Fun times in class surveys: AP Bio edition


It’s the end of the year, and that means its time for course surveys. I always like doing this, as it gives me as close to an unvarnished look at what my students think about the course as I can get (surveys are anonymous). I’d be lying if I said that I was surprised by most of what my students felt about the materials that we use in class, and how I come across. It’s definitely important to make sure that perception jives with reality, but really, I’m not shocked by the aggregate ratings on items like “indicate how useful the textbook is” (not very), or “How strongly you agree/disagree with the statement that Mr. Knuffke cares about your progress” (very strongly). There’s only so much that Likert scales can tell you.

My favorite part of my class surveys are the comment fields. I provide students with comment fields for the things they like about the class, and the things that they would change. This is where I get most of my actionable items.

Here are the comments for this year’s AP Bio class (I'll post Honors Chem and a Standards-Based Grading-specific survey over the next few weeks). I’ve taken out some of the comments that were just platitudes (ex. “You rock!”)

Commendable Features (things you liked, or want me to keep doing):

  • I liked the standard based grading, because we were able to have a say on our grades, and even influence our quarter averages.
  • Although the POGIL activities are really long and mildly annoying to complete, they helped to better my understanding of AP biology, especially the more complex topics like action potential, photosynthesis, and respiration.
  • Overall the course and class time was great ! I feel like you should keep doing the little POGIL’s of each unit that really helped me in studying for tests and quizzes. :)
  • I really did like the random name generator for calling on students with questions. It prompted everyone to be at least, to some degree, informed on the subject, and promotes participation. And you mixed it up with general calling on students who have raised their hands. Also you gave very thorough homework assignments based on a thorough explanation. Very helpful overall.
  • I liked the fact that we were able to make our own due dates as well as use of laptops for experiments and analysis.
  • Liked the use of technology very helpful. Always provided useful feedback quickly. Challenging class but very effective.
  • Keep up the flexibility of the due dates, and the fun labs!
  • KEEP DOING DISCUSSIONS! I enjoy the way you try not to help so much during labs and try to make the students figure things out on their own!!
  • You should continue the pre-discussion conversations where you call on random students. Although it was intimidating, it encouraged me to actually look at the material before going to class the next day. Also, you provided a variety of resources to gather information about homework, labs, tests, quizzes, and so on. Please continue doing that for your future students. The labs were enjoyable and so was the group work. Plus, your personality (which is unforgettable) added something unique to the learning experience. Overall, I enjoyed the class.
  • I REALLY enjoyed how lenient you were with due dates of homework and labs. I felt like you understood that we have other classes and lives, this took a lot of pressure off with big assignments. I liked the overall classroom environment, very professional and, even though I'm not quite there yet, very college-esque. I liked how we can pick our partners. I, and it seems you too, feel like as long as we get our work done who cares who we work with. This further emphasizes how you actually treat us like our age. cough bathroom passes cough The use of technology, though for some may be daunting, is very useful in a class like this.
  • I really like the way the classroom is run, and your method of teaching. It helped me understand the information more and resembled, in some ways, how a college class will be run. Even though the workload was a lot this year, I feel that this class most prepared me for college next year. I never felt that you were bombarding us with work, just that you were helping. Also, the class discussions were helpful in getting involved in the conversation and actively listening. I felt very independent in this class and I viewed that as a positive that I can take with me next year to college.
  • I enjoyed the class and how you taught the class (more of a discussion rather than a lecture).
  • I suggest you keep the Standard-Based Grading system, because it helps students grades improve. Also, I like how you have weekend writings, because it improved many of our thought processes and how to write in a precise manner. This year you have taught me to take responsibility for my work and you have been the most influential teacher throughout my four years at Deer Park by far. You prepared me well for college and taught me important study qualities that I will take with me in the future. Thank you and you will be missed!
  • Due date selection, Practical activities and labs, Communication through technology, Peer feedback, Sense of humor, Interesting facts about real world Biology, Group collaboration, and smooth music.
  • Things I liked: Discussions were very affective! (My favorite thing to do). I also like how you try to get students to answer their own questions, giving the impression that they knew it all along. (It's very encouraging). Because of Bio, my speaking skills when it comes to explaining and questioning different things has definitely improved by just listening and understanding things the same way you do

What’s most interesting to me about the above list is how easy it is to give students a school environment that they enjoy. By providing students with interesting work, and assuming that they will be the most mature versions of themselves, you get a really good running start on giving them a good experience. Also, notice how resonant simple things like letting the class choose due dates, or giving students the ability to go to the bathroom without having to ask permission are. These are not hard things for teachers to do. I am also glad to see that macro-structures like the Standards-Based Grading Policy, and my class discussion style are working the way I want them to…at least for the most part.

Which brings me to Comment Field #2:

Suggestions for improvement (things you did not like, or would change)

  • It would be nice to have had an occasional break in between periods. Also I would have liked more frequent ice cream parties throughout the year.
  • Some assignments I felt were not very helpful and just gave me additional work to do, when there were more important assignments to be done.
  • I did not enjoy the Smithsonian Lab activity about melanin. Though the content was interesting, I did not like the structure of the activity and I thought that the worksheets were excessive and redundant. I did enjoy learning about melanin distribution in humans and other animals, but I feel that I would have enjoyed it more if you taught the lesson your way.
  • A little more guidance on some of the more difficult labs. My group always over-thought them and ended up wasting time on meaningless data collection(this isn't a bad thing because it was a good learning experience, but considering the limited amount of time there is, it was hard to finish some of the labs). The app that picks people at random is pretty harsh. Yes it keeps people on their toes, but sometimes they really just don't know. Also, this prevents people from volunteering when they know the answer. I see the pros and cons of having everyone involved, but some people may learn by observing. POGIL- some are useful, some are not. The ones that are just reading a graph and answering stupid questions are awful, but the ones with lots of information explaining concepts and important themes are very useful. I don't like being a guinea pig. Many of these 'guinea pig' activities were either extremely tedious with little gained from them, or they were about things we covered months ago(I feel like these would go better when we are learning the material)
  • When explaining something to a student, please slow down when breaking down the material because it can be difficult at times to catch up with what you're saying and take note of it. Also, when going over tests, please just explain why an answer for a question is right and the other answers are wrong. Don't add in comments about how ridiculous an answer choice is. If someone chose that answer for any reason, that person just feels worse about getting it wrong.
  • Sometimes stressful work load, Some unclear instructions on particular technology-based assignments, Too much reliance on technology, Some pre-discussion content could have been more streamlined (more focus on understanding and less on facts), Bigger group sizes
  • Let the students choose their partners for labs and projects on all accounts, unless the grades are inconsistent. Maybe once or twice make the students a group for them to see how they work with others.
  • I didn't feel like the pre discussion was that helpful, I just felt it was an extra thing I had to do on top of all other work I had, although it didn't count I just felt it was very tedious.
  • I suggest that maybe going through content that seems to be difficult at a slower pace in class would be more helpful for the students. Sometimes, I felt that we were going a tad fast and I would get lost.
  • I did not like participating in the labs or classwork that were sent to us from science organizations. Had they been given before the time of learning the material that correlated with the work then they might have been helpful, but after a while they were very redundant and time consuming.
  • Things I didn’t like: Although it is respectful that you look at us as if we were on the same level as you are when it comes to Bio, there is no doubt that you are more advanced with the material. When you explain things, sometimes it's hard to understand when you use words we don't know. (Yes I know, then I should ask what the words mean... That can be embarrassing in front of a class sometimes, if it's a word you should already know) So, what I'm trying to say is sometimes "dumb it down" or try to explain it in a simpler way (if possible) I know biology isn't really simple.. But if there are other ways to go about it, then go for it.

There’s a lot of good, thoughtful stuff here. Some things I can work to address very easily: We definitely were a bit Guinea-Piggy this year in terms of field-testing, and I had actually already decided to drastically reduce the amount of field-testing for next year prior to the survey. Similarly, I’m not surprised I get called out for going “too fast”, and providing less guidance than some students are comfortable with (the first item is on my working list, the second one is a bit more central to my larger project, and probably won’t get addressed). Other things are a bit trickier: It’s a tough call on something like POGIL’s or how I call on students because it seems to be great for some students, and not great for others. In situations like this, I’ve learned that I can’t please everyone. Ideally, I’d provide exactly what every student needed in exactly the way they think they need it, but that’s not realistic, or even appropriate. If the purpose of a class like AP Biology is to push students, some structures are going to make some students feel uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean that those structures are wrong any more than it means that the students are wrong to feel that way.

Surveying classes is always useful, and a nice signal that the end of the year is nigh. I highly recommend it to any teacher who has the courage necessary to stare in to this particular mirror. Given the proliferation of online survey tools, it’s also really easy to do these days. I’m glad to have the opportunity, and I’m glad to have such great, thoughtful students who are willing to let me know how they feel about what I’m doing.

Fun times in class surveys: Honors Chemistry edition

My Tech Tools: ClassDojo