5 Tips for Teaching Biochemical Reactions in Your Biology Class [Episode 98]


Click below to hear 5 tips for teaching biochemical reactions:


Welcome to fall, y’all! We just wrapped up our Summer of Podcast PD, where we tackled curriculum design, classroom management, grading strategies, and so much more. But with a new season comes a new series. With so many of our recent topics involving general classroom tips, I decided it was time to focus on more content-specific topics for each science discipline. So, biology teachers, this one’s for you! I’m sharing biology’s most difficult topic and tips for teaching it in your classroom.

With the help of my own personal experience and the responses I get from reacting with my audience on various social platforms, I determined some controversial aspects of teaching biochemical reactions. Therefore, each of my five tips highlights ways to keep the focus on the big picture and bring in ways to make the information stick with your students. I love creating resources and activities that are memorable for students, all of which I share and discuss in the episode.

In every content area, there’s a topic that reigns difficult for either you or your students. However, it’s all about finding ways to make connections, engagement opportunities, and creating meaningful activities. By implementing my five tips for teaching biochemical reactions, it’ll make this challenging topic more manageable! 

Topics Discussed:

  • Explanation for why biochemical reaction is a difficult topic while teaching biology
  • Tips for teaching this topic to your students
  • The importance of focusing on the big picture of certain subtopics
  • Why incorporating multiple learning styles helps students absorb more information
  • A preview of next week’s episode with the discipline of anatomy

Resources Mentioned:

Related Episodes and Blog Posts:

Connect with Rebecca:

More about Secondary Science Simplified: 

Secondary Science Simplified is a podcast specifically for high school science teachers that will help you to engage your students AND simplify your life as a secondary science educator. Each week Rebecca, from It’s Not Rocket Science, and her guests will share practical and easy-to-implement strategies for decreasing your workload so that you can stop working overtime and start focusing your energy doing what you love – actually teaching!

Teaching doesn’t have to be rocket science, and you’ll learn exactly what you need to do to simplify your secondary science teaching life so that you can enjoy your life outside of school even more. Head to itsnotrocketscienceclassroom.com/challenge to grab your FREE Classroom Reset Challenge.

Rebecca 0:00
You’re listening to episode number 98 of the secondary science simplified podcast. Hello, Hello and happy October teacher friends. We have officially now ended our summer of podcast PD. I know I know you’re like Rebecca, it is full on fall where I live, well we’re I live, we’re still seeing temperatures in the 80s. It’s finally starting to draw up. Hopefully before 80. It’ll be permanently in the 70s from now on. But for me, summer tends to feel like it goes all the way through September. And so that’s why we did our very long summer of podcast PD party. I really loved doing this with you guys. I mean, we covered so much curriculum design, classroom management, grading strategies, and so much more. I hope that you guys enjoyed it too. And if you did, let me know maybe this can be a summer tradition that we do here on the podcast. And if you missed any of those episodes, you can just scroll back and check them out. All the episodes live in your podcast player forever, so you can check them out there. Now, new month means a new little series. And for October, I wanted to transition to some more science content specific topics that I wanted to talk with you guys about. And specifically, I wanted to talk about the most difficult topics to teach in each science discipline, and kind of my best tips for you in terms of how to approach planning for these topics and just tackling them with your students. So we’re going to kick off this little series with biology. It felt fitting since biology was the first curriculum I ever wrote. It was the first subject I ever taught. And so for all my biology teacher friends out there, get excited this episode is for you. This is secondary science simplified a podcast for secondary science teachers who want to engage their students and simplify their lives. I’m Rebecca joiner from it’s not rocket science. As a high school science teacher turned curriculum writer, I am passionate about helping other science teachers love their job, serve their students, and do it all and only 40 hours a week. Are you ready to rock the time you spend in your classroom and actually have a life outside of it? You are in the right place teacher friend, let’s get to today’s episode.

Rebecca 2:30
Now, today’s episode may just be for biology teachers, but I do have something for everyone if you’re still listening, and that is by Halloween science, freebies. Now, if you’ve listened to the show for a while, you know that I’m really passionate about doing the best that you can with your capacity in the current season that you are in. And if you’re like me, when I was teaching full time, I did not have any capacity for seasonal fun, like the holidays would sneak up on me. And I’d be like, Oh, I could have put up twinkle lights, or oh, we could have done something special for mold Day, which chemistry teachers mold days a few weeks away. So keep that on your radar. But I am now in it life season where I have the capacity to make these kinds of seasonal fun things and get to share them with you guys.

Rebecca 3:20
So two years ago, actually, I made a lot of fun, free seasonal resources for my email list. And I want to share those with you all that listen to the podcast. So I have them for Halloween. I have them coming for winter, we have them for Valentine’s Day, and you can have access to all of those. So first and foremost, if you want to grab the Halloween freebies, you just need to head to It’s not rocket science classroom.com/halloween. And you can grab those there. It’s also linked in the show notes. But it includes the PDF and it has for free Halloween themed science resources, specifically for high school science teachers. There’s one for biology, one for anatomy, one for chemistry and one for physics. So if you’re a physical science teacher, you can choose from the chemistry or from the physics based on what you’re teaching right now. And the nice thing is, this is a start of the month, you could use these at any point throughout this month. The only one that can be a little bit more of a long term resource is the physics resource. And you’ll understand when you see it, but that one can also be used in November. It can be used after Halloween with all of your students leftover pumpkin. So check it out. Let me know what you think. I loved writing those resources. And I think they’re so fun. And it just truly brings me so much joy when you guys send me pictures and videos of you guys using these resources with your students. If you use them, let me know. One last thing I want to mention before we get into difficult biology topics. I wanted to let you know I emailed my list last week and I asked them to apply if they wanted to come on the podcast So I don’t know if you guys remember. But back in our classroom management series in Episode 89, I interviewed Casey O’Hearn and he is a teacher from my email list from my audience. I had reached out to my email list and said, Hey, we’re going to do this classroom management series. I have a lot to say. But I don’t have anything to say specifically to teachers teaching in a post COVID world and teaching really apathetic students, if you feel like you have something to share about this to encourage other teachers felt this Google Form and let you know, or let me know I should say, and I got so many great responses I like was very overwhelmed. I ended up settling on interviewing Casey, and it was such a great episode he shared so much wisdom is one of my most listened to episodes. So if you haven’t listened to Episode 89, you should. But the reason that I’m bringing this up again, is because I have a another topic that has come up that you guys want help with. That is not really in my area of expertise. So throughout September, when we were talking about different grading practices and strategies, I got so many DMS asking for, well, how does this apply to standards based grading? Or what support do you have for us using standards based grading? And I’m like, I don’t have anything because I don’t have any experience with that. So I am looking for someone who does. I’m looking for a teacher who has experience with standards based grading, and would be willing to come on the podcast and let me interview you to serve the teachers that listen to this podcast. So if you are listening, and you’re like I have experienced with this, and I’m willing to talk to Rebecca about it, please go to the link in the show notes and fill out the Google Form. It’s really short, it’ll just kind of give me an idea of your experience and what you have to offer. And then I’ll be following back up with everyone who fills out that form. If you’re nervous about talking on air with me, I promise I’m not scary. There will be like a video, it’ll be over zoom so you can see my face. So it feels like we’re just having a Zoom meeting or coffee over zoom. And I can send you questions in advance. So you feel very prepared. Obviously, we follow the flow of the conversation. So it’s not like completely scripted. And I can give you an idea of what I’m going to ask. And if I catch you off guard at any point, we can cut it out because all the podcast episodes get edited after they’re recorded. So if you think that you could speak on this topic, I would love for you to fill out the Google Form in the show notes. Okay, I think that’s all the business things we needed to cover. Now let’s dive in. Thank you biology teachers for being so patient. Now, as I’ve approached which topic to speak on for each discipline, I know it can be kind of controversial. We can debate all day, what is the most difficult concept to teach in biology? What is the hardest one? Where do our students struggle the most. But what I did for each of these weeks that we’re going to be covering this is I basically use my own personal experience, but also all of the questions I get in my email inbox, and all the DMS I get on Instagram and all the responses, I get to Instagram polls. And that’s kind of how I decided what it feels like is the most difficult topic for each subject area. And for biology, that is bio chemical reactions. I’m talking about teaching photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Now, I know some of you listening are like that I love those topics. And I’m so so glad to hear that. But by and large, that seems to be the one that biology teachers do not look forward to teaching the most. Or maybe you like teaching it, but your students just don’t ever seem to get into it. And you know what part of the problem? I think there’s a lot that goes into this as to why this is the case. I think one reason is chemistry is really intimidating to students. And so as we’re bringing in chemical equations and formulas, and you know, subscripts i think that can immediately turn off some of our life, more life science minded students that maybe love biology, they love ecology, they love learning about animals in the environment. But when you start getting into biochemistry, they’re like, get me out of here. I think that turns off some students. I think another thing that kind of turns off students is honestly the time of year. I don’t know about you, but for me, I cover the subjects in my third unit, which I call energy flow. And it falls this time of year, every year. It’s always in October, and I feel like the newness of the school year has kind of worn off. We’ve just had our cells unit which can be a doozy for some students, you know, we’re really getting into the micro. They’re distracted. There’s football games, Friday Night Lights, there’s homecoming dances, they’re Sadie Hawkins, you know, there’s a lot going on in their world. This time of year. They’re planning a group Halloween costume for so and so’s party like I just think they’re at a distractible time. And again, I think, you know, at the beginning of the year, a lot of students come in with kind of a newness, a freshness desire to maybe please or impress their teachers that a good reputation. And then this time of year, you know, you’ve you’re probably getting your quarter one progress reports or report cards out and the pressure starts to set in right around this unit. So I think there’s a lot that goes into this and making it a difficult Topic for students. But I have five tips for you that have really made this a game changer for me and for my students, and I really hope it’ll help your students as well. So my first tip for teaching biochemical reactions is kind of a controversial topic. But I cannot recommend enough teaching food webs alongside photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Okay, hear me out. food webs are traditionally taught in ecology. Now, some people like to start the year with ecology. So maybe you’ve already covered these, some people like to end the year with ecology. I’m personally I love to end the year with ecology, I love to go micro to macro, I love to kind of tie up the year with ecology because it covers so many things. I like to have it at the end of the year, because, honestly, to me, and my students, it tends to be the easiest topic. And so worst case scenario, you know, if we have a hurricane again, and we’re out of school for three weeks, and we get behind in our sequence, I can really wrap up ecology quickly at the end of the year, in time for the EOC if I need to. So I personally like ecology at the end of the year. That doesn’t matter, though, what matters is please pull food webs out of your ecology unit and teach them alongside photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Even if you’ve already taught few words, because you started the year in ecology, I want you to bring them back again, as you’re teaching biochemical reactions. And here’s why it helps students see the big picture. One of the hardest things for them about understanding photosynthesis, and cellular respiration. And really anything related to chemistry, is how abstract it is. It’s hard for them to visualize it. And when they see that how it matters on a macro level in terms of how energy flows through producers, into primary consumers, into secondary consumers into tertiary consumers, then they start to piece together Oh, this is why this matters. And then it comes up again for me when I teach ecology at the end of the year, and we talk about the biogeochemical cycles, and you know, the cycling of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, so I’m getting to bring it up multiple times. But I think teaching the food webs alongside it is so incredibly helpful. Again, this is why this entire third unit in my biology curriculum, and I’ll link all of this in the show notes. I call it energy flow. Okay, so instead of calling it my biochemistry unit, it’s called energy flow. And the reason being, we start with covering enzymes, we cover ATP. So they’re introduced it to kind of that background, then we go kind of hard pivot, and the food webs and trophic pyramid, then we circle back with photosynthesis and cellular respiration. And I’m constantly tying it in to the big picture of food webs. I also have one of my favorite activities I ever wrote, is this food web stations activity. And I’ll link it in the show notes. But basically, I wrote it about the salt marsh ecosystem that I live in, and that my students that I was teaching most recently lived in. And students will essentially travel around the room. And they’ll read these cards about all these different organisms in the salt marsh ecosystem. And they’ll jot down notes about how they consume their energy. And then from there, it’s almost like a puzzle. And they have to piece it all together to figure out how to draw a foodweb for this entire ecosystem and the organisms that are in it. And then they draw a they select one food chain from the web, and they create a trophic pyramid from it, but I love it, because it helps them to really see this in context and see it big picture. Especially if you live in the low country like I do, this is going to be so meaningful for your students. And if you don’t live in the Lowcountry, this is a cool way for them to learn about a really niche ecosystem that may not be familiar to them. And so I think it’s a great activity, I have it available, like ala carte outside of my energy flow unit, and I’ll link it in the show notes. But I love it. And I love using it. And kind of kicking this off before I transition into the micro level of what’s going on in the biochemistry of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. So that’s my first tip, please, please, please teach food webs alongside these biochemical reactions. And if you’ve already taught food webs, bring it back again, you can grab this food web stations activity and just use this as like an intro activity to kind of review food webs and then tie it back in as you introduce cellular respiration and photosynthesis. So that’s my first tip. My second tip kind of connects to this. And this is to continually emphasize the cycle of energy that’s happening from the origination of the sun, and then to us, okay, my students would probably roll their eyes if you ask them how often I’m asking the questions. Where does all energy come from again? Who can capture it again? Who stores it and makes it more accessible for us? What form does it need to be in so that we can access it? How do they do that? How do we get it? What’s the only direct source of energy for us as animals and consumers? Okay, so I’m constantly asked Seeing these big picture questions, so that they see the big picture, I do not want them getting stuck in the details of the Calvin cycle, if they don’t understand that all energy on Earth is originating in the sun, it’s getting captured by photosynthetic organisms, and then we as consumers are having to eat them, and to cycle the energy, and then we die, the decomposers come in, and it creates this whole circle of life, okay? You don’t need to get into nuclear chemistry. You don’t need to get into fusion and fission and alternative energy sources. But getting them into this big picture. And the cycle of energy I find is so helpful. These questions I’m asking are the heartbeat of our conversation in the classroom, and they come up over and over again, I really think emphasizing the cyclical nature of this helps to again, when we’ll get to ecology at the end of the year, so please make sure they do not get lost in the weeds, do not let them get stuck in the weeds, continually emphasize big picture and the cycle of energy. And that leads into my third tip, which is, again, you don’t need to cover every single detail. Okay? When I first started teaching photosynthesis, my first year teaching and in my student teacher, year before that, bless their souls, I was drilling them on photosystem, one and two, all the enzymes, all the different energy carrying molecules and their names, you name it, I was trying to make these kids memorize it. I’m sorry, to everyone I taught around 2011. Okay, that was too much and unnecessary. And what I found as my teaching career progress, and especially what I found when I started teaching, AP biology, and I started collaborating with a lot of different AP biology teachers, is that these excessive details are not necessary, especially at the biology one level. Okay, so yes, if a student chooses to study biological sciences in college one day, they will need to learn them. But the likelihood of them remembering these tiny details from your ninth grade chemistry class, when they take biology or biochemistry, four to seven years later, is so slim. And the other thing I’ll say, too, after teaching AP Biology is the College Board even kind of moved away from those detail driven tests like, my students didn’t need to have all that memorized. What they need to be able to do was if I gave them a picture of the Calvin cycle, or some sort of model, could they interpret it and explain what was happening? I feel like the College Board AP Biology test is so much more critical thinking tests and a skills based test than it is a detail information memorization tests, like it used to be when I was in high school. Okay, so I think if you’re teaching all this detail, for the sake of them having it to be successful in AP Biology, I think you can let that go. And if you’re teaching all these details, so that they’re prepped for college, I think let’s be realistic about what do we actually expect them to memorize. And because here’s the thing, if you remove all of that time, you’re spending drilling details, making them make flashcards and memorizing these things, you will have more time in class for some more memorable activities that again, are going to help them understand the big picture and why this matters. Okay, one of my favorite activities in my energy flow unit is something I call the journey of a photon. And it’s a reflective writing assignment. Basically, students pretend that they are a photon, and they’re traveling from the sun. And the energy in them ends up in an ATP molecule. And they have to kind of trace that journey for us in a creative way. And it applies their knowledge in a different context. And there’s kind of like a fun, I call it a social media activity, because they get to have a choice as to how they write about this journey. It can be more image based, it can be more text based. And that depends on the type of social media, they pick, do they want to be like a Facebook post, or a bunch of tweets, or an Instagram carousel series? So there’s a lot of fun context to it. And again, I wouldn’t have had time to do a creative writing assignment. Like if you had told me that when I was student teaching, like, hey, six years from now, you’re gonna have a creative writing assignment about this, and you’re gonna let your kids spend two to three class periods on it, I’d be like, you’re insane. We don’t have time for that. But when you kind of get rid of worrying about all those details, you have more space for these things. And I think it makes it so much more memorable. I have had students come back, who go on and they take biology in college, and they say they remember sitting in their lecture hall and bio 101. And thinking about what they wrote in their junior journey of a photon or what we did in our photosynthesis relay, which I’ll talk about a little bit later. And they remember that big picture and then from there that really helps them make connections as they’re memorizing the details from their professor. So I really want to encourage you don’t get caught up with every detail the Fourth tip I want to give you is make connections to previous units you have done on cells and macromolecules. Like I’ve said this so much, but it’s connections, connections connections, if we’re teaching these biochemical reactions in isolation, it just is not going to be committed to their memory. Everything in biology is so interrelated. And we need our students to see that to really appreciate it. Okay, I love going back and being like, hey, remember the chloroplast. Remember the mitochondria that we talked about in cells, let’s talk about this and what’s going on in photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Or, hey, remember, in our biology basics unit where we started the year off, and you learned about macromolecules. Remember, carbohydrates, glucose is a carbohydrate. And that is what plants are making during photosynthesis. And I think constantly tying this back together really helps their memory. But also like, if you’re teaching an EOC course, you never stop reviewing, like I teach macromolecules in my first unit, so that I can talk about them in the subsequent six units that follow my first one, so that when they get to an EOC, there is no chance that they are not extremely comfortable with proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids, okay, so make those connections. Again, please do not teach this in isolation. I’m a big fan of not teaching anything in isolation. If you have my anatomy curriculum, you know that, because I group the systems by an overarching theme, and teach them within the theme, not just as an isolated system that we test on each one. And so I really think making these connections is helpful. Again, they are most likely going to be intimidated by this content, a lot of them will see the chemistry of it, and be scared, and we don’t want them to be scared, okay, we want them to feel like this is familiar, hey, you already know a lot of these terms, we already talked about them in cells in macromolecules, let’s bring them back up, that will really, really help with their confidence. And the fifth and final tip I will give you is please, please, please use simulations, use analogies use visuals. I want my students to hear me teach content, but I want them to really see it, to draw it, to read about it. And to even be it to physically representative, it’s possible, the more I can get them interacting with different materials, the better they will absorb it. And this is something I got from my first team of teachers I taught on my first two years in the classroom, we had a team of biology teachers, it was anywhere from four to five teachers depending on the semester. And I cannot remember them saying enough like, Okay, we’re going to read about photosynthesis, we’re going to listen to someone talk about it, we’re going to watch videos about it, we’re going to do a lab, we’re going to make this hands on craft like we’re going to talk about this and so many different ways that they’re going to be able to absorb it and all these different avenues. And that’s what I want to do. And that’s why I bring in so many different things for them. And one of my favorite parts of this unit ever is an idea I got from that first group of teachers that I taught with and I’ve kind of run with it since and it’s a photosynthesis really activity. So what students do is each student in your classroom is physically assigned a role in representing the process of photosynthesis. And then we walk through it physically in the classroom. So some students are excited electrons. Some students are enzyme splitting water. Some students are enzymes that assemble glucose, you know, they all have a different piece of the process. And I call it a relay. Because it’s kind of like one thing after another, even though in real life, it’s all happening at once, so that they can see what’s happening. As we’re doing it, we kind of do it in a sequence. And then at the end just to make it fun, I let them I usually split my class in two because it’s too large. And I let them race each other. And we see you can do it the fastest. It’s such a memorable experience, y’all, I cannot explain this to you enough. And I will say the first time I published this activity, I had a lot of teachers come back and say like, Okay, I’ve been using your biology curriculum for three years, I’ve always skipped the really activity, because i It seems like too much, but I’m going to do it this year helped me do it. And so since then I’ve gone back and I’ve created so many like supplemental documents to help you do this. It’s not hard. It’s just intimidating the first time because it’s probably different from anything you’ve ever done before. But I even have a map of your classroom and how you should set it up and where students should stand and all of that. So I really support you in this process. I’ll link in the show notes. This is another one that I have, like ala carte, so you don’t need to have my unit or have my curriculum to do it. For y’all. I’m telling you, upon review day four energy flow test, we’ll be talking about the light dependent reaction. And students will be like, oh, yeah, that’s where Jace was doing this on the whiteboard, right? And I’m like, Yes. JASE was doing that. And then they remember like, seeing their classmates and seeing themselves in the physical process, commits it so well to their memory. And you know, there’s tons of other things I’m sure you can find on Google that you can do too, but that’s where I beg you like, get them out of their seats, give them visual give them these hands on real world experiences.

Rebecca 25:02
That’s also why again, I love that foodweb station activity, students are moving around, they’re learning about real organisms, and an ecosystem that they may not know about. They’re having to make maps, like, there’s so much to it, that we want to give them this visual that they remember and that they think about when they’re on their actual assessment, whether that’s your end of unit test or project or an EOC at the end of the year. Okay, so those are my five tips for teaching biochemical reactions. I want you to teach food webs alongside them, I want you to continually emphasize the cycle of energy from the sun to us, I do not want you getting caught up in every detail. I want you to make connections constantly to previous units you’ve covered on cells and macromolecules. And I want you to use all of the simulations, analogies and visuals you possibly can to make this content stick for your students. Okay, so I hope these tips inspire you, as you approach teaching biochemical reactions maybe in a new way this school year. And tune in next week, we are going to cover the most difficult topic to teach in anatomy. And as always, I know I mentioned a lot of links, you can find those in the show notes at isn’t rocket science classroom.com/episode 98 And hey, listen, if you are a biology teacher, and you’ve listened to this podcast, I would love it if you would leave a review today. I like to call out kind of one teacher to encourage you, you know to leave a review after listening to the episode because I know sometimes it’ll be something like Oh, I meant to leave a review and I never did. But today if you’re a biology teacher, as soon as this ends, stop and leave a review for the podcast, rate it five stars writer review, it means so much and it truly helps other teachers find the podcast and know that this might be a good fit for something to listen to. And something for them to kind of learn and grow from. So please leave a review all of you biology teachers, and I’ll see you next week for anatomy. All right, teacher friends. That wraps up today’s episode. If you’re looking for an easy way to start simplifying your life as a secondary science teacher, head to It’s not rocket science classroom.com/challenge to grab your classroom reset challenge. And guess what? It’s totally free. Thanks so much for tuning in, and I’ll see you here next week. Until then, I’ll be rooting for you teacher friend.

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