An Alternative Method for Assessing Student Understanding?

In my experience, students have the some difficulty in understanding things in Biology which are not easily observable. When you mix in heavy doses of chemistry and a fair amount of process-specific vocabulary, cellular energetics may be the most challenging of all the topics I cover on a regular basis. With the NGSS an increased emphasis is placed on knowing the overall purpose of the systems and their inputs and products, but I still always struggle with what is important for students to know, and how best to get them to retain that information. There are some great labs available using leaf disks and probes, and there are always notes, repetition and memorization of course. But you still run into the same issue… students have to accept that things are working the way that you tell them that they should. And while it isn’t feasible on a normal high school budget to visualize the cellular processes that are occurring in the energy reactions, there is another option: role-playing.

I was trolling the internet one day, looking for a better alternative to showing my students some “interactive” PowerPoint slides, when I remembered a competition I tried to peer pressure my wife into entering, Dance Your PhD. A quick Google search, provided me with the catalyst that I needed for my favorite day of the first semester, and my favorite TED talk yet.

[Full Disclosure: I don’t care for PPT or really any slideshow program. Loathe may be too strong a word, but it isn’t far from the mark. All the work/learning is being done by the person that made the presentation… but that isn’t necessarily relevant right now…]

As someone that avoids PowerPoint whenever possible, this post made my heart grow a Grinch-like three sizes. There is a part in there when he mentions that the more his friend tried to explain an experiment to him, the further he got from understanding. I’m not too proud to admit that it happens to me at least twice a week. I felt like this was a chance for me to get my students to better understand a complicated biochemical process, have an enjoyable time, and not sit around watching me talk about a presentation that I did all the comprehension-building research to put together. Students still would have to learn the content, but now they would be doing so using several modalities.  Further, as teachers, we know that you learn best when you have to apply knowledge and communicate it to others. When you have to do this without words, it makes the task all the more difficult. A difficult, uncomfortable tasks are the breeding ground of lasting learning.

So as we approach our unit test on Energetics, my AP Biology classes have engaged in a competition to see who can best demonstrate the reaction assigned to them.  In order to win, they’ll need votes. Please visit my other post, watch their dances, and vote. After you’ve finished, drop me a comment with your thoughts. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And when my students take their unit test, nobody had better mess up the purpose of an electron transport chain!



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