Help Your Students Succeed in AP Biology

Fred and Theresa Holtzclaw

Fred and Theresa Holtzclaw

Fred and Theresa Holtzclaw (Webb School, Tennessee) gave a wonderful 75-minute “hints and strategies” session for AP Biology teachers this morning. These two have such a rich and deep history with the AP course.  Fred is in his 40th year teaching, Theresa in her 20th. They’ve both been exam readers, exam item developers, and workshop facilitators.  Theresa wrote the AP Lab book as well as the Lab Bench activities on the old Biology Place and, together, they have co-authored both the AP Test Prep book and Reading Guides to accompany Campbell/Reece (published by Pearson).  As Fred says, one or the other of them has graded just about every questions that’s been on the AP exam over the last 20 years.

They gave the assembled group lots of good ideas to help students improve their organization, write better essays (start simple, build up their skills, work in pairs, grade each other’s essays with the help of a rubric), get more from the required labs, and improve the overall presence and culture of the course within the high school.

They gave each participant a sample of one of their Reading Guides.  These are worksheets that accompany the 8th edition of Campbell/Reece – matching it chapter for chapter.  The worksheets walk students through a given chapter and guide them along the way toward the mission-critical information.  They also gave each participant a free copy of their AP Test Prep book which includes very helpful “You Must Know” sections.  Theresa explained that, by combining those powerful “You Must Knows” with the Reading Guides, her students have been doing much better and she’s seeing an uptick in their in-class exam scores.

There was a healthy discussion in the room about the rubrics for the AP Exam free response questions.  One participant mentioned that he was overwhelmed by how much detail is found in the rubric and thought that his students could never master (nor should they be expected to) that amount of detail.  Fred, Theresa and other experienced AP Readers in the room assured everyone that the rubrics are a reflection of all of the information any one student might include in their answer (they want to be sure to offer points for any relevant information).  So you shouldn’t feel that, in order to get a “10″ on an essay question, your students have to include all the information that’s in the rubric. Theresa encouraged everyone there to consider becoming an Exam Reader.  Not only will you meet lots of interesting people, but the experience will deepen your understanding of how the exams are graded and, as a result, you will be more helpful to your students.

Fred and Theresa described the way they work with students on essay writing.  They start with simple, scaffolded essay writing exercises where they challenge the students to write a short paragraph on a particular topics using these terms.  Over the course of the year, they work their way up to more challenging writing exercises and they give the students (or groups of students) grading rubrics so that they can grade their own or each others’ work.

Fred introduced some clever ideas for enhancing the “culture” of the class.  He schedules “in school field trips” where they devote the entire day in their classroom to conduct labs that take a long time (like PCR and the other biotechnology labs).  The kids and their parents bring in food and they make a sort of party out of it, running labs all day and completely immersing themselves in the endeavor.  They also schedule Saturday hikes with the kids and often have movie nights, where the kids come with bean bags and popcorn to watch a movie like “Race for the Double Helix” together as a group.

I videotaped the session and will try to post it later, so that you all can see. It was a wonderful session.

Written by rheyden in: Biology Teaching |

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