Life Lessons from AP Biology

Aug 16, 2017

by Dr. Nancy Morvillo
Professor of Biology

What did I do on my summer vacation? I went to Kansas City, Missouri, and graded two million biology exams.

That’s only a slight exaggeration.

You may have taken an Advance Placement (AP) course in high school, a year-long curriculum designed to cover the content and skills taught in the corresponding introductory level college course. The culmination for most AP courses is an exam administered in May that is comprised of multiple choice and essay questions. Depending on the score students receive on the exam, they can be awarded college credit and can be placed in the next sequential course.

I became involved with AP Biology in 2002, by attending a “Read,” the event where all of the student responses to those essay questions are graded by high school and college faculty. I worked my way up through the leadership, and now I am the Chief Reader. Basically, I’m responsible for ensuring all the exams are graded fairly, accurately, and consistently in a span of seven days.

The Read is quite an undertaking, to say the least. This year 255,686 students took the AP Biology exam.  In June, 680 faculty members read and scored the eight essay questions each student answered (I’ll spare you from doing the math: this is a total of 2,045,488 essays). It was hectic, exhausting, nerve wracking — and absolutely amazing. 

This may not sound like a fun way to spend part of your summer. But for those of us who do it year after year, there are so many benefits. Most notably, we gather with other professionals who share our passion for biology and education. We network, learn from each other, and have fun. We make life-long friends.

Dr. Morvillo with the critical necessities for the Read: an AP Bio shirt, her ID tag, and caffeine!

I’ve learned many lessons from my experiences with AP Biology, especially during the past two years as Chief Reader. The critical ones can be applied to almost every task and every goal, including your academic success:

First: Surround yourself with good people: the AP Biology community is populated with talented, dedicated individuals. We work as a team using everyone’s unique perspectives and abilities to make it all come together. By working with so many remarkable individuals, I have learned so much about biology and teaching — and people.

Think about this the next time you are assigned a class project, or when you organize a study group. Try to find the right people who will support your efforts and help you meet the goal. Consider how everyone can best contribute to the group. But perhaps most importantly, no matter the outcome, you should always take something away from the experience — learn from it, grow from it, and make yourself a better person for having worked towards a goal with a unique group of people.

Second: Do your job: how do you grade two million essays? One at a time. Think about this the next time you take a challenging course. How are you going to get through it? How are you going to succeed? By doing your job — everyday, one step at a time. Read, study, go to class. This is the only way to succeed. And don’t expect a good outcome if you don’t do your job! Excuses aren’t a substitute for success — they are just a way to try to vindicate why you didn’t do your best. Dedicate yourself, commit to the task at hand, and then do everything you need to do to get it done. EVERYTHING.

Finally: Listen to advice but make your own decisions. 680 people may be dedicated to achieving the same goal, but they all may have different ideas on how to get there. As the Chief Reader, I consider different opinions and listen to a wide variety of advice, but ultimately it’s my job to make the final call, and my choices often have significant and far reaching consequences. It can be a little scary at times. You will have many decisions to make in your life, and no one else will make them for you.

How do you find the confidence to believe in yourself and know you’re doing the right thing? Ask your parents, your friends, your professors — listen to their opinions and take everything they say into consideration. But decide what is right for you. Don’t do anything just because someone told you it was the right thing to do. You need to decide this for yourself. Even with the best advice and thoughtful contemplation, there are no guarantees, and events will not always go your way. But, at the end of the day, you can truly say you did the best you could, and you will never regret or second guess your decisions.

You will learn plenty of your own lessons throughout your life. As for me, I’ll continue my journey with another year of adventures with students and colleagues. And I know where I’ll be next June, ready for everything I will learn when I get there.