A model for sequencing in Biology – part 2

Over the past year, I have slowly developed a model of how I atomise and sequence a Biology topic. Part 1 of this series focussed on how I gradually atomise a topic from principles to big questions to sentences to facts and how each level contributes towards the sequencing of the topic into a coherent narrative. Parts 2, 3 and 4 will then explore how my instructional design builds the atoms back up, ensuring there’s practice to fluency at each level. Finally, part 5 will look at how I layer the levels in a learning episode so that you get a feel of what a lesson or a sequence of lessons using this model looks like.

I’m a big advocate of ensuring we emphasise the “why” alongside the “how” so as to minimise the opportunity for lethal mutations. However, I don’t want these blogs to lose focus, so instead of explaining the “why” myself, I have linked to blogs, articles etc. that do a far better job than I could anyway! Please check out some of the these links if they’re unfamiliar.

Part 2 – Practice level 1 – factual atoms

At the end of the last post, my sequence for part of Edexcel GCSE Biology Topic 7 looked like this (italics highlights the particular principle I focussed on):

  1. Hormones coordinate responses to internal and external stimuli.
    1. Adrenaline and thyroxine comparison
  2. Homeostasis maintains a constant internal environment through negative feedback.
    1. Insulin & glucagon and negative feedback
    2. Thermoregulation as nervous example
    3. The regulation of water content in the body is at odds with the need to excrete soluble waste.
    4. ADH and negative feedback
  3. Hormones control the fertility of human females.
    1. Menstrual cycle and hormones
      1. Events of menstrual cycle
      2. Roles of menstrual hormones
        1. Glands, target organs and functions of oestrogen & progesterone
        2. Glands, target organs and functions of FSH & LH
      3. Negative feedback
    2. Contraception
    3. Fertility treatments

My instructional design now effectively works through the sequencing process in reverse, introducing and practising new factual atoms, building these into sentences before finally combining these into answers to big questions. Each level involves lots of practice with the aim of fluency and organised schema development so that new knowledge can be easily assimilated and retrieved. I also want to standardise the format of this practice, reducing the extraneous load of the task design so that students’ precious working memory can be focussed on the content I want them to learn.

Retrieval roulette

Having atomised the topic into a series of facts, I collate all of these into a retrieval roulette. This turns the facts into questions and answers with clear, unequivacol wording. I stick to mostly what, where, and when questions (the how and why comes later) and ensure the language is of the same precision that I want students to learn and use. Notice the difference in clarity and precision between:

Q: Where is oestrogen released from?

A: Ovary


Q: What gland secretes oestrogen?

A: Ovary

In the second version, I’ve used two terms that I want my students to know and use; gland and secrete. They are going to be exposed to this question many times over the course of the topic (and beyond) and that exposure is both to the answer and the vocabulary surrounding it.

Almost all of my lessons begin with a short low stakes quiz generated by the retrieval roulette. This uses 3 questions from the current topic and 3 questions from all of the topics studied so far. Students are likely to be exposed to and retrieve the facts of a topic several times whilst being introduced to a topic but also at spaced intervals whilst studying other topics.

Verbal repetition

I introduce the vast majority of new content through reading of challenging text and dual coding using suitable representations. The questions from the retrieval roulette then serve as a basis for my verbal questioning during this process.

I’ve strived to improve my questioning this year through the use of cold call, wait time and mini whiteboards to improve the ratio at every opportunity. This has led to more students in more of my classes spending more of the lesson thinking about the biological content. Win, win, win.

This is an extract of the text I use to introduce the menstrual hormones. In this section alone, the term oestrogen is used 5 times (back to that idea of exposure to the vocabulary). This provides 5 opportunities to question students on a fact regarding oestrogen.

  • What gland secretes oestrogen?
  • What is oestrogen’s target organ?
  • What structure in the ovary secretes oestrogen?
  • What does the ovary secrete?
  • Oestrogen and what other hormone is secreted from the ovary?

By rewording and repeating (almost) the same question, students are being exposed to the correct answer and associated language multiple times without simply mimicing the retrieval roulette question. This is the first step in assimilating this new knowledge into existing schema. The linking of oestrogen to other knowledge in multiple ways helps to create meaning and improve the chances of it being learned for the long term.

Comprehension questions

For some classes or some content, I may want students to spend a bit more time thinking about the text or visual representation. This could be that the concept is particularly complex or that, through my verbal questioning, there’s a signficant chunk of the class that just aren’t confident enough yet to move on. I’ll use some written comprehension questions, again based on rewording and repeating the retrieval roulette questions. Ideally, a proportion of these are worded so that answers are short. This means I can utilise mini whiteboards or choral response to obtain a whole class picture of understanding.

In part 3, I’ll look at how I begin to combine facts into the sentence structures they are likely to be used in and why I think this was the missing link for my teaching in the past.

If you have any questions regarding this model, please leave a comment or get in touch through Twitter.

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