a Pentium 166 computer running Microsoft Windows 95 using Microsoft Office 4.3 Professional. Individual schools were not identified or singled out for analysis but the responses were pooled for analysis as a whole.


Figure 1. Schools identified by region


Science staff represented: 185

Staff with "expertise": 27

Students affected: 19,300




Table 1: Percentage of Schools That Do Not Meet Safety Guidelines5

Practice Students subculture isolates from environmental samples (surface swabs, etc) onto fresh agar
Guidelines "Only named and identified species from a reliable source should be used. Teachers or students should never culture unknown species, especially bacteria."
Practice Antibiotic testing is carried out using unknown organisms on agar
Guidelines "Eliminate hazards to students by using a safer alternative if one exists"
Practice Culture disposal: - rubbish bins or bags, bleach for short periods, dishwasher, or unknown
Guidelines "All microbiological cultures must be sterilised before disposal", e.g., 10% bleach for 72 hours.


The majority of science staff in High Schools regard themselves as having an "adequate to strong" understanding of microbiology. However, the survey shows that basic microbiological techniques and procedures such as microscope work, staining, identification on agar plates and decontamination are either poorly done or not done at all.

Most staff appear to misinterpret the suggested learning experiences outlined in the Science Curriculum document2. School Certificate examination papers3 contain flawed context-based questions. These papers and their model answers are being used to prepare students for the NCEA.

All schools have asked for resource material such as a CD-ROM4, video clips, photographs and a source of "safe" cultures to work with. The findings highlight the need and opportunity to produce relevant, concise and accurate resource material for the NCEA.


1) Most High School science students only experience of Microbiology is during a three or four week period in Form Five (Year 11).

2) Many High Schools do not meet the guidelines5 for safe handling and disposal of micro-organisms.

3) The accuracy and quality of assessment tasks, including examination questions, must be improved.

4) The formation of a New Zealand Microbiological Society special interest group (SIG) focusing on Microbiology in schools could provide solutions to those involved with the secondary sector.

5) The Nexus Research Group requires support to continue its investigations and production of resource material.


1) Nexus Research Group 2001 survey

2) Science in the New Zealand Curriculum. 1993. Learning Media Ltd, Ministry of Education.

3) School Certificate Science examination. 1998 and 1999.

4) Microbiology CDROM. 2001. Nexus Research Group.

5) Safety and Technology Guidelines. 1997. Learning Media Ltd, Ministry of Education.


We would like to acknowledge Tobias Montagna-Hay for his assistance with data entry and analysis. Ryan Hill, Jared Broad and Nick Sarten assisted with the production of the multimedia CD-ROM.

We are grateful to the New Zealand Microbiological Society for assisting Year 9 (Form Three) Tobias Montagna-Hay & Year 12 (Form Six) Jared Broad attend the 2001 NZMS conference in Wellington.



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