Personal Constructions of Biological Concepts – The Repertory Grid Approach

  • Thomas J. J. McCloughlin
Keywords: repertory grid analysis, biological concepts, mapping, natural kinds


This work discusses repertory grid analysis as a tool for investigating the structures of students’ representations of biological concepts. Repertory grid analysis provides the researcher with a variety of techniques that are not associated with standard methods of concept mapping for investigating conceptual structures. It can provide valuable insights into the learning process, and can be used as a diagnostic tool in identifying problems that students have in understanding biological concepts. The biological concepts examined in this work are ‘natural kinds’: a technical class of concepts which ‘appear’ to have invisible ‘essences’ meaning carrying more perceptual weight than being perceptually similar. Because children give
more weight to natural-kind membership when reasoning about traits, it would seem pertinent to apply such knowledge to deep-level research into how children reason in biology. The concept of natural kinds has a particular resonance with biology since biological kinds hold the distinction of being almost all natural kinds, such as when the same ‘stuff or thing’ takes many different forms. We have conducted a range of studies using a diversity of biological natural kinds, but in this paper, we wish to explore some of the theoretical underpinnings in more detail. To afford this exploration, we outline one case-study in a small group of secondary school students exploring the concept of ‘equine’ – that is, what is an equine? Five positive examples were chosen to engaged with by the students and one ‘outlier’ with which to compare the construction process. Recommendations are offered in applying this approach to biological education research.


Download data is not yet available.


Abbott, R. J., James, J. K., Forbes, D. G., & Comes, H. P. (2002). Hybrid origin of the Oxford Ragwort, Senecio squalidus L: morphological and allozyme differences between S. squalidus and S. rupestris Waldst. and Kit. Watsonia, 24(1) 17–30.

Atran, S. (1995a). Causal constraints on categories and categorical constraints on biological reasoning across cultures. In D. Sperber, D. Premack & A. J. Premack, Causal Cognition: a multidisciplinary debate (pp. 316–340). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Atran, S. (1995b). Cognitive foundations of natural history. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Atran, S. (1999). Itzaj Maya Folkbiological Taxonomy: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars. In D. L. Medin & S. Atran (Eds.), Folkbiology (pp. 119–213) Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Bailenson, J. N., Shum, M. S., Atran, S., Medin, D. L., & Coley, J. D. (2002). A bird’s eye view: biological categorization and reasoning within and across cultures. Cognition, 84(1), 1–53.

Bell, B. (1981a). What is a plant? Some children’s ideas. New Zealand Science Teacher, 31(3), 10–14.

Bell, B. (1981b). When is an animal not an animal? Journal of Biological Education, 15(3), 213–218.

Bell, B., & Baker, M. (1982). Toward a scientific concept of animal. Journal of Biological Education, 16(3), 197–200.

Berlin, B., Breedlove, D., & Raven, P. (1973) General principles of classification and nomenclature in folk biology. American Anthropologist, 87(1), 298–315.

Blackstock, N., & Ashton, P. A. (2001). A re-assessment of the putitive Carex flava agg. (Cyperaceae) hybrids at Malham Tarn (v.c.64): A morphometric analysis. Watsonia, 23(4), 505–526.

Chambers, W. V., & Grice, J. W. (1986). Circumgrids: A repertory grid package for personal computers. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers, 18(5), 468–468.

Dunbar, K. N. (2002). Understanding the role of cognition in science: The Science as Category framework. In P. Carruthers, S. Stich & M. Siegal (Eds.), The cognitive basis of science (pp. 154–170). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fay, M. F., Gernandt, D. S., Cowan, R. S., Kitchen, M. A. R., Kitchen, C., & Rich, T. C. G. (2002). Parentage of an unknown member of the Sorbus latifolia (Lam.) Pers. group (Rosaceae). Watsonia, 24(1), 91–100.

Fay, M. F., O’Rourke, A., & Rich, T. C. G. (2003). A preliminary investigation of genetic variation in Western European Carex depauperata Curtis ex With. (Cyperaceae), Starved Wood-sedge. Watsonia, 24(4) 507–511.

Featherstonhaugh, T. (1994). Using the Repertory Grid to Probe Students’ Ideas about Energy. Research in Science and Technological Education, 12(2), 117–127.

Foley, M. J. Y. (2000a). A morphological comparison between some British Orobanche species (Orobanchaceae) and their closely-related, non-British counterparts from continental Europe:Orobanche reticulata Wallr. s.l. Watsonia, 23(2), 257–267.

Foley, M. J. Y. (2000b). A morphological comparison between some British Orobanche species (Orobanchaceae) and their closely-related, non-British counterparts from continental Europe: Orobanche rapum-genistae Thuill. s.l. Watsonia, 23(2), 413–419.

Fransella, F., & Bannister, D. (1977). A manual for repertory grid techniques. London: Academic Press.

Gelman, S., & Wellman, H. (1991). Insides and essences: early understanding of the non-obvious. Cognition, 38(3), 214–44.

Gunstone, R. F. (1991). Learners in science education. In P. Fensham (Ed.), Developments and dilemmas in science education (pp. 73-95). London: Falmer Press.

Happs, J. C., & Stead, K. (1989). Using the Repertory Grid as a Complementary Probe in Eliciting Student Understanding and Attitudes towards Science. Research in Science and Technological Education, 7(2), 207–220.

Hatano, G., & Inaki, K. (1994). Young children’s naive theory of biology. Cognition, 50(1-3) 171–188.

Keil, F. C. (1996). Concepts, kinds and cognitive development. Cambridge, MS: MIT Press.

Kelly, G. A. (1953/1991). Psychology of personal constructs. Volume 1 - A theory of Personality. London: Routledge.

Kelly, G. A. (1969). Ontological acceleration. In B. Maher (Ed.), Clinical psychology and personality: the selected papers of George Kelly (pp. 94–113) New York: Wiley.

Kripke, S. (1971). Identity and necessity. In M. K. Munitz (Ed.), Identity and Individuation (pp. 135–164). New York: New York University Press.

Kripke, S. (1972). Naming and necessity. In D. Davidson & G. Harman (Eds.), Semantics of Natural Languages (pp. 253–355, with addenda pp. 763–769). Dordrecht: Reidel.

Lawson, M. J. (1997). Concept mapping. In J. P. Keeves (Ed.), Educational research methodology and measurement, an international handbook (2nd edition). Oxford: Pergamon.

Maddison, D. R., & Maddison, W.P. (2011). MacClade v4.08. Retrieved 30. 1. 2017 from

Mayr, E. (1942). Systematics and the Origin of Species, from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McCloughlin, T. J. J., & Matthews, P. S. C. (2001). Studying the learning of biological natural kind concepts. Proceedings of the third international conference of the European Science Education Research Association on: Science Education Research in the Knowledge Based Society. August 2001, Thessaloniki (Greece).

Mill, J. S. (1843/1973). A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Vols. VII–VIII). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mintzes, J. J. Wandersee, J. H., & Novak, J. D. (2001). Assessing understanding in biology. Journal of Biological Education, 35(3), 118–124.

Mohapatra, J. K., & Parida, B. K. (1995). The location of alternative conceptions by a concept graph technique. International Journal of Science Education 17(5), 663–681.

Novak, J. (1990). Concept mapping: a useful device for science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(10), 937–949.

Osborne, R. J., & Freyberg, P. (1987). Learning in Science: the implications of children’s science. London: Heinemann.

Parnell, J., & Needham, M. (1998). Morphometric variation in Irish Sorbus L. (Rosaceae). Watsonia, 22(2) 153–161.

Putnam, H. (1975). Mind, Language and Reality. Philosophical Papers. Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quinn, G. P., & Keough, M. J. (2002). Experimental Design and Data Analysis for Biologists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quine, W. V. (1969). Natural kinds. In J. Kim & E. Sosa (Eds.), Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (pp. 114–138). New York: Columbia University Press.

Schuh, R. T. (2000). Biological Systematics: Principles and Applications. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Shaw, M. L. G. (1981). Recent advances in personal construct technology. London: Academic Press.

Springer, K., & Keil, F. C. (1991). Early differentiation of causal 363 mechanisms appropriate to biological and non-biological kinds. Child Development, 60(3)637–648.

Sutton, C. R. (1980). The learner’s prior knowledge: a critical view of techniques for probing its organisation. European Journal of Science Education, 2(2), 107–120.

Wellman, W. H., & Gelman, S. A. (1992). Cognitive development: foundational theories of core domains. Annual Review of Psychology, 43(1) 337–375.

Wilkerson, T. E. (1995). Natural Kinds. Aldershot: Avebury.