In My Classroom: Going Bananas for Phenomenon Based Teaching

I originally drafted this “In my classroom” as a way to talk about this cool lab that I used to begin talking about the role of biological molecules in living things.  I originally intended to end this with talk of how it was a great lab experience for my students and made for a good model to explain how living things utilize biological molecules.  This was all before the recent NABT conference when I learned about the work being done by teachers in Illinois to create phenomenon based storylines as a way to teach concepts and practices from the NGSS.  I still intend to say all of those things, but the ending has really just sparked a thousand new fires in my head.  Brad’s use of the lighting of the beacons from The Return of the King is in full effect, and I am seemingly humming the score as I type away.

A few years ago, an inquiry idea got posted in the October 2015 ABT about utilizing bananas as a model for learning about biochemistry.  This year, I decided to utilize the model in my classroom as a way to introduce biological molecules and begin talking about cells and cellular processes.  I started with the bananas in class, giving groups of my students (both AP and General) very ripe, somewhat ripe, and unripe bananas.  I asked them to use their chalk markers and record as many observations as they could, comparing and contrasting the bananas.  I got some predictable responses like their coloration was different, but most made great observations about the texture, mass, and taste of the bananas.  My favorite interaction was when one adventurous student informed the class of the taste and consistency of all the banana peels, pointing out that the unripe banana appeared to have a higher water content in the peel compared to the riper specimens.

So after all these observations and in class discussion, I directed students to use the two chemicals I had provided them (iodine and Benedict’s solution) and create an assay to observe how they affected the various bananas.  We made some observations, and recorded our qualitative data from what we saw.  This lead to me revealing that Iodine serves as an indicator for starches and Benedict’s for sugars.  At this point we talked about carbohydrates and their overall structure, pointing out that polysaccharides like starches are formed from sugar monomers like glucose.  We could see clearly that one banana was strongly positive for the presence of starches while the other was more strongly positive for sugars.  This lead to me posing a question.  How did all those starches seemingly disappear, and the sugars replace them?  

My students sat on this for a second.  I had to prove that I had not injected them with sugar.  Students teetered around an answer, but I eventually had a student in each class suggest that the starches are being digested.  I had one student go so far as to name drop amylase.  This lead to us talking about chemical reaction that are occurring to break these polymers up into simpler pieces.  We modeled what they looked like and investigated the role and structure of proteins, particularly amylase.  With the last few minutes of class, we broke out the microscopes and identified cells that had been stained with iodine to indicate the location of starches in the cells.  My students were super engaged with the whole process.  We had a small writeup to summarize and model the processes we had observed.  But that was kind of the end. We still talked about these things in class, but I left a pretty cool phenomenon just hanging there.

A student slide of unripe banana stained with iodine to highlight the presence of starch (in this case amylose).

As previously stated, I got to see some awesome phenomenon based teaching from my experiences at NABT, and am looking at next steps with my students.  Jason Crean from the Illinois Association of Biology Teachers has formulated these NGSS storylines in his class following specific organisms and phenomena.  His phenomena are very heavily focused on real data from collaborations with zoologists and some of his work can be found at http://www.xy-zoo.com/.   His focus is on how all of the content standards in the NGSS connect to each other in an engaging and coherent storyline, all sparked by an investigation into a particular phenomenon.  

While thinking about writing this post, it occurred to me that the banana lab seems like a great piece in the puzzle to start my own conceptual storyline unit on how “We are what we eat.” In my head, this will be something that delves into why some people have trouble processing certain foods and how malnutrition affects us.  I have shared a little bit about this idea already on a Facebook post, and am now looking into a collaboration to produce some conceptual storylines that follow phenomenon, not just the order the standards are packaged and delivered to us.  I realize there is safety there, but safety has never been fun.

Data Analysis in a Natural Selection Simulation

+/-1 SEM bars added

I really like the HHMI Biointeractive activity “Battling Beetles”. I have used it, in some iteration (see below), for the last 6 years to model certain aspects of natural selection. There is an extension where you can explore genetic drift and Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium calculations, though I have never done that with my 9th graders. If you stop at that point, the lab is lacking a bit in quantitative analysis. Students calculate phenotypic frequencies, but there is so much more you can do.  I used the lab to introduce the idea of a null hypothesis and standard error to my students this year, and I may never go back!

 

We set up our lab notebooks with a title, purpose/objective statements, and a data table. I provided students with an initial hypothesis (the null hypothesis), and ask them to generate an alternate hypothesis to mine (alternative hypothesis). I didn’t initially use the terms ‘null’ and ‘alternative’ for the hypotheses because, honestly, it wouldn’t have an impact on their success, and those are vocabulary words we can visit after demonstrating the main focus of the lesson. When you’re 14, and you’re trying to remember information from 6 other classes, even simple jargon can bog things down.  I had students take a random sample of 10 “male beetles” of each shell color, we smashed them together according the HHMI procedure, and students reported the surviving frequencies to me.

Once I had the sample frequencies, I used a Google Sheet to find averages and standard error, and reported those to my students. Having earlier emphasized “good” science as falsifiable, tentative and fallible, we began to talk about “confidence” and “significance” in research. What really seemed to work was this analogy: if your parents give you a curfew of 10:30 and you get home at 10:31, were you home on time? It isn’t a perfect comparison, and it is definitely something I’ll regret when my daughter is a few years older, but that seemed to click for most students. 10:31 isn’t 10:30, but if we’re being honest with each other, there isn’t a real difference between the two. After all, most people would unconsciously round 10:31 down to 10:30 without thinking. We calculated the average frequency changed from 0.5 for blue M&M’s to 0.53, and orange conversely moved from 0.5 to 0.47. So I asked them again: Does blue have an advantage? Is our result significant?

Error bars represent 95% C.I. (+/- 0.044) for our data.

Short story, no; we failed to reject the null hypothesis. Unless you are using a 70% confidence interval, our result is not significantly different based on 36 samples. But it was neat to see the interval shrink during the day. After each class period, we added a few more samples, and the standard error measurement moved from 0.05 to 0.03 to 0.02. It was a really powerful way to emphasize the importance of sample size in scientific endeavors. 

Should the pattern (cross-cutting concept!) hold across 20 more samples, the intervals would no longer overlap, and we could start to see something interesting. So if anyone has a giant bag of M&M’s lying around and you want to contribute to our data set, copy this sheet, add your results, and share it back my way. Hope we can collaborate!

Email results, comments, questions to Drew Ising at aising@usd348.com or drewising@gmail.com

–Versions of Battling Beetles Lab I’ve Tried–

HHMI Original

My “Student Worksheet” Edit

Lab Instructions Google Doc

Lab Notebook Intro. from 2017-18

Lab Notebook Data from 2017-18

Plotting Error Bars in Google Sheets?…..on a scatter plot????

Robbyn Tuinstra, tri-athlete and AP Bio teacher extraordinaire recently had a question about putting error bars on scatter plot data in Google Sheets.  Several of us weighed in—a couple of us suggested it wasn’t possible, a couple of others pointed to a video where custom error bars were placed on a bar graph.  I mentioned that I had tried before to do this but gave up since I use other tools like Excel, Plotly and various stat programs.  Still this issue festered for a while and I finally had to try and attack it again.  I was partially successful.   I’ll describe what I have discovered but this also provides an opportunity to revisit suggested quantitative goals that the community might want to work towards.

First the type of experiment/data appropriate to this question.  Last year I produced a series of posts that featured a lengthy coverage of the types of data analysis and model application one might want to consider when doing a very simple lab–the yeast catalase floating disk lab.  You can find these posts on the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers Bioblog:  http://www.kabt.org/2017/02/06/summary-post-for-teaching-quantitative-skills/

I didn’t use google sheets in these posts but I will here.  Here is a data table of results that has already been transposed from disk rise time to rate of disk rise in floats per second.

This data table is typical of how we might record this types of data.  In the original postings I talked about how to plot this data and to do a curve fit.  Here’s one way to plot this data (in excel) using approx. 95% error bars (2 x SEM).

I think this is the type of data and plot that Robbyn was talking about.   The model for enzyme kinetics is known as the Michaelis-Menten equation and it can be used to fit the data.  I’m not sure we want to get into that in the AP Bio classroom but perhaps we do.  Nevertheless, I think we definitely should consider having students at least generate the graph.  The error bars are nice but I think when it comes to developing student argumentation from evidence that simply plotting all the data points along with the means is sufficient.  A plot that looks like this in Excel:


How do we do this in Google Sheets?

One of the first things to do to make this easier to plot is to change the data table into something like this:


Note that there is a column for the data points and a separate column for the means. This allows us to plot two dependent variable series on the graph.  We’ll use this strategy later.  Note that I have also added a 2 % substrate concentration and a 0% substrate concentration but I have left the rise time blank for these.  These x variables extend the range of of the x axis when we plot. 

Select these columns, choose Insert Graph and change to a scatter plot you end up with a plot that looks like this:

Here I’ve changed the size and color of the individual data points.


I won’t go into modifying your lablels, axis titles and titles.

Personally, I think this is more than adequate evidence to make the argument about the shape of this curve but I imagine in my classes we’d go for a non-linear curve fit (to help them justify the upper end math classes they are taking)

But perhaps, like Robbyn you want to include error bars instead of the data points for each substrate concentration.  This really doesn’t seem to be possible with simple menu options in Google Sheets.  (obviously, if you want to get into programming, it would be possible).  I did however find this work around.

First let’s change the data table again. Lets add a new column that has a calculated 2 x standard error of the means.  And another new column that includes values for [mean + (2 x SEM)] and [mean – (2 x SEM).]  Now the table looks like this:


Highlight the entire table, insert a chart BUT here is the thing.  If you highlight the data and let Google sheets determine the graph type it will pick Line Graph.  Let it this time.  That is key to what we need to draw the error bars.  You get something like this:

We have too many variables plotted.  We don’t need the individual data points now so we’ll get rid of those.  We will also turn off the plotting of the SEM (but not the plus or minus SEM).  Finally, select, use column A for labels (assuming you’ve put your substrate concentrations in column A.


Once that is done, we should be down to something that looks like this.  One variable plotted is the means and along with a line that connect plus 2 x SEM to minus 2 x SEM….

There you have it—a work around that works because by default Google sheets treats the blank cells in the plus or minus columns as null data–not zeros.  

p.s.

You can turn off that feature and the graph will look like this:


Obviously not what we want.  

Assessing the Science and Engineering Practices

I have been thinking a lot about the message that I want to send to students about science and reflecting on my own understanding of what science is. In my short two years as a teacher a lot of kids have come into my room conditioned into memorizing words and concepts until a test. They see science classes as more challenging versions of the memorization-regurgitation cycle and often have insecurities about science. As a student it took me a really long time to realize that science isn’t about memorizing processes or vocabulary but about the feeling I get in my head when I don’t know something yet but know that there is something to be learned. It’s about the confusion that happens when you have data that doesn’t come out you expected it to and you don’t understand why, or the excitement when you can connect two ideas you didn’t realize were related to each other before. I only realized these things when  I had mentors in college who asked me questions that I couldn’t answer by regurgitating vocabulary words. They taught me how to learn rather than how to be taught, and I gained so much confidence. No matter how difficult the concept, I had gained some kind of magic comfort in my abilities to work through problems and struggle through sense-making because I had sort of re-focused my education on the act of learning versus the things I learned.

But how do I get 15 year-olds who have been trained from a young age to read their books, do their vocabulary words, and memorize what the teacher tells them to change their ways and actually do this science? How do I give them the the science magic that I found during my college years? Thankfully I am not the only educator who has asked these questions and the creators of NGSS built in science and engineering practices to the standards. I’ve always planned my lessons with the science and engineering practices in mind but I’ve never really told my students what the practices are or how you exactly do those things. So this year I’ve promised myself that I’m going to be more deliberate about this. I made colorful posters with the practices on them and hung them in my room, and have told my students and their parents multiple times that I value the practices. I don’t think that these practices are THE ANSWER to helping students understand real science but I think they are a good place to build from. 

I’m going to value these skills in my classroom and I added a grade book category just for them. My goal is to assess my students on one of the practices at least once a week and to be very explicit and clear with them what these skills look like.In an attempt to briefly outline mastery, proficient, and developing skills I put together a rubric that includes all 8 standards. I plan on using the rubric as a general guideline to grade various different projects or tasks, varying from exit slips or bell ringers to longer in-class activities. If I want to assess a certain practice more in-depth I will break it down into its own more detailed rubric, but for now this is what I’ve got. I’ve attached my first and second drafts of these rubrics in attempt to show how my thought process changed. I love google docs and have given all viewers of these documents the ability to add comments…please do so! I am more happy with iteration 2 but am not sure that everything is student friendly or actually what those skills look like. Big thanks to Camden Hanzlick-Burton and Michael Ralph and others on the KABT Facebook page who encouraged and pushed my thinking before I was quite ready to make a blog post.

TLDR: Science is awesome! How do I get students to stop memorizing and do science? I made some rubrics to assess science and engineering skills but think they could use some improvement: HELP!

DRAFT 1

DRAFT 2

Trying Something New With Grades

I have wanted to change the way I assess students for a while. I have made changes to how and when I grade assignments, the format of tests, and how understanding is communicated during and after lab activities. But in the end, I was still grading students the same way I always had, the same way I was in school, and the same way students have for quite a while. Kid accumulated points, some assignments were weighted more than others, and students who turned in most of their work on time (regardless of quality) tended to do well. This school year, I am not doing that. I will probably fail spectacularly. Luckily I have administrators who are supporting me, knowing I am trying to do what is best for our students. I am going to try this first with my AP Biology students, since I share the Biology 1 classes with two other teachers, and hope this leads to a wider transition.

I will share what I am doing, but I need your help. After reading through my plan, send me a message or leave a comment with your feedback. What looks good? What should I change? What have you tried and can share to improve my students’ experience? 

via GIPHY

I am basing my course assessment off a document shared by AP Biology/Calculus teacher Chi Klein. The College Board shares, as part of the curriculum framework, “Essential Knowledge” statements and has recommended “Learning Objectives” from them. Ms. Klein compiled and organized those learning objectives into a document that could be shared with her students. I will be sharing a GoogleDoc with my students in the first days of class which they will use over the course of the school year.

As is the case in most standards-based and “gradeless” classes I have seen, students will be responsible for justifying their level of mastery over the content. The “Learning Objectives” document I will share with them covers 149 content standards. Students will be able to earn up to four points for each standard based on their mastery of the content, meaning we’d have 596 possible points by the end of the school year. Here is what I’m thinking for my mastery levels (category title suggestions welcomed):

Level of Mastery

Example Activities

Knowledge

Notes, Guided Readings, Discussions

Comprehension

Class activities, Worksheets, POGILs, Article Annotations, Quizzes

Application

Experiments, Virtual Labs, Demonstrations, etc.

Synthesis

Summative Exams, Projects, etc.

I envision the initial knowledge mastery as being pretty straight-forward to demonstrate. For the successive levels, I have been torn as what threshold to use for mastery. If a student wants to use an assignment, lab, test question, etc., do I require them to have earned all possible points? I have been considering at least 90% on a given assignment/test item before a student can try to use it to justify mastery. As an example, if I have a free response item on our evolution test with 10 possible points, a student would need at least 9 points before they could use that in a grade conference. If a student only earned 6 points, they would have to revise their response and get new feedback on the item before trying to use it again during their next conference.

So students are still earning points, and the points they earn as a percentage of the overall points possible still determine their final grade. Not very earth shattering there. How they are being assessed, and what is being assessed is different than how I have ever done this before. There is a much greater burden of responsibility (and independence) placed on the student. My feedback is going to need to be both more flexible and more timely to allow students to complete any needed revisions. If not, I will be setting my students up for a very difficult experience.

The one final change is, at least for my AP Biology class, I am moving away from the traditional 90/80/70/60 scale for grades. The purpose of the AP class, to me, is to prepare students for post-secondary success and to show well on the AP Biology test.  So I want the rigor of the class to match the rigor of the expectations and examination. As anyone who has taken or taught AP Biology can attest, this won’t be difficult. I also want my scoring to reflect that of an AP test. If a student has an A in my class, I want them to have an expectation to earn a 5 on the test. If they have a C in my class, they might expect to earn a 3 (which in Kansas would now get them college credit; good change KSBOE/Regents!). Going back through all the data I could find on the correlation of raw exam scores to 5-point AP Scores, here is what I am going to roll with this year:I am going into this completely aware that revisions will happen when I get AP scores back in the summer. If I have a student who earned 499 points in class, but only got a 3 on the exam, I will need to reconsider either the point range for that grade, or how I let students demonstrate mastery. Again, I am very lucky to have administrators who are willing to let me take this chance, fully aware of I will likely make mistakes.

As for pacing, I am planning on emphasizing one Big Idea each quarter. We’ll start with Big Idea 1 (evolution), which will be more teacher-centered as my students (and I) learn how to function in this new system. As the school year progresses, I hope to transition to a more student-centered model with Big Idea 4 being largely personalized by each individual. Shouts to David Knuffke and Camden Burton for the inspiration here.

This will be my 11th year in the classroom, and 5th teaching AP Biology, and I am finally to a point where I am comfortable enough with my knowledge and abilities to make some changes. I hope this will be a better and more accurate way of assessing student knowledge and mastery, providing more meaning to the grade students earn in my class. But what do you think? What feedback can you give me? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, social media (@ItsIsing), or you can email me (drewising@gmail).

Here goes nothing…

via GIPHY

–Documents of Note and Muses–
Syllabus: Ising APBio2017
Student Learning Objectives: GoogleDoc
Camden’s BioBlog Post: http://www.kabt.org/2015/02/23/my-biology-objectives/
Kelly’s Gradeless Classroom: http://www.kabt.org/2015/06/26/the-great-gradeless-experiment-1/
Bob Kuhn’s 52-Week Gradeless Blog: https://medium.com/@mszczepanik/52-weeks-of-grade-less-week-1-the-journey-begins-da3e03739a7e
David Knuffke’s Published Thoughts on SBG: http://www.knuffke.com/search?q=standards

 

NOW ACCEPTING 2017 Fall Conference Session Proposals

Friends, Members, and Colleagues,

The Kansas Association of Biology Teachers would like to encourage you to submit a session proposal for our upcoming fall conference. We are being hosted by the Sternberg Museum (Fort Hays State University, Hays, KS) Saturday, September 9th (more information to follow soon). Whether you are a seasoned presenter or a first-timer, an individual or a group, we’d love to have everyone share something with us. Our strength is in the innovation and openness of our classrooms, and we can’t wait to see what amazing stuff is going on across our state.

Proposals will be accepted from 21 July-8 August. Presenters will be notified of proposal status no later than 11 August. 

2017 FALL CONFERENCE PROPOSALS

If you have any questions regarding the conference, proposals, Shark Week, etc, contact Drew (andrewising@gmail) or Sara (sarahettenbach@gmail).

 

Aquaponics PBL

My students built their own aquaponics systems this spring.

First, I introduced a driving question to drive the project with a video. Next, the students broke into groups and explored three different types of aquapoincs units nutrient film, deep water culture, and media bed units. Then they shared what they had learned about these units in a jigsaw. After everyone had looked at the different types of units I asked each student which type they were most interested in making. They then were able to look at designs and make drawings of their own unit. Their homework was to bring this design to the next class. To begin the designs are unpolished

It is so amazing to be an educator and help facilitate this into a working system that a student can be proud to show off.

That night I made student groups based on the type of unit they were interested in making. I also chose groups so that I could pair kids with others who they could get along with. It is important and challenging to get student group dynamics right. Personally, I feel that an educator doesn’t need to follow some formula for this they should intuit based on their knowledge of students. The next day students got into the group I assigned to them and shared the diagram they had made. Students then used technology to make a single design as a group.

The work of revising models is something that this project has so much potential in developing.

I critiqued each groups design then sent them to the greenhouse to collect their supplies. Each group was given a 10 gallon aquarium, clay pellets, a $10 aquarium pump, air supply, and a chemical test kit. Other materials/tools that are necessary are a drill, string, silicon caulk, PVC, guttering, compound miner saws, plastic containers, and tubing. Supplying electricity is a serious safety concern. It is very helpful to be friends with the shop teacher.

Students quickly run into the realization that their model is very hard to achieve. Some models are even impossible. The first time I ran this activity I had students revise their models many times but this consumed lots of available work time. Now, I let them simply change their units with no revision to the model. These sorts of revisions can actually be really frustrating for students. Once they see water pumping and have some vision that the system will work the groups get collective energy to get work completed. Now I just have a quick discussion about how well the models work and why they’re useful. I originally had this idea of students revising their models several times, but I feel I had to let that go in order to have time for actually building the real units.

Students setting up a system this group had a very clever design that maximized growing space by using vertical space, but at night they would lose all their water so they had to make several revisions to their original plan.

Projects like this take days to work through. In order to grade students I actually have them grade themselves using a simple yet effective self assessment tool.

Each student has a column and must describe how they helped contribute to their group. If one student does more work than other students in the group it is possible that that student receives their points. If the student group does suggest that one student did not carry their load I am the judge of this decision. I base the decision on evidence of work done and conferences with student groups. If a student is gone for the day I ask them to come in during study hall and contribute the same amount that their partners did on the project. The tool is very powerful because it forces students to negotiate fair and appropriate workloads for one another. This is a huge part of what I am facilitating throughout the project. The first several days I will stop the groups every 15 minutes and ask them to write down what each group member did. Once they get the hang of it they write down tasks they have performed on their own. It may sound very simplistic but I have found it very helpful and with 120 students working this system I only had 5 times this year where I held group conferences. This proactive approach is much better for me than dealing with emails about how one student did “all the work in the group” then retroactively trying to negotiate things. I strongly suggest this as a method for helping to manage student groups on projects.

 

Students who successfully navigate workloads enter into the rest of life with great work skills.

The students do eventually get to the point where their system filters water through. It is amazing to see a system that really works. I have had several students decide that they want to go into designing aquaponics systems for a career. It is so cool to see how much pride they have in their systems.

Proud students show off a system that produced many tomatoes. The next step will be helping our culinary classes by growing veggie plants.

This is MY aquaponics build. Lots of these systems can be scaled up if your are crazy enough to do it.

Jeff & Pam Meyer, the owners of CalAnn farms a working hydroponics farm in Basehor generously showed us their facility. By tying in this real-world experience it helped direct students further up the road. It also gave us new ideas about ways to run more productive systems in our school.

Students see that their work is not just to get a grade but rather means to a career.

Jeff Meyer from CalAnn Farms explaining the process of sprouting thousands of basil seed.

Why not have some fun?  🙂

2017 Spring Field Trip- Clinton Lake

 


We hope you will join us June 16-18th as the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers will be hosting members and nonmembers for our annual spring field trip. This year, we will be exploring Clinton Reservoir State Park, the Baker Wetlands, and the Kansas River. Camping will take place Friday and Saturday evening at Clinton Lake (Elm Group campsite is reserved, Bloomington East Camping Grounds).  There are some roads closed on the way out to the camping grounds. The easiest access will be to come from the north off of K-10. Detailed directions are posted in the Facebook Group.

Last-minute changes to the agenda will almost certainly occur. Please check our Facebook Group for updates. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email (askkabt@gmail.com or kyleesharp@gmail.com), social media (Facebook or Twitter), or in the comments below.

SCHEDULE:
Friday-
17:00-19:30 Set up camp, eat dinner, socialize
20:00-TBD Insect Biodiversity Survey with area entomologists

Saturday-
09:00-12:00 Explore the Baker Wetlands– Bird Watching, Wetland macroinvertebrates (1365 N 1250 Rd, Lawrence, KS 66046)
PICNIC LUNCH at Baker Wetlands Discovery Center
13:00-16:00 Guided Hikes of the KUFS Trails, Fitch Biology Trail, Roth Trailhead (Meet at Roth Trailhead
17:00 Dinner in Lawrence (TBD)
19:00-dark “Road Cruising” for herps and other neat wildlife, canoeing in the reservoir

Sunday
Break camp in the AM.
TBA-12:00 Bird watching and bioblitz

TRAVEL:
Clinton State Park is accessible from US-56 or K-10 highways, and Clinton Parkway. K-10 is conveniently connected to I-70, US-59, and I-435/I-35.
Clinton Reservoir State Park: 798 N 1415 Rd, Lawrence, KS 66049

AP Biology – Layered, Mastery Assessments

Eleven months ago I wrote a letter to my AP Biology students about stumbling in my efforts to include more learners in my AP Biology program. I was deeply conflicted in deciding how to proceed from our scores; student morale was as good as it had ever been and enrollment was up but their scores were the lowest of my career.

 

This was my last year teaching AP Biology and the changes in my methods continued. Enrollment this year tripled last year’s and early numbers showed them on the rise again next year (had I remained to teach again). Since my commitment to inclusiveness over scores two and a half years ago, I have lost ZERO students to the scythe of early year panic drops. I had groups of students approaching me, a remarkable number of which were future enrollees whom I had yet to even teach, looking for lab placements and enrichment experiences to get more involved in science. Students believed they could biology. I am happy to say I built the environment I sought for my AP program.

 

Scores are not out yet, but I did another overhaul of my assessment system which I think is worth sharing. When I was brute-forcing my student success I used textbook question banks and regular weekend quizzes to ensure my handful of students did A LOT of testing and their AP scores were very strong. I transitioned last year to only assess by asking students to write what they know and we focused their analysis on what they could add over multiple attempts. Every student knew something about photosynthesis and every student could know something more than what they did each time. Nobody felt useless or stumped, because even if they knew they “weren’t there yet” they could work from what they did know and focus on filling their gaps and fixing their misconceptions.

 

The shortcoming in this system was the lack of an anchor for the students in evaluating what they know against what the College Board asks them to know. My students were surprised in May because I had told them they had mastered a topic, but my judgement was imperfect and being able to talk about what they know is meaningfully different from solving problems set within a schema… or more often at an intersection between multiple large networks of ideas. I must give my students practice working from what they know while they experience problem solving in ways I had failed to maintain during my transition last year.

Students will feel great about not knowing that much about HW…

So this year I changed my assessment perspective. I still need to hook students on our culture of knowing things, and you must know things to solve problems. For those reasons my first semester changed very little. I made a re-commitment to inquiry and lab experience, but my knowledge assessment suite was only sharpened and refined.

 

Second semester, however, we were ready to be dangerous. We knew about the world of molecular biology, so from day one we worked to address problems. In January I said, “Muscular dystrophy… what’s the deal with that?” We actually had about half an hour of productive discussion regarding what we did know (I got yet another reminder that students are not blank slates!), but then I handed them our first formal assessment. It had a full page of background information pulled from expert sources and a deceptively simple prompt. They said we don’t know this…

Hint: You’ll need more than one page to fully answer this prompt.

Great! What do you need to know to be able to solve this problem? We made a list. Our work was filling the gaps they needed to address the problem. Once the list was all crossed off, we attempted the problem. After several attempts, they were ready for more. “AIDS resistance… how’s that possible?” Away we went again.

CCR5-Delta32: Enzymes and shapes… It’s always enzymes and shapes, bros.

The top level of work changed each time they attempted the assessment, but usually only in small ways that ensured they focused on the ideas rather than the test itself. Every student could still know something, but now there was a much more concrete framework for their trajectory of development. It was challenging to writing milestone assessments that appropriately built student understanding in ways that actually conferred success on the summative assessments… but I think I hit the mark more often than not. In January students needed 3+ attempts per assessment to finally bank all levels, but by April I did have students banking things first try.

Understanding this was only part of the first level… sweet baby James we loved cell signaling this year.

Logistically, I provided students with the concepts level and the background reading at the start. The synthesis was brand new each of the first several attempts, but as a class they found it more comfortable to only attempt concepts the first time around so they could have more time to write and revise without the time crunch of getting both things done while both phases were unfamiliar. If students banked all levels of the knowledge assessments/driving problems, they were automatically awarded credit for all formative milestones (but not visa versa). This took a lot of pressure off students who wanted to focus on growth during the unit to be ready to crush at the end, and eliminated the redundancy of going back to do in part something they’d already demonstrated they could do in full. I was surprised to see an even divide of the class, some preferred to bank every chapter first and some wanted to just work the big problems.

An early biochem milestone assessment.

A milestone assessment from sometime in March.

I don’t think these assessments are perfect, and I’m posting them warts and all. What matters is that old concepts continue to be explicitly assessed in later topics (see biochem stuff in like… every single assessment). Here they are. Many need copy editing and revision from how they were delivered this year because they were new. Take, modify, use and share in good health.

 

Students need opportunities to show what they know. Deficit grading will disenfranchise too many students, especially in AP classes. To remain successful we have to find ways to provide layered assessments that are accessible to students at many points on the learning trajectory while still building toward the robust understanding expected by AP exams. Philosophically, I am really liking the path I’ve been on. Perhaps some of you will walk this same direction and push even further down the road.

 

I’ll update this post in July when the scores are released.