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Biology: Keeping Students On Task

Excerpts from AP Biology Teachers' Discussion Group

Tip: "The constructivist approach allows students to construct their own knowledge. The BSCS books are all formatted to this method. Basically, you do the labs first, then follow up with discussion and student questions. Finally you fill in missed concepts with a lecture. It was really frightening to have students do a lab on mitosis first and have them explain what was happening before they had any background... but really rewarding when they figured it out for themselves and retained what they learned. I have also found that lower achievers are more engaged (of course, I have no empirical data to support this). I love not lecturing... students tell me what they know."
-- Lisa Schanhals, Spring Lake School, Spring Lake, Michigan. 4/15/99

Tip: "At an AP conference in Rochester last fall, our instructor shared his pre-lab method and form. He prepared a simple handout with a 'chef' in the corner and a place for students to write the lab title and their name. The directions given to students were to number the steps needed to complete the lab and to write the steps like a recipe. The secret: They could describe the step with numbers, symbols, and pictures, but NO words. He used a colored paper. The students knew that this was the only paper to be taken back to the lab area, and the colored paper was obvious evidence of the completed assignment. Each person in the lab group had to complete the assignment; if one student's directions were not clear, his partner would be able to provide assistance.

He emphasized that he was very firm in insisting students have this flow chart completed and, if it was not, the student had to go to the library to finish it and make up the lab on his or her own time. Students learned quickly to do this. He first taught his students the use of this method by having students write a flow chart for tying shoes and timing how long it takes normally and also while having the thumb taped to the palm of the hand. The extra bonus of the flow chart is that students easily recall their own symbols when review time comes around in May."
-- Carol Luterek, Maryvale High School, Cheektowaga, New York. 8/18/99

Tip: "Just a suggestion that you check out 'The Lab Bench' at The Biology Place (see link under "See also.") All the AP labs there have a graphic organizer that can be printed and serves as a flow chart for the lab. Many of our students have copied this and brought it to class. I was the author for these activities and am biased, but I have found that when students work through them and e-mail the instructor the quiz before lab, many problems on background preparation for the lab are avoided."
-- Theresa Knapp Holtzclaw, Clinton, Tennessee. 8/24/99

Question: "I need some advice about how to keep students working in lab. I think I do all right with most of the classes, however, in any group some students are overwhelmed and some are way ahead and bored. On lab day how do you keep the faster students busy without making the others feel more confused? I have tried having a bunch of thought-provoking questions at their benches, but I don't think that is really working. I try to keep the class moving but not too hectic. Is continually busy really better? Should I barrage them with a steady stream of information and let them filter it as they can?"

Answer 1: "I require two things before my students do a lab: a flow chart and an experimental design analysis. I got tired of constantly hearing 'What do we do next?' and 'How do I do this step?' So, my students must DRAW PICTURES of the steps that they will perform in lab. They can only use numbers and abbreviations for units if there is no other way to show that information (temperature on a thermometer, meniscus on a pipette or graduate, etc.). I grade the first one that they do, to be sure that they have the idea. I model this with a simple experiment to determine the effect of water temperature on the rate of Alka Seltzer dissolving. In this preliminary lab, we go through the identification of variables, levels of the independent variable, the difference between constants and controls, and how to write a hypothesis. Then, they must always identify these things in a template taken from Students and Research by Cothron, Giese and Rezba.

For every part of every AP lab (or appropriate alternative that I might use) in the lab manual, each student must present both the flow chart and the experimental design analysis. In fact, sometimes I forbid the use of the lab directions during the lab -- only the flow charts can be used! I do not grade artistic ability -- if the student can interpret his or her drawings and tell me what needs to be done and how, then credit is given. It has made lab periods go much more smoothly and our data has improved greatly since I began this technique, because the students must each think through the lab and visualize the steps before they can begin to draw. It takes a little practice, but after the first couple of labs, it's almost second nature."
-- Ellen Mayo, Mills Godwin High School, Richmond, Virginia. 8/18/99

Answer 2: "How about pairing an overwhelmed student with a way-ahead student in teams? Part of their lab grade could be a teamwork grade, so that the way-ahead student has to help the overwhelmed student to make the grade. I often recruit my best students to help tutor the slower ones. The ability to work as a team is an important life skill.

I have a handout called "Secrets of Straight A Students" that I pass out to all of my students. I got it from the Reader's Digest many years ago and condensed it into 11 points. Working with study groups is one of the secrets. I think it is so good that I tell my college-bound students to spend a dime and have it laminated at the library to preserve it for college."
-- Jo Ann Burman, Andress High School, El Paso, Texas. 2/4/00 and 2/5/00

Answer 3: "Do you give the lab to students ahead of time so that they can read the procedures? That helps a lot, especially if I give them a few minutes the day before a lab to ask questions or to clarify a certain aspect of the lab. I know some teachers ask their students to complete a pre-lab flowchart or worksheet."
-- Cheryl Hollinger, Central York High School, York, Pennsylvania. 2/8/00

Answer 4: "There's a delightful Web site, The Biology Place (see below for link), that has all 12 AP Biology labs animated and explained. There's also a pre-lab quiz at the end of each section. I have students complete the pre-lab quiz before they perform the lab. Seems to help a great deal!!

There is a subscription involved in the above Web site. There is a way for you to get a free trial membership if you're interested. The price is reasonable; all the pricing is available on the Web site."
-- Rene McCormick, Carroll High School, Southlake, Texas. 2/8/00

Question: "Does anyone know of an inexpensive slide washer?"

Answer: "I tell my students that they are to wash their slides during the last few minutes of class. I leave a small beaker (400 mL) of alcinox solution by each sink, and begin the year by carefully showing them the proper technique -- dunking the slide in the soap, finger-rubbing technique to spread the soap, and appropriate rinsing to get the slide to demonstrate sheeting action. I also point out the proper drying technique (hold the slide between the paper towel, move the slide). So far, I have had good success in having the slides left clean and dry -- about 80 percent of the time."
-- Israel Solon, Greenhill School, Dallas, Texas. 12/15/00

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