1. Introduction

Throughout the year, I have my students keep a Biology Learning Journal. The journal is online (it’s a Google doc), and it’s public (shared with me and all the other students in their class).

The basic structure of the journal is a Weekly Reflection in which students reflect on what they learned during the preceding week. This reflection might be open-ended, or it might be based on suggested prompts that I put on the weekly agenda. In either case, students almost always have a huge measure of choice in what they write about. In their reflection, I encourage students to write about how the new learning from the week connects to previous learning, and to the Big Ideas of biology (evolution, information flow, energy and matter flow, and systems).

The journal’s public nature is important. Every week, either for homework or during class time, students read and comment on each other’s journals. This increases students’ motivation to produce high-quality work, and it allows students to see the quality work that other students are producing.

2. Why should students keep a biology learning journal?

Here are a few of the reasons why I have my students keep a journal.

  1. I’m a huge believer in the use of writing to improve thinking. It’s an important part of my own thinking/learning process. One of my goals for my AP Bio course is to help students become deep biological thinkers. Journaling is how I help my students to get there.
  2. Journaling helps reduce fragmentation. By reflecting on their learning, and on the journal itself, students bind together the many disparate facts they’ll learn in your class into a meaningful whole.
  3. Writing is an important AP Bio skill. In May, a big part of what your students will be tested on is their ability to express their understanding of biology in written form. Look at the AP Biology Science Practices. Now think about how students are going to show that they can argue from evidence, ask questions, explain concepts, describe data, and so on. It’s all going to be in writing.
  4. A journal can be highly motivating. While it’s obviously assigned work (linked to an extrinsic goal of getting a good grade), part of my goal is to shift my students’ motivation from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. Here’s why journal writing is intrinsically motivating.
    1. It’s something that students feel ownership of. It’s their learning journal, not just one of the dozens or hundreds of disconnected assignments that students hand in. Over time, it can be a record of the intellectual journey that students go on as they progress through your AP Biology course.
    2. It allows students a measure of autonomy. Students have a lot of choices related to what they write for their weekly reflection.  Autonomy is a key part of intrinsic motivation.
    3. It’s public. Students are writing not just for me, but also for one another.

3. How to set up journaling for your students

3a. Technical Setup

The technical part of setting up journals is super-easy. I make a template as an assignment in Google Classroom. Then I have students share the document with everyone else in their class (important: when students share the doc, have them uncheck the “Notify people” checkbox in Google docs. If you don’t, then you and all your students will get dozens of notifications, which is pretty annoying).

3b. Rationale and Standards

The non-technical/pedagogical part is a bit more involved. Here are a few key tasks.

1. Explain why you’re having students keep a journal. While I’ve always had my students do a lot of writing, last year was the first year that I had my students keep a journal. Many of them reported to me that it was the most meaningful part of their learning experience. It’s going to be a big part of their hero’s journey throughout your course.

2. Sharing some standards for the journal.

To begin with, if it’s a one-week journal, the minimum length requirement for an A is 300 words. If it’s every other week, then approximately twice as long.

Below is a 4-point rubric I put together last year that I’ll be using as a starting point.

  • D or F: Not completing the assignment, or submitting a reflection that’s way below minimum length requirements.
  • C: Doesn’t meet minimum length requirements. Provides an elementary summary of material learned in the previous week.
  • B: Entry is approaching minimum length requirements. The writing is thoughtful and clear.
  • A: Writing meets minimum length requirements. Writing is lucid and engaging. The weekly reflection shows a significant understanding of applied concepts.
  • A+: Exceeds minimum length requirements. Significant display of creativity, or taking the initiative to go beyond what’s been taught in class to deepen understanding of biology (while still retaining a connection to the week’s work).

3. Establish norms for commenting. Each week, I ask my students to read a few other students’ journal entries for that week and comment on them. Here are my guidelines for comments.

  • Comments should be specific, detailed, positive, and encouraging. Questions that would motivate the writer to deepen their thinking are the best kinds of comments.
  • Here are two sentence frames for journal comments
    • Positive with elaboration: Example:  I loved/liked/enjoyed this! It’s great how….
    • Positive with gentle encouragement: Example:  Nice. I’d love to know more about…

I don’t grade students’ comments. I do enforce community norms and occasionally highlight comments that are particularly insightful.

4. Examples of Student Work

Last year, most of my students’ work in their journals was excellent.

D/C: Below minimum requirements (64 words)

This week I learned how our bodies produce sperm and egg cells, and how that process is the reason why we are all different, physically and mentally. The DNA of our parents crosses over to create hybrid DNA that creates genetic variation in everybody. The only 2 truly identical possible people would be identical twins because they were both born from the same zygote.

B-: Thoughtful, clear writing. This is good but too short for an “A” (179 words)

Temperature-dependent sex determination is found in all crocodile species some other reptiles and wish.  When in the egg the sex of the animal will be determined.  During the embryo stage, the heat of the egg’s environment will be determined by that specific temperature. It varies from species to species on what temperature produces what eggs like in turtles. The warmer nests hatch females and the cooler ones will result in males.  With alligators, females are created at low and high temperatures while males are in the middle temperatures.  What happens is in some creatures the heat can make the embryo with an XY chromosome a male can change and reverse back and express a XX chromosome making it a female. Or a ZW and ZZ depending on what chromosomes that species uses.  Most species that use temperature-dependent sex determination create holes for incubation so at times you can get a batch of all female or male animals which can be very bad for the species because it can cause a dip in the population.
Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-temperature-sex-determination-reptiles/

B: Good writing, and approaching minimum length requirement but too short for an A

This week in AP Biology we learned a special type of cell division called meiosis that creates the sex cells in our bodies with half as many chromosomes. Germ cells are the specific type of cells that undergo meiosis to become gametes; they start off being diploid— having two sets of chromosomes— and produce four haploid cells— having one set of chromosomes.  Meiosis evolved from mitosis and while they use some of the same mechanisms, there are crucial differences between the two. On a surface level, meiosis involves two divisions (resulting in four daughter cells) while mitosis involves one division (resulting in two daughter cells). Mitosis is used by somatic cells for growth and repair, though meiosis is used by germ cells for the production of gametes. It’s also important to note that both mitosis and meiosis are processes unique to eukaryotic cells, while prokaryotes and archaea use different methods for reproduction and growth, such as binary fission and multiple fission. Furthermore, meiosis leads to genetic variation while mitosis produces genetic clones of the parent cell(s). We studied the two specific ways in which meiosis leads to genetic variation: independent assortment and crossing over. Nondisjunction, when chromosome pairs or sister chromatids fail to separate in meiosis, can also be considered a cause of genetic variation as it creates trisomy and monosomy which lead to conditions such as Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, and more.

A: Meets requirements for an A (363 words). 

This week, we learned about how cells communicate with each other through the reception of ligands and subsequent transduction and cellular response. The four types of cell signaling, autocrine, juxtacrine, paracrine, and endocrine, are defined by the distance and relationship between the two communicating cells. In particular, I found the concept of autocrine signaling to be unique because it only involves one cell. How does this work? What are examples of autocrine signaling in nature and science?
Autocrine signaling refers to a cell that’s communicating with itself. This involves the cell producing and secreting ligands, known as autocrine agents, that bond with autocrine receptors in the same cell. The autocrine receptor will then induce a cellular response, just like any other form of cellular communication. This allows processes in one part of the cell to stimulate other areas, functioning like a smaller version of the way organs in the body interact with each other.

Autocrine signaling occurs in the early stages of cellular development. A cell will signal to itself how to differentiate and become more specialized. This typically only happens during an organism’s embryonic stage, when it needs to develop specific organs to continue developing. This signaling will sometimes also become paracrine signaling, causing other cells nearby to develop into the same cell type. However, this doesn’t mean autocrine signaling stops when an organism is fully grown. Another function of autocrine signaling is as a part of the immune response. When a cell is infected by a virus, it will release a signal to itself that triggers programmed cell death, destroying the virus and preventing it from replicating.
Autocrine signaling can also have harmful effects. Growth factors dispersed through autocrine signaling are responsible for the continuous proliferation of cancer cells, as the cancerous cells endlessly signal themselves to keep replicating. There are numerous agents responsible for this faulty communication, many of which have been identified by scientists. This information has allowed researchers to potentially treat cancer by disrupting these autocrine pathways, with relative success. There are several cancer drugs that act as inhibitors for autocrine agents in cancerous cells, and further research in this field could potentially yield effective ways to cure cancer.

A+: Really exceeds requirements (633 words)

For my weekly reflection, I decided to do some more research about chromosomal abnormalities, specifically down syndrome. Firstly, a chromosomal abnormality is when there is a difference in either the number or structure of a person’s chromosomes, and they usually occur due to mistakes in meiosis, such as nondisjunction. Nondisjunction can occur during either round of meiosis and means that there was an error during metaphase (1 or 2) causing either both chromosomes from a homologous pair or both sister chromatids from a double chromosome to go to one side of the cell, and none going to the other side. Then the result is gametes with the wrong number of chromosomes. When there is an extra chromosome, it is called a trisomy, and a monosomy is when one chromosome is missing.

According to an article from US Southwestern Medical Center, “We know that 10 to 30 percent of all fertilized human eggs contain the wrong number of chromosomes. About 5 percent of all clinically recognized pregnancies have some chromosome abnormalities. Many of those early pregnancies end in miscarriage. But about 0.3 percent of all babies born alive have some sort of chromosome abnormality.” So as it turns out, chromosomal abnormalities are significantly more common among fertilized eggs, but the majority of the time the pregnancy ends in some way or another, which is why there is a much lower frequency among babies born alive. The article did not state why these embryos have such low survival rates, so I was curious whether the body is able to recognize abnormalities and kill the embryo, or if the abnormalities impede its growth and development (or if there’s another cause).

Trisomy 21, which means that there are 3 chromosomes in the 21st set instead of 2, is the most common chromosomal abnormality. Trisomy 21 causes 95% of down syndrome cases, and it occurs as a result of nondisjunction during meiosis. However, down syndrome can actually have two additional causes. If there is a mistake in cell division after fertilization, it can cause some cells in the body to have trisomy 21, but leave others without the abnormality. This condition is very rare, and it’s called mosaic Down syndrome, because mosaicism is the term used to describe differences in the chromosomes of cells within the same person. The third cause of Down syndrome is translocation, which is “when a portion of chromosome 21 becomes attached (translocated) onto another chromosome, before or at conception. These children have the usual two copies of chromosome 21, but they also have additional genetic material from chromosome 21 attached to another chromosome.” (from the Mayo Clinic article). What’s different about this form of down syndrome is that it can actually be inherited (although it isn’t always). A mother or father can have genetic material from chromosome 21 translocated on other chromosomes, but because they do not have extra genetic material, they don’t have the signs or symptoms of down syndrome. This is called balanced translocation. However, they can be passed down unbalanced translocation (having the extra genetic material) to children, resulting in children with down syndrome.

The thing that was particularly interesting to me about down syndrome was its link to maternal age. It is widely known that the older a woman is when she gets pregnant, the higher the likelihood of the baby having down syndrome. When I learned this, I was instantly curious. It turns out, there have been some studies done that help explain why this is true. Cohesion and securin are proteins that function to “keep chromosomes together at their centers.” As a female ages, the levels of those proteins goes down, so the chromosomes essentially become looser. This causes the chromosomes to be unstable, which is why there is a higher chance of division occurring unevenly.


5. How long does grading take?

At the start of the process, while you’re establishing norms around quality, it might take you 3 minutes per student.  Later, you can probably cut that down to 2 minutes or less per student.

Even at two minutes per student, that’s not insignificant. I have about 60 students, so I’ll spend about two hours per week grading journals. But it’s some of the most meaningful grading that I do. I actually get to see my students’ thinking, which can be a pretty joyful experience.

6. Some general ideas for great journal writing

  1. Go visual! Choose an image from this week or previous weeks. Write an explanation of what’s happening.
  2. Think about the four big ideas: Find an idea or concept for the week. Think about how it connects to evolution, energy flow, information flow, or systems. You can do all of these ideas or just one.
  3. Write a letter (to a friend, a parent, etc.) explaining what we learned in biology this week. Pretend they don’t know much about it, and your job is to make it clear and to fill in the back.
  4. Fantastic voyage. Most of what happens in biology happens at a molecular/cellular level. Shrink yourself down to the size of a [molecule/cell, etc.) Explain, from that perspective, how that phenomenon/process would work.
  5. Be a teacher. Pretend that you’ve been assigned as a stand-in for your teacher. Teach a short lesson about a topic that you’re interested in.
  6. How do we know? Every fact, idea, and process in biology had to be discovered and established by somebody. How did that happen? Who discovered it?