How to teach AP Biology at home

I don’t often post homeschooling how-tos. I believe there are as many ways to homeschool as there are families. And each year for our family looks a little different from the previous. So take my how-to with a grain of salt, and skip to the end if you need the down-low without all my ramblings. All the links to what I reference in the text are at the end of this post.

Last August, when it became clear our plans to participate in dual enrollment weren’t going to work, Sam scrambled to find some other advanced coursework for our high schooler to do. He found a large number on online AP courses at the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers site, and I highly recommend their classes. We, however, were too late to enroll in AP Biology. Which was when the madness overtook me. I have an advanced degree in a biological science, I thought. They have all the materials online. Why don’t I teach AP Biology at home? Starting next week?

Maybe, had I had the summer to prepare, throwing the prep work for an AP class into an already busy school schedule wouldn’t have tipped me over the edge. As it was, I had two weeks to assemble the materials for a rigorous lab and teach an astounding amount of material… only half of which has anything to do with my own biological degree. (In case you were wondering, a degree in medicine did not prepare me well for teaching a semester of ecology and evolution.)

The College Board, which oversees the AP curricula and tests, has a wealth of material available online. They even have made available four complete syllabi (all different), from master AP educators. I chose one that went from small [chemical components and bonds] to large [ecosystems], since I was comfortable already teaching the micro-level biological information. I’d have plenty of time, I thought, to learn the macro-concepts before I had to teach them. [insert crazy coughing here] I ordered the textbook and several supplements from Amazon, and the lab manuals from the College Board bookstore. Then I tried to order the lab supplies.

The syllabus I chose recommended a particular lab supply company, and I sorted through the AP labs to compile a master list of the various reagents and supplies we’d need. 50mL of sulfuric acid here, 20 mL 5M NaOH there… but the smallest amount of any chemical I could put in my “cart” was 5 liters. Hmmm. Looking deeper, I found kits for each of the AP labs (hooray!)—but built for 30 students. Not cost effective for a single student, especially when there are 12 labs. Finally I found a website to substitute some of the ingredients… only to discover that you’re not allowed to ship most of the chemicals to a home address anyway. So there, people making bombs in your basements. Take that.

I spent at least 20 hours one weekend trying to order all the labs goods, to no avail. And then I remembered Quality Science Labs, which supplied all of our Chemistry supplies a few years ago. If you’re planning an AP adventure at home, look at Quality Science Labs first for your lab supplies. (Not a paid announcement, just an honest endorsement. They saved my sanity.) Note: the QSL labs are not the exact labs in the AP Biology lab manual, but they cover the same concepts and ideas. You will use the lab manual included with the labs, not the manuals from the College Board, which could save you lots of money.  To shore over any gaps, have your student review the CliffsNotes AP Biology review book section on labs, and review the virtual labs at the Pearson Lab Bench.

Because the AP exams are on fixed dates in early May, we had to begin our class almost immediately. I altered the AP syllabus for our needs and we took off running. There’s far too much material to cover thoroughly in a year, but the syllabus we chose had a good balance between covering the essentials and going deeper in select areas. I highly recommend taking the time to sort through the syllabi online to find a course that plays to your student’s particular interests. The exam offers some latitude in terms of where depth can be achieved. The AP review books we used (our favorites were Barron’s and Reece’s Preparing for the AP exam) had good predictions of what subjects recur most frequently on the test, so these areas should not be skimmed.
Another challenge for me was writing the exams and assessments. The syllabi offered the big-idea topics to be covered, but no more. I spent hours writing questions before the first exam. And then for the second, I got smart and compiled questions from review books and chapter-end quizzes.

Which brings me to the biggest studying aid I found: self-quizzing using the review books and chapter ends. Peter C. Chase’s book Make it Stick convinced me of the value of frequent, low-stakes quizzes, and we employed these a lot. Quiz on a topic (or collection of mixed topics), grade the quiz, and then focus on the area of weakness. Repeat.

Bozeman Science (on youtube) has a collection of mini-lectures on many of the AP topics (not just biology). These were very helpful, both to teach the first time and to review.

The labs were a continual headache. (Says a scientist.) While the labs are supposed to be “student-led, teacher-guided”, they each required several hours of teacher prep, and then one-on-one attention. I could have supervised twenty students doing one lab together, but it was impossible to read with a second-grader or grade algebra tests while supervising the injection of plasmid DNA into non-pathogenic E. coli.

I was surprised at the difficulty I had finding a school that would allow my student to take the test with them. There is no option to proctor the test at home; all students must test on the national date at an approved site. No school is required to offer testing to outside students, and I called nine schools before finding a school that was willing to let him test there. The College Board was very helpful in this, even when I called back in a panic. Schools order the tests in late March, so start calling early. The College Board will give your student (or your homeschool) a school code that he or she will need for the exam. Because we are enrolled in a once-a-week school hosted at a public school, we used their school code.

I’ll go over the cost of the class in a separate post.

As the year raced on approaching the test, I found myself becoming more and more nervous. This was the first time any class I taught was gearing toward a test. And a test I’d never taken. The AP exam felt completely different from the standardized tests we take each year. Somehow I’m able to compartmentalize those tests as a guide for our planning, a tool in my skill evaluation, or a life-skill for the children. This AP test felt like a judgment on my teaching, which wasn’t stellar for this class or this year. However, my son is pretty remarkable and managed to do well enough (on both his AB Calculus and AP Biology) to receive college credit. [insert large exhale] When he texted me his results, I cried—not because this test was the end-all be-all, but because I hadn’t failed him. Isn’t that all of our deepest fear?

Of course I have failed him in a myriad of ways. As people, we fail each other all the time, and if AP exams were the measure of our love or our value, this world would be a sorry place. All the same, the exam felt like a referendum on my homeschooling. I have an exceptional son who is very gifted academically, and I wonder now and then, have I done him a disservice by cheating him out of the academics he could receive in “regular” school? While he files his score away to use for college credit later, I’m going to save it in my pocket for the days I feel like my children aren’t learning enough. (Or on really bad days, anything.)

In summary, here are my recommendations for teaching an AP class successfully at home:

  1. Think carefully before choosing to teach an AP class at home. It is a huge time and energy commitment, and many students don’t have the inclination or the background to be successful in an AP class. If your student knows already where she wants to go to college, make sure you are going to get sufficient credit for the class to make it worth your while.
  2.  Start planning early. You can find links to the College Board’s master teacher’s curricula here. Check the test date to make sure it works for your family. You can’t change the testing date, and the entire class must be wrapped up by that first week in May.
  3. Buy the version of the textbook that matches your curriculum’s page numbers. (I bought the previous edition to save a few bucks, and it caused me several days’ headaches just to make sure the page numbers I assigned corresponded to his book.)
  4. Think ahead to whether or not you are equipped to run a lab in your kitchen. If you’re not, is there a school or local business that might have lab space you could borrow? Do you have a friend or relative who could watch your other children (preferably somewhere other than your kitchen laboratory) while you do the labs?
  5. We ordered our lab supplies from Quality Science Labs, which has a full kit of AP-biology equivalent labs. Use Pearson’s lab bench for simulated labs to supplement what you can’t do at home, and review the labs in the CliffNotes AP Biology review books.
  6. I recommend purchasing Barron’s AP Biology and Reece’s review books right at the beginning of the year, so you can use them to help you write your unit tests and quizzes. Note that there are multiple choice questions that require factual knowledge and a deeper understanding, as well as short answer and essay questions on the exam. A simple memorization of biological facts is not adequate for the AP exam.
  7. Bozeman Science has a variety of youtube videos covering many of the biological concepts.  These were much easier to coordinate to the textbook than any of the Khan academy materials, and they were great.  I particularly liked Paul Anderson’s take on how we teach science.
  8. To maximize learning, have your student self-quiz frequently. Then he or she can guide her studying toward her areas of weakness. There is too much material in an AP course to learn all of it in depth, but the review books will tell your student needs depth, and what he or she can learn more superficially.
  9. In January or February, call the College Board for the phone numbers of the AP coordinators at your local schools and for your testing code. Be sure to confirm in early March with a school so that the test can be ordered on time.
  10. Only 10-key calculators can be used on the AP Biology exam– no phones or fancy graphing calculators. (They allow you to take two with you just in case your little sister pulled the keys off one and it doesn’t work.) Buy these ahead of time so you’re not scrambling for one at the last minute (like me), because your student will need a calculator.
  11. Be sure not to hold this test (or the score) too tightly. You may decide that the class itself was enough, and the grade you give your student is an adequate record of the year. If your student decides to take the test, remember that it is a mark of one class, not a referendum on your home school experience or your student’s global abilities or future success.

One thought on “How to teach AP Biology at home

  1. Wow Annie, what an adventure. I’ll be your notes help someone out – maybe even yourself in a few years 😉

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