Clearing misconceptions: Infamous biology teacher shares his underlying methodology


Lauren Caldwell

Biology teacher Mark Wenning is well known for his rigorous curriculum and demanding expectations within the Lowell community; however, his unique curriculum is structured to efficiently heighten his students' comprehension.

“I was scared at first, because everyone made it seem like he was a hard teacher,” one freshman student said. Freshmen in Mark Wenning’s NGSS Biology 1 are stressed by his tough grading. They worry over all the exact details in every graded assignment, from homework to the essay questions on weekly tests, afraid for their grades. However, when former students remember his class they speak fondly of Wenning. They see him as a hard, but good teacher. Along with being intimidating Wenning uses an unusual teaching style, one students can originally be wary of. His original approach to teaching and his grading system may be hard to handle at first, but there is a desire to see his students succeed behind it all.

The teaching style of Wenning is based in Socratic questioning, a form of question-led discussions. Finding conventional lecturing to be boring and physically impossible for him to talk for an entire class period, he replaces teacher-led lectures with student-led discussions. Besides the fact that he feels students should be capable of answering questions on their assigned reading, another reason for his “question and answer” teaching style is because of how science and the process of scientific discovery works. Wenning feels that in science it is essential to use past knowledge in order for learning to happen. This is achieved through asking questions of his students, forcing them to piece the information together. “Science is about connecting the dots, and prior knowledge enables future knowledge,” Wenning said. “I am constantly going back to prior knowledge and relating it to current knowledge so that they have some basis of understanding about what we are currently talking about in relationship to what they know.”

Science is about connecting the dots, and prior knowledge enables future knowledge.”

— Mark Wenning

Wenning’s freshman biology class is not the easiest class at Lowell, as students can attest. He grades harshly and keeps students on their toes during every minute of his class. “I think it’s by far the most rigorous out of any of my classes, but it is manageable once you get the hang of it,” freshman Donna Lee said. His rapid-fire questions on the current subject material forces students to utilize critical thinking when participating in class discussions, according to Wenning. As freshmen typically take his class, his students may not have experienced such a rigorous teaching style before, making his class seem difficult from the start.

The main struggle for students is Wenning’s grading system. He grades assignments with a concrete idea of the right answer. “[The hardest aspect of Wenning’s class is] Matching your answers to what he perceives as the correct answer,” Lee said. “A lot of the time, what you think is the answer can only be black and white and has to match his answer. You kind of have to think like he thinks.” This expectation of specificity often stresses students out. Wenning does not consider his grading system to be harsh, he feels if students use the tools he offers they can get a high grade easily. “I dont think I have high expectations, in most classes there is over three quarters getting an A. You could probably pass tests just by being in class and listening and thinking, by reading the textbook or the notes, or even mabe just by listening to the podcasts of the test review questions becuase pretty much everything that will be on the test is in the podcast,” Wenning said. He does not understand how students can receive lower than an A with all these resources at their disposal.

I think it’s by far the most rigorous out of any of my classes, but it is manageable once you get the hang of it.”

— Donna Lee

Wenning implements the teaching of metacognitive strategies. These strategies focus on learning how to learn, which aims to increase his students’ comprehension. “I think [metacognitive strategies] are a really good way of teaching us. How are you supposed to learn something if you don’t know how to go about doing that?” Lee said. Wenning believes that metacognition can help students in their other classes. “I don’t want them to just do well in my class. I want them to do well in every other class that they take,” Wenning said.

A different set of tools Wenning uses to help his students is a system dubbed prior knowledge. It is part of his lessons where he asks students to use information they learned in previous chapters in order to understand what they are currently covering. Lee finds this technique an essential part of understanding how the many concepts the class covers are interconnected. Sophomore Kyle Tran has reaped the benefits of Wenning’s emphasis on prior knowledge. “The prior knowledge helped a lot, because that was how I retained all of the stuff that’s helping me right now in my class,” said Tran, a former student of Wenning’s who is currently taking AP biology. The idea behind “prior knowledge” is that in order for students to understand what they are learning now he must know where they started out and fill in all the missing information. “[Teachers] need to understand not only where [students] are coming from, but what’s missing so you can fill in the gaps, the dots,” Wenning said. Tran relies greatly on the skill of incorporating prior knowledge into what he is currently learning for doing well in AP Biology. “It’s a good class, it prepares you very well [for AP bio],” Tran said.

The prior knowledge helped a lot, because that was how I retained all of the stuff that’s helping me right now in my class”

— Kyle Tran

Over the course of the year, students come to enjoy Wenning’s class and grow more accustomed to how he teaches, according to Lee. Tran described the class as fun and felt that all aspects of Wenning’s teaching style benefited his learning. Lee remembers being shocked and taken aback at the beginning of the school year by the abruptness of Wenning’s approach, but she has come to understand and enjoy his class and teaching style. “I learn a lot of things, but I think it’s more of like a gradual process of getting better at certain assignments and you have to find out how he grades,” Lee said. Wenning feels students are able to gain an understanding of how his class works, and he is able to relax as the year progresses, too. He is also able to become more humorous though the year. “I have to gradually introduce them to the wackiness of Mr. Wenning,” Wenning said. His methods, expectations, question-based teaching style and the metacognitive strategies are all used with his students in mind. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was effective,” Wenning said.