Student understanding of pH: "I don't know what the log actually is, I only know where the button is on my calculator"

Watters, Dianne J. & Watters, James J. (2006) Student understanding of pH: "I don't know what the log actually is, I only know where the button is on my calculator". Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 34(4), pp. 278-284.

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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 behavior of biological acids 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.

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11 citations in Scopus
11 citations in Web of Science®
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ID Code: 4769
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Undergraduate learning, logarithms, pH, acids and bases
DOI: 10.1002/bmb.2006.494034042628
ISSN: 1470-8175
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > EDUCATION (130000)
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Teacher Education & Leadership
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Education
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2006 John Wiley & Sons
Copyright Statement: The definitive version is available on publication at
Deposited On: 10 Aug 2006 00:00
Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 08:07

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