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 Making Sense of Focus Students’ Responses
1. Descriptions of focus students
Focus students were chosen and given pseudonyms before the lesson sequence 
took place. “Caleb”, “Ariel”, and “Sarah” submitted student work to be analyzed to 
assess their learning, and to improve upon future lesson plans with these students and 
others. They had various academic standing thus far in the course, and different 
personalities. The goal was to get a wider range of students to be somewhat 
representative of, and benefit, the whole class.
2. Excellent Response or Rubric
(The following rubric taken from
Interpreting Student Responses: Although there are several ways a student could
correctly answer this question, all sophisticated answers require that the student be able to
trace carbon in a variety of molecular forms through different pools (e.g. Grandma, soil
microbes, atmosphere, plants, herbivores) and processes (e.g. respiration through
decomposition, transformation of organic carbon in a coyote). This question assesses
how complete/detailed an understanding students have of ecosystem carbon cycling,
whether they have misconceptions about processes such as respiration, transformation,
and photosynthesis, and whether they have an atomic-molecular understanding of the
various forms that carbon can take as it cycles in an ecosystem.
Coding Rubric – Grandma Johnson #1 Part A (Respiration)
Example Student Responses
4 - Scientific
The carbon atom is given off as CO2, a
Correct: Student traces carbon from organic
plant uses the carbon atom as part of
material in grandma johnson to carbon
photosynthesis, a small animal eats the
dioxide via the process of decomposition,
plant where the carbon has been stored,
with carbon dioxide being the key ingredient
then the coyote eats the small animal that of the answer
has stored the carbon as ATP (GJ45)
3a - Mixed

None available

3b - Mixed

When she dies, she will be decomposed
by tiny bacteria and fungi. As this
happens, carbon is released into the soil,
which in turn is taken up by the plant
roots as nutrients. The plant in turn gets
consumed by a small herbivore, who is
then consumed by the coyote (F16)

3c - Mixed

The body will be broken down by
decomposers and will be converted into
oxygen, which will be used by the coyote
and therefore travel inside the leg muscle
of the coyote (A22).

Student incorrectly converts carbon in
Grandma Johnson to energy available for
plants or microbes (Not a frequent response)
Student mentions a process by which
Grandma Johnson is decomposing, but does
not trace carbon from Grandma Johnson to the
atmosphere as carbon dioxide, only tracing
carbon to the soil OR
Student traces the carbon to CO2 molecules
but without mention of decomposition or
decay, likely caused by Grandma Johnson’s
Student describes the products of cellular
respiration by decomposers to be something
other than carbon dioxide and water, such as
oxygen or soil minerals/nutrients or does not
menbtion decomposition, but simply states
that the carbon was absorbed into the soil or
carbon travels directly from Grandma Johnson

2 - Informal

Grandma Johnson's remains (carbon
atoms) could travel from the roots of the
bush into the actual leaves of the bush,
which may transfer into the air (carbon)
with the rest of the carbon atoms. The
coyote; needing oxygen to live would
probably have consumed the carbon
atom of Grandma Johson's remains

to plant roots.

Some other animal must have ate a part
of Grandma Johnson then later the
coyote ate that animal (GJ9)

Student provides no description of a
decomposition process


Missing data (e.g. responses or codes lost after exam was taken and coded)


Student did not reach question


Student skipped question


I don’t know or equivalent


Nonsense answer that is not responsive to question

3. Finding and Explaining Patterns in Student Responses
The majority of students gave mixed (3b our of 4) answers. Most of them 
acknowledged that grandma Johnson was decomposing, and that the carbon was going 
somewhere, but claimed that it went into the soil, and that the plant got this carbon from 
the soil. This was more disheartening at first, but I began to realize how many pieces are 
included in the grandma’s carbon question. Not only did they have to know “where do 
plants get their carbon?”, but it was key that they realize that microbes in the soil, 
breaking down grandma are releasing carbon in a gaseous (CO2) form, and that because 
of this, it becomes part of the atmosphere. This was a more minor point that we went over
just before the quiz, but is a whole additional layer of understanding how this cycling 
process works that wasn’t nearly as driven/focused on as other points… and since it is a 
cycle, that weak link in their knowledge may have resulted in the trouble they had with 
this question. That’s not to say that some (or many) students still didn’t ‘get’ the piece of 
where plants get their carbon, but it is evident in some student responses (to follow). I 
may have gotten more honest results if students were asked to write down questions they 
have/contradictions and things they aren’t sure of along with their explanation (though 
this would’ve taken more time, it might’ve allowed for another option for students to lean
on what they know without sacrificing it to explain the links they’re not sure of. If 
students think “ok, well plants get their carbon from the air, but grandma’s in the soil… it
has to get from the soil to the plant…” this may have lead to trouble. 
Caleb answered this question in the way most did. Where grandma was under the 
plant, the carbon went from her to the plant, to a bunny, to the coyote.  Little extra or 
written explanation was given, and I would lump him under 3b above, with mixed 

understanding (breaking down at the decomposition/soil/atmosphere, carbon­to­plant 
Ariel got that cellular respiration takes place to move grandma’s carbon to the 
atmosphere, but didn’t mention microorganisms/decomposers. “Soil does CR, bush does 
photosynthesis, bunny eats bush, coyote eats and digests bunny.” She did mention 
digestion, which will be a jumping off point when we backtrack to macromolecules for 
the start of the cell unit. Her picture shows arrows labeled (as they were asked for in the 
worksheet, with CR, P, E, E), pointing in the proper directions (including the CR arrow 
from the soil to the atmosphere/above ground). 
A handful of other students, including Sarah, got the sequence steps correct, 
including microorganisms performing cellular respiration and the plant receiving carbon 
from CO2 in the air/atmosphere. A few did this just through their labeled picture, others 
wrote step­by­step explanations. I find either acceptable, but with the written explanation,
you get a better idea of their understanding and use of words. (I found this with recent 
short answer exam questions, making the gaps in their understanding a little clearer.)
What was really interesting to me, were some of the questions where the students 
stuck to their guns about CO2, or about plants receiving carbon from the air. (Mentioned 
above as evidence some had trouble with the microbe or gaseous/atmosphere idea.) One 
student traced in the drawing that the path went in the soil, (under grandma, over to the 
plant), but had it clearly labeled that “bacteria decomposes her to CO2” “plant uses the 
CO2 in the soil”. Another was really fascinating­ he didn’t get the microbe part, that they 
undergo cellular respiration and release CO2 into the atmosphere and not carbon into the 
soil, but stuck to his guns in his explanation about carbon coming from the air to the 
plant, and thought of another way this could happen­ much more long­term!!
He said: 
“Grandma Johnson started to decompose from the decomposers in the ground. Her 
carbon remained there. Over tip of Grandma Johnson, plants started to grow. Through 
MANY years and the movement of soil the carbon from Grandma Johnson turned into 
coal; a fossil fuel. The coal business spread and dug up the coal (carbon from Mrs. 
Johnson) and burned it as a fossil fuel. A plant took the carbon from Mrs J, now in the 
form of CO2, and turned it into glucose with a byproduct of oxygen (photosynthesis). A 
rabbit came by and ate the plant. The rabbit now has carbon in it from Mrs. J. A hungry 
coyote ate the rabbit. The coyote now has some carbon in it from the remains of Grandma
I thought this was great insight into the questions/problems they’re having with different 
aspects of this cycling! And the latter, a really interesting look at problem solving and the
connections this student is making with some his new knowledge!