IB Biology

Facilitate learning through mind mapping

Their quest is outlined. Examples are given. The purpose is revealed. They are presented with the task.

“But that’s a lot!”

What are they to do? Create a mind map of the past two years of study in IB Biology. There are 6 core topics for Standard Level and 11 core topics for Higher Level plus two options for each group. Nearly every topic links to the others. On their sheet of paper the student teams are to record all the assessment statements with words, diagrams, figures, symbols, and pictures and then make as many connections between them as possible, indicating on joining lines what the relationships are.

At first they take to the task with the end goal in mind. They just “want to get the mind map done” but then I reiterate the value of review and making connections in preparation for their IB exams and I explain that they will not be assessed on the mind map itself. They will take an exam and be able to refer to their (and only their) mind map when taking the exam.


Seriousness and intensity settle on the group. They bend over their texts, notes, and mind maps with greater purpose. Discussions over potential connections ensue. Before they know it, the class is over. As they roll up their maps they make plans as to how they will proceed during the next session.

The value of this “hands-on” collaborative activity is multi-faceted. The purposes of mind mapping include but are not limited to (1):

  1. Enhancing memory (everyone wants this, right?)
  2. Enhancing learning (so, if it was missed it the first time, maybe they’ll get it this time!)
  3. Helping in planning and organizing (students will know what they need to study for the IB exam)
  4. Improving writing skills (which will help students better communicate on the IB Exams)
  5. Encouraging critical thinking and problem solving skills (which will help students on the IB Exams)

Do not underestimate the power of mind mapping! It is worth class time to allow students to work towards building the connections within their studies. 

(1) Mind Mapping in Education. (2012, January 1). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from http://www.mindmapping.com/mind-mapping-in-education.php

Another resource, created by the ThinkBuzan company and linked here, references and outlines the scientific evidence for the value of mind mapping.

Formative Assessment Turns into Review

“Can we do the white board thing again?” asks one.

“Seriously?”  Typically they’re so reticent about committing their answers to the whiteboard and I’m surprised they’re actually requesting the activity.

“Yes, it’s really helpful” bursts out the entire class in unison.

My favorite formative assessment has just been requested as a form of review by my IB students. For my purposes, during the course of a unit such an activity determines how well students understand concepts.  A series of well-prepared questions that are informative regardless the answer given are posted on the Smart Board and students commit to answers on individual “white boards” (clipboards with a sheet of paper covered with left-over laminating material).  They record their answer, without letting their peers see (and boy are they protective of their answers) and then they hold up the boards high so I can see all the answers and know at a glance where the entire class stands.  If I formulate the questions properly, misconceptions are exposed, understandings are revealed, and weaknesses are identified. I immediately attend to the gaps or I plan the next lesson according to the needs.

What was revealed before was confirmed once again, that this process also helps the students. It gives them confidence in what they know and it helps them to realize what they need to further work on. 

The trouble is coming up with good questions on the spot.  But they are begging me.  So, I pull out the textbook and look at assessment statements. The questions start coming and the students start writing. “Can you ask some more on Topic 5.4 because there are things I’m still unsure of?”  “Sure!”  Within an hour we’ve covered the entire chapter.  “Was that helpful?” I query.  “Yes. Definitely” comes back the response.  Echoes of  “Thank you so much” filter towards me as they all depart the classroom.

It’s so interesting how we as teachers assess in order to know where to take the class next.  However, it seems the assessment can also aid the students in deciding the direction of the class: move ahead or review some more.  It is exciting to see the students take these assessments as opportunities for self-reflection.  I continue my advocacy of formative assessment but I am changing my tune on its purpose.  It clearly serves both teachers and students.  Any other good formative assessment techniques or experiences out there?

Hands On the Content for IB Students

“Oh yeah!” the students cry out as they clear away the immediate space in front of them.  Hands reach out for the papers, scissors, and glue sticks.  Immediately heads bend intently as students arrange the pieces, discussing with each other what is most logical.  Once a consensus is reached, we have a conversation on the content contained in their organized diagrams.  Some eagerly include additional notes to their diagram.  Next, they find themselves with a graph to be annotated accompanied with “Factors Contributing To” each phase of the diagram.  All of this must be logically worked through and the students energetically approach the task.  Further consultation secures understanding. 

The completed diagrams and charts become part of their notes for this topic and will hopefully serve as a useful review next year at this time as they face their IB exams.  Furthermore, they are already conversational about a topic that has been allotted us two hours according to the IB guidelines whereas these students have nailed it in one hour!  Plus, they have genuinely enjoyed the process.

I almost feel guilty about these types of lessons, because I’m not “doing” anything. Of course, an hour of prep time is needed to simply cut out all the pieces and arrange them in sets for the students.  Once it is set up, it’s a lesson on autopilot.  Student enthusiasm and ultimate level of understanding makes it completely worth it.  As they depart the room a ripple of “thank you”s ensue.  Surprise and satisfaction surge through my being as students actually thank me for a lesson.  I invariably think, "So much better than a lecture".

What teaching strategies have you found effective for either students or yourself?

With exams around the corner, motivation has finally hit.

Yesterday was the seniors’ last day and on Monday they begin the arduous task of writing a series of IB exams for which they have been working towards for two years.  Earlier in the week our IB coordinator probed the students to see how they are doing.  Some sat there dazed with blood shot eyes looking terrible, clearly already in a sleep-deprived state due to extreme study habits.  However, there were a couple who reported, “We’re chill”.  This alarming attitude concerned the IB team as the students still have a lot of review to complete from their two –year course.  “Chill” will not carry them.  Additionally, after the schedule was released, students noted that there was a 40-minute break between several sets of exams.  “So is that study time?” to which the IB coordinator responded, “No, this schedule does not build in study time.  You were supposed to be studying for the past two years”. 

More "chill" times: The 11th grade trip - taken just as the students began their two-year IB journey.

So, given the attitude of some of these students, who happen to be IB Biology candidates, I was left wondering if any of them would want review time with me before the exams.  Even though the seniors are not required to come to school unless they are writing an exam, IB teachers remain available during the students’ normal class hours (and beyond) to provide review sessions and/or answer questions in preparation for the impending exam.  I’ll admit, I didn’t expect that my seniors would come in today and I was secretly looking forward to having some extra time to work on our upcoming science fair, to do some research for my South Africa trip, to work on report card development, and quite frankly, address my gigantic “to do” list.

However, much to my surprise, my HL IB Biology students requested a review session and they had some very specific topics that they wanted me to cover.  So, I created a revision plan and met with these students this morning.  It was incredible!  The process of muscle contraction with all the details of action potential, calcium ion diffusion, troponin, actin, myosin heads, and ATPase clicked into place.  “This is so awesome” they exclaimed, “to think this is happening all the time.  It is amazing!” They flushed with excitement over their comprehension.  We moved on to ultrafiltration, selective reabsorption, and osmoregulation of the kidney.  The students bent over their notes carefully diagramming and annotating the nephron structure.  Questions flowed freely as they intently sought understanding.  Exceeding our normal time together by 5 minutes, they confidently claimed they thoroughly understood the functional processes of the kidney.  Equally awed by this amazing organ of our bodies they shared their wonder with me.   Then they discussed their study plan and made arrangements for the next review session, complete with a detailed request of material to be addressed.

As our IB coordinator noted, “It’s not a matter of if the IB exam mentality sets in, it’s a matter of when.  Four days before exams begin is a little late but at least it has arrived”.

It’s true, each group of seniors and every individual is different.  However, I do wonder, if there is a way to ignite the motivation much, much earlier.  Or, is it just human nature to wait until we actually feel the heat in order to act?

Making Biology Labs Happen

Yesterday after school I biked home, dropped off my bags, and immediately headed to the metro.  It was imperative that I make it to Pet Place before closing time.  I knew where to find the mealworms and found them easily.  After debating between one or two containers, I settled on two.  As I left the pet store I stopped at Blokker and Zena to additionally pick up fertilizer, antifreeze, and patio algae remover.  I couldn’t find a bag of soil before the stores closed so I made a plan to take my own bag from the bike shed, despite it’s large size.

At seven in the morning I haul the 50 kg bag of soil along with the mealworms and chemicals up to my classroom on the 3rd floor.   I set up the chemicals and soil on one side of the lab with an assortment of glassware, beakers, foam cups, stirring rods, and graduated cylinders for the students to select from.  I am glad neither of the labs today requires making solutions or excessive preparations. Opposite the collection of soil and chemicals, on another lab bench,  I place the mealworms next to a box of corn flakes.  Colleagues passing through are often disgusted by the experimental contents in my classroom and the mealworms are no exception.  “I could never do Biology” is often the phrase I hear, “It’s just so gross”.   

The IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) students tackle their lab by initially formulating their research question (How does plant fertilizer affect the height of wheat plants), hypothesis, and table of variables.  Next they outline their procedure and begin weighing out soil, counting wheat seeds, and preparing solutions with varying percentages of fertilizer.  They discuss the best method to calculate concentration of fertilizer, they debate the planting technique, and trouble shoot a method to allow drainage of water.  They analyze each step of their procedure seeking to identify whether there is a controlled variable they need to add their list, for example, the planting depth.  Finally, they place their carefully prepared experiment under the fluorescent lights.

Meanwhile (yes, these classes meet together) the IB Biology students read through their “Transfer of energy lab” procedure and immediately a ripple of “Eww”s  is heard. I hold up the containers of wriggling creatures and the  students crinkle their faces, “Do we have to touch them?”  Facing the inevitable, however, they are eventually overcome with curiosity and begin sorting their worms and weighing out the corn flakes.  Their i-phones, of course, document the entire procedure. Once the lab is set up, the students plead to be allowed to feed the turtle a mealworm.  The entire class crowds around the turtle tank with i-phones in position and a worm is dropped into the tank.  It’s as though they’re watching fire works: exclamations erupt as the turtle ingests the worm, then spits it out, and ingests it again.  After that excitement, the students settle down with the last few minutes of class to start writing up the experiment.

I delight in the experimental aspect of all my courses, as it is during those times that true wonder and discovery envelop the students.  It is when they actually grasp the scientific method and develop analytical skills.  It is worth all the unconventional things I need to find and bring into the school.  Indeed, being a Biology teacher does have its quirky side but I wouldn’t trade it for any other job!  How about you, what unusual aspect of your job do you enjoy?

Understanding success criteria

I handed out the Internal Assessment (IA) criteria for Design, along with the guidelines from the IB, and had the students analyze and discuss it.  They were to identify what constitutes a “complete” score for Aspects 1, 2, and 3.  Then, they assessed sample work that had been submitted by students during this past May exam period.  They combed through the IAs seeking to understand the research question, the variables, and whether it was a properly controlled experiment.  

I gave them explicit instructions as to how I expect the research question formulated and the variables (with units) outlined in table format.  Additionally, in the table they are to discuss clearly how they will control their controlled variables.  The students compared the expectations with the sample work before them and correctly identified weaknesses as well as strengths. 

Next they were to design, set up and carry out an experiment of their own (Investigate a factor affecting osmosis in gummy bears).  I chose something really simple this time so that they could focus on the design and their manipulative skills in the lab.  It has taken all week for them to create a design with correctly identified variables and a plan to properly control the experiment.  Today they busily did the initial preparations for the lab they will set up tomorrow.  I was able to focus on ensuring proper lab techniques, teaching serial dilutions, how to make molar concentrations, and identifying and discussing solutions to common pitfalls in the lab.  Each student had a turn to identify problems they were having in this initial phase and seek ideas and helps. 

I liked the format of establishing a clear understanding of the success criteria and then having the students actually work on unique (but simple) experiments rather than employing the identical lab for all.  The students are definitely invested.  The designs are GOOD. The understanding is keen.  Spending an entire week on making sure the students know the success criteria has unquestionably been worth our time.

ESS vs. IB Biology

I agreed somewhat spontaneously to teach an IB Environmental Systems and Societies course at our school.  Needless to say, I had reservations in taking it on but I am really enjoying the course.  I moved some high school students into it who were being dragged along in IB Biology but don’t even have the intention of attempting to obtain certificates in the subject. 

Their reaction to the new curriculum is so positive each and every day.  “This is so nice”  “Finally I feel like I’m learning something at the right pace”  “This is so much better”  “This makes so much more sense”.

Today I prepared laminate activities for them on pollution management and we watched some videos on e-waste and the cost of pollution cleanup.  It feels almost simplistic even middle school level to me but they are really enjoying it.  We have great conversation.  They are eager to do the labs and projects.  It is just such an enjoyable course.

It is definitely a “softer” alternative to the sciences of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.  I highly recommend this course to anyone who wants the IB diploma but is uncertain about the science component.  Additionally, the course can count as a Group 3 course allowing students to mix and match courses to maximize their areas of interest.  This is a GREAT course with practical application to the ‘real world’.  I highly recommend it.

Improve teaching with formative assessment for IB Students

Last week I gave my IB students a series of activities to complete in order to gain understanding of concepts in our genetic engineering topic.  They viewed videos, performed interactive tutorials, pasted tables and diagrams that they had to assemble, and completed some sequencing tasks.  With each activity they had to demonstrate knowledge in a written form.  Today I had to make the decision to continue with the topic of cloning or to review some of the topics from last week.

I put together a set of questions in a PowerPoint document (one question per slide) that would help me identify what percent of the students had mastered each concept.  As Dylan Wiliam counseled us in that workshop I went to a week and a half ago, I built each multiple choice question by identifying and including incorrect answers that would result from misconceptions.  I made sure there was more than one correct answer such that if a student picked both correct answers, it would be a demonstration of understanding.  There was no way to just guess a correct answer.  Any non-multiple choice questions were answerable with less than three words.  

Today at 14:00:

The students enter the classroom and I give them 10-minutes to review their notes from the previous activities challenging them to quiz each other on the concepts in an effort to confirm and seek understanding. 


The “whiteboards” (a clipboard with a piece of white paper overlaid with leftover laminate from the lamination machine) and markers come out of the box.  Interests peak as the students eagerly await receiving their marker, whiteboard, and “eraser” (a ¼ of a paper towel).  A bit of nervousness emanates from the students as they process that they will be individually responsible for writing down something pertaining to the content.  They recognize that this clearly is not a pair or group activity.


A barrage of questions comes my way: “Are we being tested?” “Oh no, this is going to be hard” “What types of questions are you going to ask?”

“Should I start with an easy one?” I query.  An emphatic host of “yes” responses reply so I quickly insert a multiple question that I am 99.99% confident everyone will correctly answer. 


We begin.  Thankfully everyone is on board with question #1 so I can proceed. 

The responses are instantly so informative, yielding not only misconceptions but deep thought processes and a clear indication that some students had sought for deeper understanding while completing the activities I had assigned them. Following the exposure of each misconception, I engage in discussion and additional formative assessment questions to ensure that I can move forward. 


We are on question #4.  I make the decision to put the cloning topic on hold until tomorrow. 

The students are engaged.  They are intense.  They are thoughtful as they choose their responses.  I can imagine the neurons firing in their brains as some of them recognize more than one correct answer but struggle with actually writing down TWO answers. 


We make it through the questions before class is over and I recall the whiteboards and markers.  The students place the supplies in the box and comment on how productive they feel.


One students states, “That was really good” and I respond, “Yes, it really helps me see what level the students have achieved in their understanding” to which she replies, “And it helps me see where I am at”. 

Another unexpected outcome of formative assessments has revealed itself.


I excitedly share the success with my colleague that attended the workshop with me.  She describes the achievements she has experienced with the “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, “E” cards with her classes.  We revel in the power of formative assessment and brainstorm additional ways of maintaining the practice in our classrooms.


I feel elated.  I’m grateful to be a teacher.  I rejoice at the prospect of improving myself as an educator.   I’m pleased that I have a whole list of improvements to make in my classroom after I’ve mastered the techniques of formative assessment that I’m currently working on.  I find it strangely comforting to know that there is a plethora of untapped ideas that I can try in my classroom that will assist me in developing into an exceptional teacher. 






Deep Approach to Learning: Derive it yourself!

I just read two articles on deep versus surface approaches to learning: “Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning” by Jenni Case and “Deep, surface, and strategic approaches to Learning” by Jack Lublin.

Jack Lublin gives a list of characteristics of a deep approach to learning that includes “interact vigorously with the content”.  To me this actually means having the students engaged with the content.  Today, in IB Biology I was supposed to cover the Hardy-Weinberg principle.  The IB students need to be able to “explain how the Hardy–Weinberg equation is derived” (Assessment statement D.4.1).  Well, is there a better way to learn how to explain it than to actually derive it oneself?  So, I put together a series of guiding questions and problems to help them derive the Hardy-Weinberg equation themselves, additionally determining, on their own, the assumptions that needed to be made in order for the equation to work (assessment statement D.4.3).  Their response?  “This is so cool.”  Additionally, as they then moved into using the equation to tackle questions regarding allele frequencies (assessment statement D.4.2), they manipulated the equation with ease.  The equation, its use, and the assumptions were not just a formula and material to memorize; but rather combatively it all became a principle they truly understood.  

Extended Essay: An element of the IB that IS worth it!

This holiday, in addition to grading IAs, I also graded a couple of biology extended essays (EE) that students at our school are submitting for their IB diploma.  I took a similar approach to that approach of grading the IAs in carefully combing the assessment criteria for the EE.  I read through the examiner statements from last year and applied that guidance towards evaluating these essays.  I like the freedom of being able to provide more feedback on an EE, as compared to the IA. In some ways that makes the EE a more meaningful learning experience than the IA, at least in the Group IV Sciences.  I am happy to realize that even if these students make no changes to their EEs, they will “pass” this portion of their diploma.  However, I hope they take the suggestions to push themselves to submit excellent rather than good/mediocre work.

I sit again with the perspective of both parent and teacher as I read through the EEs.   My daughter is submitting an EE in English while my son is one of the two students submitting a biology EE.  As a teacher I am convinced of the “worthiness” of the EE endeavor.  The process of completing the EE does, indeed, as the IB suggests, “promote high-level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery and creativity” (IB Extended Essay Guide).  I am truly impressed by the creativity and intellectual discovery that both biology EEs generated.  As projects they were both outright interesting and engaging to guide and follow as the students progressed.  Reading the final products was truly enjoyable.  The students have something to be proud of. 

As a parent, I’m grateful that my own children are part of this experience.  Already, having had a vacation week for my children to catch up on the IB diploma obligations, things in our household have settled down a bit.  The stress levels are residing.  Additional crunch times lie ahead to I continue to withhold final judgment until the last exam in May has been written. 

Tonight, however, my yo-yo experience with the IB has swung up again and I am enjoying the great aspects that this program has to offer.  Namely, tonight I am appreciating the process of the extended essay.

Assessing Internal Assessments

I have spent several hours this Crocus holiday grading internal assessments (IA) from both my Year 1 and my Year 2 students.  I am somewhat comforted in seeing that the Year 2 students do, indeed, have more depth in their reports than the Year 1 students.  So I know improvement is eminent with the first year students.  However, there is still so much lacking with the senior reports that I’m concerned whether they’ll pull it together by our final March 6th deadline.  Some of them simply need to redo an experiment or, at a minimum, rework their Data Collection and Processing (DCP) and Conclusions and Evaluations (CE). 

I spent some time on the ibo.org site looking at the subject reports from last year, with a focus on IA.  This proved exceedingly valuable.  I recommend this practice to all new teachers.  There are some concrete suggestions for things teachers should be looking out for in the IAs their students are preparing.  I even copied the list of reasons why papers were marked down in 2013 and sent the list to my Year 2 students.  I advised them to look at each item on the list against their own write-ups before submitting it to me.  We’ll see if it helps.

With the year one students I completed essentially a joint construction with them on the Effect of hydrogen peroxide substrate concentration on leaf extract catalase activity.  Even with all the joint work, there are a lot of misconceptions and omissions.  I’ve used the IB rubric to assess their work.  They’ll have an opportunity to fix their mistakes, hopefully leading to stronger experimental process next time.

This is my 3rd year teaching IB.  The students are definitely becoming progressively more prepared as they experience the science program at our school from MS and HS that has IB standards as a goal.  Additionally, I am becoming a stronger teacher as I do more PD in the IB area and as I become more familiar, through experience, with the IB criteria.  I remain an advocate of the IB Science standards and am happy to see that with the changes in Group IV for 2016, these standards will be more clearly defined for new teachers.