Supporting Mastery in AP Biology

I had plenty of evidence that I made a lot of mistakes in my first year of teaching Advanced Placement Biology, but one of the most convincing data points I had was Philip’s performance in class.

I’d taught Philip for two years and knew he was serious about the subject generally and my class particularly. During class, he was engaged and energetic; he completed all assigned work meticulously, and I had no reason to disbelieve him when he described the time he spent studying for biology.

Philip bombed test after test in my class.

After each test, Philip dutifully came in to work with me after school and would go through his test item by item. And we’d talk. As we talked, it became apparent that Philip knew quite a bit of biology, but his knowledge was not being captured in our class exams. At the time, I chalked this up mostly to his test anxiety, which he and I had been talking through since his freshman year. Whatever the cause, he was frustrated, and I didn’t really know how to help him do better.

There were obviously structural problems in my course that year. In no particular order:
1. Students did not get any sort of regular, targeted feedback from me about their conceptual progress
2. Pacing was a mess
3. The test questions I used were mostly terrible, pulled from textbook banks that didn’t accurately reflect the structure of the AP Biology exam and didn’t assess conceptual understanding
4. Students didn’t have the opportunity to have growth reflected in their grades; students who weren’t testing well continued to not test well; students could move on to the next concept without being responsible for mastering the previous concept.

When that year ended, I devoted the summer to figuring out how to address these most significant problems. Hard-working students like Philip deserved a better class. I made two significant, related overhauls:
1. Grade less, but grade more deliberately
2. Make tests an opportunity for growth

For the first point, I wrote up open-ended prompts that correlated to specific conceptual statements in the AP Biology Curriculum Framwork (the Essential Knowledge statements, for those of you who are insiders). Some of the prompts I wrote over that summer; others I generated as we went throughout the year. The prompts varied — some were tied to datasets, some to case studies, some to textbook sections, some to videos, some were mini-research assignments — but all required students to generate a unique response. I wrote up a general, holistic 10 point rubric. Students who honestly attempted a prompt could not earn less than 6. If a student earned less than 10, they were guaranteed comments from me about how they could better demonstrate understanding. At that point, the ball was in their proverbial field: they could submit these assignments over and over again to improve their scores if they chose. I wanted them to master the biology.

For the second point, I developed a testing policy that looked radically different from the traditional unit tests I used in my first year. And it has continued to change over time, although by now I am pretty satisfied and don’t intend to make any major overhauls in the near future. My basic stance is that AP Biology test-taking is a specific skill that requires practice, and that it is unreasonable for me or my students to expect that they will show up in September already equipped to succeed on this style of test.

Every test all year is cumulative, so students continually re-test on previous material — and they are expected to tackle questions which weave together multiple biological concepts (as they will on the AP Biology exam and in life). In first semester, students earn credit for identifying the correct answer on a multiple choice question, but they also earn credit for identifying an incorrect answer. I reasoned that, if a student could identify an answer choice as incorrect, that is a way of providing evidence of some biological understanding and they should receive credit for it. All year long, the week after a test, students have the opportunity to come in at lunch or after school to make test corrections for half credit back. They are encouraged to bring a friend or a group of friends, which they nearly always do. They can collaborate on these corrections, and they can also consult classwork and the textbook (but not Google). Nearly every student corrects at least one test throughout the year, and some of the best student-student biology talk happens during these sessions. My students create a community together, and they learn from mistakes, and they reason through data together. And they are empowered to move their own grades, which in turn increases buy-in for the course and strengthens my relationship with them. We test more often, too — about once a month. Instead of arbitrary unit boundaries, I schedule tests where they make sense logistically on our school calendar, and whatever content we’ve explored up from the first day of school until test day is fair game. Research suggests that frequent testing helps students retain information (if the tests are opportunities for learning).

I have found that, among other things, my testing approach decreases test anxiety and rewards students who work hard but need additional exposure to content in order to master it. It also bolsters AP exam readiness, since they have seen cumulative questions all year and have had many opportunities to practice concepts in test questions. My test questions themselves have also improved, largely because there are now significantly more secure exam questions available from CollegeBoard than there were in the 2013–2014 school year (my first year teaching the class, and the year immediately following the course redesign), but also because I’ve gotten better at writing questions myself. Furthermore, as I’ve become more efficient teaching generally, I have more brain space to devote to question writing and assessment feedback for students.

So, students currently enrolled in my AP class experience the following things:
1. Frequent (once or twice weekly) feedback from me that specifically relates to their demonstrated understanding of a particular grain of AP Biology conceptual knowledge
2. Many opportunities to test on biology concepts, with a built-in structure for revising mistakes in collaboration with peers (and occasional input from me)

Back in 2014, Philip told me often how much he enjoyed my teaching and how much he liked biology. But I’m confident he’d like it better now — and he probably would have even moved his hard-won B up to an A, which would have been a much more accurate reflection of his biology knowledge and work ethic.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t make the point here that the structure of my AP Biology owes much to the incredible community of AP Biology veterans, including but not limited to David Knuffke, Kirstin Milks, Stephen Traphagen, Bob Kuhn, Lee Ferguson, basically everyone from the BSCS AP Biology Teacher Leadership Academies, many people over at the Knowles Teacher Initiative, and the “official” online AP Biology Teacher Community over at CollegeBoard. And many many others. Growing as a teacher is difficult and none of us can do it alone.)