Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Committee Member

MaryKay Orgill

Second Committee Member

Kent Crippen

Third Committee Member

Megan Litster

Fourth Committee Member

Bryan Spangelo

Fifth Committee Member

Clemens Heske

Sixth Committee Member

Jeff Shih

Number of Pages



Biochemistry education relies heavily on students' ability to visualize abstract cellular and molecular processes, mechanisms, and components. As such, biochemistry educators often turn to external representations to provide tangible, working models from which students' internal representations (mental models) can be constructed, evaluated, and revised. However, prior research has shown that, while potentially beneficial, external representations can also lead to alternative student conceptions.

Considering the breadth of biochemical phenomena, protein translation has been identified as an essential biochemical process and can subsequently be considered a fundamental concept for biochemistry students to learn. External representations of translation range from static diagrams to dynamic animations, from simplistic, stylized illustrations to more complex, realistic presentations. In order to explore the potential for student learning about protein translation from some common external representations of translation, I used variation theory. Variation theory offers a theoretical framework from which to explore what is intended for students to learn, what is possible for students to learn, and what students actually learn about an object of learning, e.g., protein translation.

The goals of this project were threefold. First, I wanted to identify instructors' intentions for student learning about protein translation. From a phenomenographic analysis of instructor interviews, I was able to determine the critical features instructors felt their students should be learning. Second, I wanted to determine which features of protein translation were possible for students to learn from some common external representations of the process. From a variation analysis of the three representations shown to students, I was able to describe the possible combinations of features enacted by the sequential viewing of pairs of representations. Third, I wanted to identify what students actually learned about protein translation by viewing these external representations. From a phenomenographic analysis of student interviews, I was able to describe changes between students prior lived object of learning and their post lived object of learning.

Based on the findings from this project, I can conclude that variation can be used to cue students to notice particular features of an external representation. Additionally, students' prior knowledge and, potentially, the intended objects of learning from previous instructors can also affect what students can learn from a representation. Finally, further study is needed to identify the extent to which mode and level of abstraction of an external representation affect student learning outcomes.


Biochemistry – Study and teaching; Charts; diagrams; etc.; External representations; Post-translational modification; Protein translation; Variation; Variation theory; Visual aids; Visual literacy


Biochemistry | Chemistry | Science and Mathematics Education

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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