Changes to AP biology test?

| 34 Comments

An article in last week’s Education Life supplement to the New York Times reports that the College Board is working on a “wholesale revamping of A.P. biology,” a revision which will substantially reduce memorization and will also provide a model curriculum. The new curriculum will rely more on laboratory experiments and hypothesis testing, and less on memorization. The goal, according to the Times, is to allow the students to “focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.” The changes will take effect beginning with the 2012-13 school year. The Times notes that the changes are important because “critical thinking skills” are necessary for advanced college courses and jobs.

For biology, the change means paring down the entire field to four big ideas. The first is a simple statement that evolution “drives the diversity and unity of life.” The others emphasize the systematic nature of all living things: that they use energy and molecular building blocks to grow; respond to information essential to life processes; and interact in complex ways. Under each of these thoughts, a 61-page course framework lays out the most crucial knowledge students need to absorb.

Here are two sample questions that were linked to the Times article:

Currently, all living organisms are classified into one of three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. In a sentence or two, provide two pieces of evidence that justify a common origin for the three domains.

Oxygen can diffuse into cells by passing between plasma membrane lipids. In a sentence or two, explain why ions, such as Na+, cannot pass between membrane lipids.

A great many of the comments linked to the article were critical and suggested that the revision amounted to a dumbing-down of the curriculum. Others said that the International Baccalaureate program was substantially better than the AP program and also that the revisions to the AP tests are a response to the success of the IB. Still others said that the AP courses are not necessarily useful substitutes for introductory college courses, and a few charged that program itself benefits not students but schools, which use the number of students in the program as a mark of their success. I haven’t the foggiest idea, but any program that stresses evolution cannot be all bad.

34 Comments

As a college preparatory high school biology teacher, I am thrilled by these changes. Our current AP Bio text is 55 chapters, over 1200 pages in length. Cramming all of that info into the heads of 17/18 year olds in the course of less than 32 weeks (tests are given in May)is absurd. While college admissions departments seem to love it, biology professors recognize the futility of such activity and departments accept it for credit in fewer and fewer places. And the labs are exercises in recipe following. Narrowing the curriculum, and substituting depth for breadth, is not dumbing down.

The goal, according to the Times, is to allow the students to “focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.”

Ah, critical analysis!

I’m not that familiar with the AP tests. The College Board is very protective.

But if my experience is any indication, the revised test items will be field tested this May.

A lot of the tests that I’m working with are trying to do two things; 1) make more opened answers (i.e. short answer/essay 2) Delve into ‘innovative items’ that are simulations on the computer where the student must manipulate the experiment or data and answer questions, graph results, draw conclusions etc.

The killer for this is money. That’s one reason that the AP exams are so expensive, each question on that exam costs between $500 and $1000.

I work in this industry so if anyone’s curious, I’ll tell you what I can.

Replacing rote memorization with understanding basic concepts and experimentation is long-overdue. JBS Haldane wrote that a good course in systematic botany “taught along the lines of Greek grammar” was sufficient to immunize the student against any further interest in biology.

I always wondered what most of the students in our introductory biology courses really got out of them (when I taught in them in the 1970s). There were tons of Facts they had to learn to regurgitate. I hope that things have improved since then but I fear that they didn’t.

I’d like to point out that to teach students things beyond rote memorization, the teachers have to know more than beyond rote memorization… most do not.

I’ll further add that every study for the last 50 years has shown that smaller class sizes (especially in science) and fewer classes for each teacher to teach both result in massive improvements in student learning. This has been an uncontroversial fact for decades… yet teachers have more and more classes with more and more students in them.

One year, I taught IPC (physical science), 1 Biology, 2 Chemistry classes, Oceanography, and TAKS Prep. It’s just not physically possible to do two days a week (minimum by state law in Texas) for lab with 4 different lab classes.

Better late than never. Wish the bozos had thought about this 15 years back, my daughter walked out of AP Bio in disgust, and my son has sworn that although he is doing chemistry he will never go near biochemistry of any sort ever again. Both of them use applied math extensively in their careers, and aren’t science averse. But they tell me that it is impossible to get an integrated view of biology the way it is taught.

This looks good, but I’d like to say a word in favor of insightful, organized memorization.

It is very valuable to have been exposed to a large body of meaningful knowledge and to have made an effort to remember it

The dichotomy between critical thinking and “memorization” is to some degree a false one. For thinking to be critical rather than naive, it is implicit that adequate information must be present.

There is a word for someone who relies on their own uninformed, arbitrary thoughts, without examining the already known facts. That word is “ignoramus”. Unfortunately, such individuals often claim to be engaged in “critical thinking”.

What is already known should, of course, be examined critically. But it should also be examined honestly. Biased, ignorant denial of things that are well-established for good reasons is not critical thinking.

One common type of “ID advocate” buffoon is the ill-informed and immature individual (*”immature” does not refer to calendar age*) who, believing (or needing to, for psychological reasons) himself a “genius”, assumes that his opinions about a field of knowledge are equal to those of people who possess expertise in said field.

This is literally logically equivalent to a buffoon with no knowledge of the Japanese language assuming that if he is a “genius” he must be able to speak Japanese better than a native speaker, yet it is common.

The questions in the post above are excellent and require both knowledge and critical thinking to answer; I am not objecting in any way to them.

Let me re-emphasize that I am not objecting to the changes in the AP Biology test, and that the questions above look good, but that I am merely pointing out that the term “critical thinking” is often abused, and that it is often falsely presented as a shortcut around actually examining facts about reality that may challenge biases. In short, when I hear someone say “critical thinking” I often worry that they are about to argue for uncritical embrace of superficial biases.

After teaching A.P. biology for years, all I can say is “ it’s about d@#m time. The A.P. curriculum was far too long and now that I’m teaching intro biology in college I can see even the college courses don’t try to cover as much as A.P. tries to do. The only school I have ever seen that could cover it all had block schedule and double blocked all it’s science A.P. courses. I would love to see better labs that allow more investigation but unless they have a good team work them up I’m afraid too many courses will revert to “look see” labs

harold said:

This looks good, but I’d like to say a word in favor of insightful, organized memorization.

The questions in the post above are excellent and require both knowledge and critical thinking to answer; I am not objecting in any way to them.

I was unable to answer the second question at all, and got the first one only partially right. That’s not because I’m unintelligent, and it’s not because I’m not good at critical thinking. It’s because I didn’t know the facts required; that is, the things that it would be necessary to memorize in order to answer the questions. Critical thinking is impossible without something to think about, and that can only be acquired by memorization. I hope the intent is to figure out what are the things that are really necessary to know. But then that should have been the goal all along.

Memorization is indeed quite valuable. But what was asked of AP students was not memorization, but pre-Med short term recall. The very worst kind of learning where large amounts of information is crammed and then forgotten. My biggest concern if you read the New York Times article is the extent to which the AP is influencing college curricula. That’s way too much tail wagging the dog. A much more elegant solution in my opinion happens in Minnesota where Juniors and Seniors can apply and pass selection criteria to complete advanced coursework at a local college free of charge.

I share the enthusiasm of several others posting here with regards to the forthcoming improvements in the A. P. Biology curriculum. These are changes that are long overdue, and those that truly mirror what happens at some of the most selective colleges and universities. For example, I know that for years Ken Miller has taught at Brown University the equivalent of two semesters of freshman biology in a one semester biology course in which critical thinking and laboratory work are emphasized over mere rote memorization.

JGB said: Memorization is indeed quite valuable. But what was asked of AP students was not memorization, but pre-Med short term recall. The very worst kind of learning where large amounts of information is crammed and then forgotten.

Aargh, just like the “Japanese entrance exam hell” whose stressed-out absurdity makes it such a popular theme for Japanese pop fiction comedies.

Jkelp said: …they tell me that it is impossible to get an integrated view of biology the way it is taught.

Perhaps there are enough biologists already, and the biology class structure has evolved to drive away students who would otherwise clog the field with an excess of talent?

Are we talking about preparatory classes for entry-level professional biologists, or introductory / “executive summary” classes for non-biologists - biology for liberal arts majors and such?

Paul Burnett said:

Jkelp said: …they tell me that it is impossible to get an integrated view of biology the way it is taught.

Perhaps there are enough biologists already, and the biology class structure has evolved to drive away students who would otherwise clog the field with an excess of talent?

Are we talking about preparatory classes for entry-level professional biologists, or introductory / “executive summary” classes for non-biologists - biology for liberal arts majors and such?

The AP exams really only cover the first two freshman Biology courses (called various things at various colleges). From my personal experience, the freshman Bio courses are just rehashes of basics from high school biology (Cell theory, basic genetics, basic evolution, survey of kingdoms, etc).

I personally think that the courses have value to refresh and reinforce what is learned in high school. There are a few things that I know still today because i had them in no less than 7 courses. I will always be able to describe plate tectonics, even though I never read about it, study it, or even think much about it anymore.

I personally don’t think that there should be a serious distinction in content expected of majors and non-majors in the introductory course. If we as science educators truly desire that students be scientifically literate that does put a very high content expectation on the nonmajors.

My experience is as a biology professor teaching both introductory courses for biology majors and general education courses for non-majors. I have always tried to teach biology from a how did we come to know what we know, and why did we think it important to find out foundation. All of biology is important, but cannot be covered in a single introductory or general course. So I have evolved into teaching less and less about less and less. I think it better that students have good understanding of a few basic principles, rather than a superficial understanding of a lot of principles, some pretty minor.

Memorization is an important part of learning; but, as far as I know, there is little or no teaching of techniques for efficient and effective memorization. This should be taught at a fairly early level, as ability to efficiently memorize is useful throughout life.

I agree on the early teaching of memorization skills. My own experience is that except for the core ideas in my major that were covered multiple times, I don’t recall factual information nearly as well as I do stuff I learned when I was still in high school. Concepts seem to stick much better, but the individual facts, much less so.

JGB said:

I agree on the early teaching of memorization skills. My own experience is that except for the core ideas in my major that were covered multiple times, I don’t recall factual information nearly as well as I do stuff I learned when I was still in high school. Concepts seem to stick much better, but the individual facts, much less so.

This is not an uncommon issue. Many people are better at logical processes than they are at rote memorization.

For many years (and even now) I have had a rhyming mnemonic to remember my birth date from which then calculated my age. I got teased a lot for that.

My brief experience teaching AP Bio has me looking at this announcement as another step in a process that the College Board has been moving for some time now. This isn’t a radical departure.

What has me interested is how creationists teachers and creationist sympathizer teachers are going to react to it. There’s quite a few of them that insist on making human physiology the main concept of their AP Bio course, as well as many who feel compelled to offer creationism books as suggested reading. Then there are some who simply steal the name “AP Bio” and teach “the strengths and weaknesses” in a class or two in a course that doesn’t treat evolution as a primary concept.

Mike said:

My brief experience teaching AP Bio has me looking at this announcement as another step in a process that the College Board has been moving for some time now. This isn’t a radical departure.

What has me interested is how creationists teachers and creationist sympathizer teachers are going to react to it. There’s quite a few of them that insist on making human physiology the main concept of their AP Bio course, as well as many who feel compelled to offer creationism books as suggested reading. Then there are some who simply steal the name “AP Bio” and teach “the strengths and weaknesses” in a class or two in a course that doesn’t treat evolution as a primary concept.

A school that teaches AP Biology without having a CollegeBoard certified teacher and curriculum can get into a lot of trouble. “AP” in that instance is a trademark and CollegeBoard is serious about making sure that students are getting what they need out of it. However, offering a “Pre-AP” course is no problem. In my experience the Pre-AP course is very slightly more rigorous than regular courses, but schools usually give extra grade points for it… the worst of both worlds. Students are getting bonuses for little more effort or knowledge.

BTW: I’m not sure if everyone is aware, but the recommended science standards are currently being reviewed for an official launch sometime in late Spring.

Achieve (the company) is sponsoring the development and the GED test* will incorporate the new standards in 2012. The national science standards should be coming out about the same time. These will be ‘suggested’, but optional for states to adopt.

However, Obama’s Race To the Top money will only be available to states that adopt the standards** (among other things). Thanks to Perry and our idiot school board, Texas (and Alaska for other reasons) will not be participating.

Anyway, you can contact your state’s department of education and legislature to encourage them to adopt the new standards quickly. I’ve seen the draft standards and they are very good, if not quite excellent. They aren’t available to general public right now, but they did have an open viewing period a few months ago for comments.

*Just an FYI, after reviewing the requirements and tests for a GED, I’d rather hire GED students than high school grads.

**States must use all the national standards, but may include up to 20% additional standards to cover state ideas about what to teach. So, if California wants to include some marine biology topics in their standards, they can.

JGB said:

I personally don’t think that there should be a serious distinction in content expected of majors and non-majors in the introductory course. If we as science educators truly desire that students be scientifically literate that does put a very high content expectation on the nonmajors.

That would have been nice when I went to college. If you weren’t a major, you couldn’t get into the Intro to Biology course, you had to take “Topics in Biology,” a dumbed-down version. I was trying to decide at the time whether to switch from Psychology to Biology, and if I had made the switch after the Topics course I would have had to take the Intro course as well. Not happy. (I didn’t make the shift, and since I’ve never use my psych major (except for a few things in my personal life) maybe I should have. This sort of thing was common at my college. Sometimes it was unofficial. For instance, anyone could take the Shakespeare course, but majors got first dibs, so non-majors could never get in. I would think that a liberal arts school would have tried harder to make sure its graduates had more of a liberal arts education.

OgreMkV said:

A school that teaches AP Biology without having a CollegeBoard certified teacher and curriculum can get into a lot of trouble. “AP” in that instance is a trademark and CollegeBoard is serious about making sure that students are getting what they need out of it.

Actually, College Board no longer “certifies” AP teachers, only the AP curriculum.

Off topic but fun I received a postcard from ARN and the first paragraph sounded like good news to me.

“Greetings from the ARN Staff. The economy has taken its toll on us here at ARN with our donations and product sales this year at less than half of what they were two years ago. In order to cut costs we are mailing out this postcard rather than our Annual Report.”

“Less than half”, could we hope that it’s donors getting smarter rather than just a bad economy?

Sylvilagus said:

OgreMkV said:

A school that teaches AP Biology without having a CollegeBoard certified teacher and curriculum can get into a lot of trouble. “AP” in that instance is a trademark and CollegeBoard is serious about making sure that students are getting what they need out of it.

Actually, College Board no longer “certifies” AP teachers, only the AP curriculum.

Really, when did that happen? I took my AP class classes less than 4 years ago…

OgreMkV said: Really, when did that happen? I took my AP class classes less than 4 years ago…

All I recall of the paperwork I had to fill out four years ago was a certification of the school to teach AP Bio. I had to document the curricullum, text, and labs. I don’t recall trying to impress them with my PhD, which no one seemed to care about. That I wasn’t a trained edumacator didn’t seem to enter into it.

This wasn’t in response to bogus AP Bio offerings. The given explanation was that they needed to control the quality of the product. Beyond controlling the stamp of approval, The College Board hasn’t publicly done a thing (that I know of) to protect their trademark. At that time, four years ago, there was a creationist AP Bio course (in Louisiana I think) with a colorful web page that was catching alot of attention, as well as evidence of others not quite as loudly announced. Never saw any evidence that lawyers were involved. No one at The College Board ever responded to my questions about the matter.

Interesting. When I took the AP Environmental Science course, the instructors were very hardcore. And CollegeBoard had to approve the curriculum you used.

I don’t know if they blanket approve everything, but I was told it would take about 6 weeks to get approval so I had to submit the curriculum (under the username I got when I attended the course) by May preceding the fall I wanted to start.

Weird.

Ah well, I never actually got to teach the class anyway.

OgreMkV said:

Sylvilagus said:

OgreMkV said:

A school that teaches AP Biology without having a CollegeBoard certified teacher and curriculum can get into a lot of trouble. “AP” in that instance is a trademark and CollegeBoard is serious about making sure that students are getting what they need out of it.

Actually, College Board no longer “certifies” AP teachers, only the AP curriculum.

Really, when did that happen? I took my AP class classes less than 4 years ago…

I think two years ago. I started teaching AP English this year and signed up for AP “training” only to be told later that it wasn’t required, that the CB no longer certifies teachers, only syllabi/curricula.

Well so much for that. Since they just certify the curiculum and don’t do any classroom visits, then there’s nothing preventing the liars for jesus to… well… lie.*

*Not that there was anything preventing them before.

JGB said:

I agree on the early teaching of memorization skills. My own experience is that except for the core ideas in my major that were covered multiple times, I don’t recall factual information nearly as well as I do stuff I learned when I was still in high school. Concepts seem to stick much better, but the individual facts, much less so.

That was the attitude of the UC Berkeley Chem. department in the late ’60s when I was there. The policy was that they taught chemistry to everyone who took a chem course, major or non-major. Unlike the Physics department, where Physics 10 was a non-science-major course.

At the time Nobel Laureate Pimentel was department chairman of the department and liked to teach the intro course Chem 1. Unfortunately, I missed out because they put me in Chem. 5–honors freshman chem–instead.

Still, the faculty adviser for the dorm I was in was Prof. Koch, who was the subject of a safety display in Lattimar Hall due to be one of the people who discovered an unfortunate property of of dry Xenon Trioxide.…

(Trivia question time: What does it take for a faculty member to get a personal parking space on campus at Berkeley? Answer: A Nobel Prize.)

–W. H. Heydt

Old Used Programmer

W. H. Heydt said: That was the attitude of the UC Berkeley Chem. department in the late ’60s when I was there. The policy was that they taught chemistry to everyone who took a chem course, major or non-major. Unlike the Physics department, where Physics 10 was a non-science-major course.

I believe Seaborg (another Berkeley Nobel) was also a proponent of kids doing both rote learning of some core information and learning critical analysis techniques - i.e. thinking both are important. I have no idea where he stood on the question of one entry level class vs major & non-major entry level classes. :)

harold said:

This looks good, but I’d like to say a word in favor of insightful, organized memorization…

In short, when I hear someone say “critical thinking” I often worry that they are about to argue for uncritical embrace of superficial biases.

As a proponent of teaching through critical thinking, I absolutely, 100% share your concerns.

Several years ago I attended a workshop on teaching and media. It was about what would be expected. The primary speaker spent a considerable amount of time talking about how badly his colleagues taught, what a great, innovative teacher he was because he taught concepts (instead of details) and used media in the classroom. He then went o to disparage research (apparently he no longer does research but instead travels-and gets paid!-to talk about how bad a teacher the “traditional teachers” are). He then touted another biology teacher who didn’t have her students do research projects to graduate, but instead encouraged them to teach.

Alas, this is the kind of horse hockey that passes for critical thinking.

It sure would be nice if those who claim to be channeling Dewey’s views on education would actually take the time to read him.

Chip Poirot said:

Several years ago I attended a workshop on teaching and media. It was about what would be expected. The primary speaker spent a considerable amount of time talking about how badly his colleagues taught, what a great, innovative teacher he was because he taught concepts (instead of details) and used media in the classroom. He then went o to disparage research (apparently he no longer does research but instead travels-and gets paid!-to talk about how bad a teacher the “traditional teachers” are). He then touted another biology teacher who didn’t have her students do research projects to graduate, but instead encouraged them to teach.

Agreed. In fact, there is a vast amount of literature on the importance of faculty research and it’s effect on the quality of teaching. There is an even larger body of research on the beneficial effects of undergraduate research on learning. Anyone who denies this is seriously out of touch with reality.

There is nothing wrong with using media in the classroom, in fact, if used appropriately, it can be a tremendous aid to teaching. And teaching concepts is fine, but there is more to teaching and learning than just being exposed to a few general concepts.

A good deal of the problem of what to teach and approaches is that students need to know more when they get to college. I’m completely dumbstruck by the silliness of what generally passes for learning in middle school, when standing beside what the students are expected to do to get AP credit just a couple of years later. If more was expected of students at a younger age, when they are better memorizers there would be a much more natural progression to concept heavy and dense material in their college years. I’ve done the experiment, 8th graders can get some valuable insights into nature by reading some of Feynman’s lecture for example (I recommend his presentation of quantum mechanics in the Messenger lecture)

JGB said:

A good deal of the problem of what to teach and approaches is that students need to know more when they get to college. I’m completely dumbstruck by the silliness of what generally passes for learning in middle school, when standing beside what the students are expected to do to get AP credit just a couple of years later. If more was expected of students at a younger age, when they are better memorizers there would be a much more natural progression to concept heavy and dense material in their college years. I’ve done the experiment, 8th graders can get some valuable insights into nature by reading some of Feynman’s lecture for example (I recommend his presentation of quantum mechanics in the Messenger lecture)

Agree totally

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on January 15, 2011 2:36 PM.

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