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Tips for Teaching Genetics and Heredity in High School Biology

Teaching genetics in high school

Like many biology teachers, I absolutely LOVE teaching genetics and heredity. Students are always incredibly engaged and come to class with so many great questions. However, I have learned over the years teaching about inheritance, that the topics can still be really complex and hard for students to grasp, no matter how interested they may be in the subject matter.

Because of this, I wanted to share with you a few tips for teaching genetics and heredity that I’ve learned from my experiences. These tips helped my students grasp the content easily AND stay engaged throughout the unit – what every teacher hopes for!

1. Emphasize the difference between DNA replication and protein synthesis.

In my first year of teaching, I taught DNA replication, transcription, and translation all together in one unit. I used a bunch of worksheets I found on the internet for free that had students practice replicating a strand of DNA and then transcribe and translate it. What I found is that this REALLY confused the students, and they thought that these three processes all went together and happened sequentially.

Now, I teach them completely isolated from one another, and I provide a LOT of context for the WHEN and WHY each process occurs – not just the HOW as I focused on my first year teaching. This was so helpful for my students to see and it majorly decreased confusion with the processes.

2. Teach meiosis with genetics, not with mitosis in cells.

If I could reach out to every secondary science certification program and force every new teacher to do this, I would. I cannot tell you enough HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS to teach mitosis and meiosis separately from each other. It is SO CONFUSING for students to differentiate Prophase from Prophase I and Prophase II, let alone all the other stages of the processes.

By teaching them separately, you can teach the processes in context (just like with DNA replication and protein synthesis!) I love to teach mitosis first in my Cells unit. It naturally fits there when teaching about the principles of cell theory and how all cells come from other cells. To engage students, I teach them about the regulation of the cell cycle and how the lack of regulation can lead to cancer in body cells.

I save gametes and meiosis for my Genetics unit. I find it much easier for them to understand terms like homologous chromosomes, alleles, haploid, and diploid when they are learning them within the context of sexual reproduction and the inheritance of traits from our parents. I use meiosis to transition from teaching about DNA replication and protein synthesis to then teaching about inheritance patterns, pedigrees, mutations, and genetic disorders in my Heredity unit. It really helps students to see how ALL of these inheritance topics work together!

3. Emphasize the complexity of inheritance.

Most of us left 7th grade science thinking that pretty much all of genetics boiled down to what you could see in a Punnett square. But as you know, if you are a science teacher and reading this, VERY few human traits are inherited based on Mendel’s laws of inheritance.

Once you dive deep into teaching about heredity with your high school biology students, don’t let your students think that Mendelian genetics is the norm for human inheritance. Yes, it is important to start with Mendelian genetics as a baseline, but consistently emphasize with your students how many exceptions there are to these rules. Even when covering complex inheritance patterns, STILL emphasize that this is just an OVERVIEW! There can be random mutations and epigenetic factors that come into play, too. Speaking of epigenetics…

4. Don’t miss an opportunity to discuss epigenetics!!

In my first few years of teaching genetics, I didn’t get into gene expression much at all. It wasn’t a topic covered on our state biology EOC exam, so time wasn’t reserved for it. But after teaching AP biology and the amazing discussions that came from it, I knew I wanted to include it in my Biology 1 curriculum. Because of this, when I recently updated my Heredity unit, I made a point to include it!

It will create opportunities for some fascinating discussions with students on the debate of nature vs. nurture in making us who we are, and some amazing phenomena can be incorporated with this topic, too. It is worth saving at least a day to spend time on epigenetics with your students!

5. Create space for them to ask questions, research, and explore extension topics that interest them.

Last but not least, try to build in some buffer time when planning lessons for teaching genetics and heredity. Students will have a TON of questions that will naturally come up, and it will help to have the time to be able to slow down and address them. I also like to have a few opportunities for them to do some open-ended research into topics that particularly interest them, like genetic disorders and biotechnology. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t do this my first few years because I was so concerned about getting through all of the content for the EOC, but later in my teaching career I took the time to make the space for more flexibility when teaching these units and it was SO WORTH IT because of the discussions that came from it.

I hope these tips have been helpful to you! I would absolutely LOVE to hear what else has been helpful for you teaching genetics and heredity in your own classrooms. You can reach out to me here! Looking for other tips for teaching different topics? Check out my other biology teaching tips here!

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