Inquiry in AP Biology: Live It. Love It. Assess It?

In my last post I described how I might try to conduct my AP Biology class a lot like I conducted the (in)famous Phunsics Class of 2011-2012. (Phunsics side note: I saw one of the graduated seniors from that class recently. He told me the story of how over the summer he and another member of the phunsics class were at the local grocery store when a little kid that they didn’t even know walked up to them and said “Hey, you’re the guys who built the catapult-thingy, right? Yeah, I was at your Physics Day.” Instant celebs, just add physics awesomeness)

Since that post was written (wow, is it October already?) we’ve had a great time and discovered a few things along the way. So far we’ve learned that:

Documenting Black Widow BehaviorYep, its a wormGreen stuff needs light

  • ants make terrible pets, but they do have awesome battles when ants from different nests are combined together
  • the ends of our grow-light enclosure have far less illumination than the middle (sorry Michael)
  • worms need to be kept moist, but do seem to prefer outside dirt to wet potting soil
  • a mating population of 7 students violates the conditions for Hardy-Weinberg equillibrium (as well as other school policies)
  • Black Widow spiders are awesome pets (if they don’t get out)
  • the old saying may be true: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • a ZPA is not something on the front of your pants, but it might have something to do with genes
  • really pretty green caterpillars sometimes turn into really ugly moths

How much of this was my doing? Just the fast plants, ma’am. That and I’m making them read “Your Inner Fish.” I tried to foist my usual pillbug behavior lab on them as well but they were too distracted by worms, dogs, and Black Widows. I suppose my critters weren’t as cool as theirs. They do like watching the parade of roly-poly’s come out when we water their soil, but the sheer carnage of a spider capturing and slurping down a grasshopper is in a completely different dimension of awesomeness.

So what is my role in this type of class, where students are driving a lot of the day to day activities? Besides being head of the spider containment team and he-who-finds-dead-worms-on-floor, I suppose one of my jobs is to give these kids grades that communicate how well they are doing in my class. Yet I consistently find, year after year and especially this year with the new and improved inquiry-based curriculum, that, out of all my courses, my AP Bio kids always have the fewest assessments listed in my gradebook. What is that about and should I (or their parents) be concerned? Isn’t AP Biology supposed to be a tough class, a Test-o-Rama? What about the piles and piles of learning objectives that are supposed to be assessed by the AP Biology Exam?

Its like this: sometimes stopping for formal assessments can feel like hitting a brick wall. Instead, we just go. We do science. Not in an unplanned and chaotic way, although there are certainly elements of randomness that come from being responsive to student interests. We do labs, hopefully mostly student-driven ones, because labs are way more likely to get students to learn how to think scientifically, not some vocabulary exercise followed by a quiz. Is there assessment of student learning? Yep. Assessment of learning is something that happens with every conversation about the lab procedure or results or omglookatthat and often doesn’t find it’s way into the grade book in the same way that a chapter test or a fancy blog post will. We’ll do those things, too, just not as often. For example, right now the students are working on a big writeup for their population genetics lab as well as a writeup of their observations of different animal behaviors.

But here’s the catch: it’s taken us over a month to even begin to get major assessments into the grade book and I’m starting to get twitchy over the massive scope of material that these kids are supposed to know. I’m already having to restrain myself from launching into a powerpoint-fueled frenzy of content-spewing vocabulary-laden gibberish in the name of “Getting them ready for the test,” and its not even March or April yet.

If you haven’t heard, the AP Biology course got a major overhaul this year with a focus on, you guessed it, inquiry. I’m down with that and love the emphasis on the seven science process skills outlined in the course description. But there’s a ton of plain ol’ biology factoids still inherent in the system, some of which are going to be pretty ugly to inquirify, if that’s a word. I suspect at some point that as a class we’ll need to start striking a balance between the wild carefree days of inquiry past and the rote memorization of tomorrow. AP Biology is a college-level course, you know ; )

5 thoughts on “Inquiry in AP Biology: Live It. Love It. Assess It?

  1. Harry

    Hi Chris…

    I just read your latest post about AP Bio and how you are doing inquiry with it along with skills based assessments. I would love your input on these topics. I wonder if you would be willing to share what you created.

    I also teach Bio here (albeit, not AP, just plain ol’ high school Bio). I am trying to make the switch to inquiry (in all content areas, not just Bio), but not doing very well, I believe. I would love it if you could look at my post “Growing Pains” and see if what I did with the lesson there is a good attempt at inquiry based learning. I’ve included my web address:

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I tried leaving you a comment on your post, but I’m not sure it went through. If not here’s a recap: I think that inquiry has to have two elements to it that may have been lacking in the assignment you mention. The first is that inquiry works best with a student-generated question. If I hand kids the question to answer, I may have some success in getting them to answer it, but if they come up with the questions, then almost always they pursue them with a high degree of perseverance. Second, the question that you and your students agree on has to be big enough to not be “Google-able” so that the answer is not simply a list of definitions or regurgitation of someone else’s answers. That’s often tricky, but ideally you find a question with multiple possible viewpoints or outcomes so that students have to defend one viewpoint or another with research and/or experimentation.

      As for “what I’ve created” I don’t have much more than a mindset to share with you. I don’t have handouts or protocols for inquiry labs, just a rough sense of how to go about it that I’ve shared above. I’m still working at this too!

      1. Harry

        Hey Chris…

        Sorry that I did not see your reply here and sorry you were unable to reply to the post on my blog. I’ll go and check and see what happened.

        Thanks for the tips. They make sense. So can you give me a little further guidance? How might one get students to generate their own questions about latitude and longitude ? (not Bio, I know) They usually aren’t interested in this kind of thing and I can’t say I blame them. I don’t usually look up latitude and longitude myself! 🙂


  2. Katie O'Brien

    I am currently a Biological Sciences Teacher Education major at Illinois State University. As a pre-service Biology teacher, I am constantly thinking about what got me interested in my past science classes and what I will be able to do as a future teacher to intrinsically motivate my future students. So far, I have really been a fan of inquiry-based learning. I like how, as stated in your post, you realized that the students were more interested in other topics/creatures than what you had originally planned for a lab, so you went with their interests. This is the beauty of inquiry; students find something that interests them and WANT/NEED to know more. Just because you are not giving them standardized, strictly curriculum-based activities does not mean they are not learning. It seems like assessment of what they are learning seems like a problem for you too. I am not sure if you already do so, but maybe a post lab write-up can be used as an assessment form. You could possibly have the students use a KWL model as a basis for the write up. From the lab activity, what do they KNOW/what did they learn that they didn’t know before? Based on what the lab taught them, what would they WANT to know in future labs? How can you use this information to create intrinsically motivating labs that follow your curriculum and standard requirements for the class? Then of course unit exams (maybe include essay questions) can show you what the students have LEARNED. I think this is a way to create a student driven classroom, while being a part of what they do, and how assessment is approached.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      I’ve used the KWL approach a few times in other classes, mostly at the start of a unit, but I like the idea of having a KWL structure for post-lab writeups. The students have done some blogging about the results of their experiments, but mostly in a format of their own choosing. I’ll suggest the KWL format to them for future writeups since that works in conclusions and future directions at the same time.


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