Monthly Archives: January 2015

Growth Mindset

At the risk of falling into a jargon trap, I try to provide a “growth mindset” in the classes I teach.

I believe that a student’s brain learns over time. Neural connections are formed as learning takes place and kids eventually retain the ability to show this through evidence. I don’t believe that kids are just smart or dumb, even though many of my kids believe this about themselves. I believe that learning is a process and kids that go through that process (if they are patient) come out ahead in the long run.

I was (am) one of those people. I was that way in school and I was that way athletically.  Athletically, over 10 years I transformed average innate ability through disciplined training, building motor/neural networks and lots of practice, I was able to compete at a world class level for my age. I still sucked compared to Don Myrah, but I digress. (edit – updated link 2013. I was 33rd)

I was like this in school too. Never possessing innate natural ability or head of the class smarts, I struggled and had to learn how to train my brain, put in hard work and get close to those who were bright. The dangerous ones have always been those very bright folks who work just as hard.

Point is, some kids don’t feel like they are works in progress. They often think that having to work hard is beneath them and that it equates to being a loser in some way. Im not going to go into the reasons for this because Carol Dweck did it for me. You should read that.

So, best I can do is allow kids a chance to have second chances and demonstrate mastery over time. The 14 year olds I get in August are different learners by December or by May. I try to allow them the opportunity to show progress, grow and work hard. The AP kids also need to know that a course and a test have no bearing on them as human beings, nor does it represent everything they have learned. They too need the encouragement to grow, probably most of all.

Problem is, many of them expect to get it right always the first time, many have never made a B and never expect to. So some will absolutely not ask questions, thinking that asking questions means you are dumb. Still, some of them give up when faced with a number they don’t like or when presented with a thinking, conceptual challenge that is not rote memorization. I really wish I had them for 4 years.

How do we get these particular kids out of this cycle? We can’t. They eventually have to do it. But they need teachers to wear them down on allowing room for growth and emphasizing the learning journey and not the grade; focusing on the process, valuing their improvements and stressing hard work and never giving up. I do have kids that have this mindset already and I don’t want to make it sound like all of my students are in the same boat.

I trained with a power meter for 7 years on my bike. My coach coached elite athletes and I was lucky he took an interest in me. He never focused on placings only my power improvements, my perceived improvements, and provided me with structured guidance built on growth and progress. The power meter was my mistress and she was a total jerk. Doing the work was the fun part. Improving and focusing on doing things better each race became more important than the race itself. Listening to my body and watching myself improve was so fulfilling. Growth mindset.

I had myself going there for a second.

Anyway, I think 6 people read this now so I can bow out nicely now. I think you get where I am coming from.

Retakes, Re-Trys and Reassessments

I want students to be able to show that if they make mistakes, they can work towards correcting those mistakes. I want them to know that (especially in biology) concepts are formed over time in their brain, so mastery of learning is a fluid thing. They should be able to show positive growth if they are motivated to do so.

Here is my take, and of course my take is not the only take. Plus, maybe 4 people read this anyway so any damage or help is limited. 🙂

Test Retakes

I do provide opportunities for class retakes on the most missed learning objectives (LO) on more formative weekly quizzes. Kids get an optional retake sheet with their next quiz. They have to know which LO they have not mastered and they have to have done the bridge learning needed to master these.

Summative test retakes are a tougher nut. Some think that summatives should be non-retakable since they are supposed to show final learning of a set of LO. There is pain up front, but the idea is that the kids and their parents know that the teacher expects kids to be prepared for the summative. Others, allow retakes as long as students work though their mistakes and show evidence of their learning. This is quite an undertaking and only motivated kids will probably take advantage. Normally kids get some fraction back of what they correct.  These retakes are not the rule, but the exception and at the discretion of the teachers. Others advocate that retakes are a right and anything can be retaken during the semester as long as there is evidence of re-learning.

My problem with the first idea is that even if I make a test that I believe is fair and inline with both the LO and the learning I have monitored in class leading up to the summative, there are too many variables to control outside of that. If the class average comes back a 65 or you look at scores and kids and some perform well below what you think they should have, I feel that kids should have the option to better themselves. If a kid makes a 35 on a summative, you can teach them that there is pain associated with that mark or you can teach them that although there is pain there, if they have the motivation to learn what they missed they can recover. Which is more motivating? I find that pain is less motivating then second chances. That said, as the teacher is it my responsibility to offer when needed. Setting this as overall policy leads to kids relying on the make up.

I do use a periodic retake policy that is quite detailed and requires a lot of effort. Kids have to identify their mistakes, explain them and then explain why the correct answer is correct. But, as kids work though the test I find that they become empowered and appreciate the opportunity.

They also get to see the difference between simple mistakes and things they did not learn. Not reading a question correctly or answer choices correctly is a mistake. Overlooking a question they forgot to answer is a mistake. Running out of time is a mistake. Not understanding the learning it took to answer a question is not a mistake. I find that this is incredibly helpful to them.

Test retakes should be the exception to the rule and serve a purpose for re-learning, not re-scoring. 


I do allow individual reassessments on specific LO. Since LO are assessed in may ways, kids can make an appointment to come in and reassess one skill a day for the entire semester. The smart thing to do is to reassess soon after receiving my written feedback and having done the bridge learning needed for mastery. Otherwise kids wing it, reassess, and find they did not improve or perhaps slide back. Kids have to show me evidence of their bridge activities in order to do the reassessment.

There is a fine line with providing opportunities and asking for evidence of preparation. The bridge should naturally be intrinsic, but often this is not in the student’s own economics system. So, asking for evidence of re-learning is good, unless it stops kids from trying to reassess. Making it easy to have opportunities is great, but by adding a need for evidence you make it less of a way for kids to wrangle for the symbol of the mark or grade. Asking for evidence might stop some kids from reassessing, but on the other hand they might just learn more. Also, master up front and reassessment is a moot point.

Reassessment should be the exception, not the rule. Kids should only be reassessing for mastery. 

HIV Mutation Activity – Feedback

From my post to the AP Biology Community. Feel free to comment here or reply on Twitter.

Happy New Year Community!

A few days ago Brad Williamson replied to another post about an activity for EK3, LO 30 on the evolution of HIV. This was originally published way back in 2005 and now is made a bit easier by the nice online phylogent/alignment tools out there.

I was experimenting with the more open inquiry activity. This activity is based on real data (unfortunately) from multiple HIV patients who were IV drug users. The data set contains sequences from HIV clonal data and also gives their CD4 counts as well.

The activity can be found HERE and the data set HERE.

So I put my student hat on and decided to run some experiments. I decided I wanted to see if there was any relationship in HIV gene diversity and CD4 decline over time. I picked Subject 9 who has 8 visits to the clinic from 1989 to 1993 and never missed a visit.

I used to run the amino acid sequences in the data set for all visits. Attached is the plylogenetic tree derived from this data. The subject and number is first and then their visit number, followed by the clone number. S9V4-2 (Subject 9, Visit 4, clone 2)

In this same time period, the CD4 values declined from 489 to 270.

So, wise community, help a brother out with this tree. In looking at it, it looks like the root of the tree shows 1 substitution and as diversity increases (more substitutions), the tree trends out to the right with the clade at the top (visit 8 mostly) showing the greatest amount of genetic diversity. Meaning, that during visit 8 the subject’s HIV had a greater diverstiy of genes becaue of high mutation rates then back in 1989 in visit 1 (base of the tree).

Please let me know if I am way off base here, on the right track, or if there are other things I am missing. 

The original paper published on this data set can be found HERE but it is pretty technical (at least for this paleontologist).

I appreciate your time and feedback!


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