Teaching Biochemistry in High School

biochemistry links blog post-01


One of the most difficult units in high school biology to learn (and to teach!) is the biochemistry chapter.  The complex vocabulary and the abstract concepts make this unit seem like a foreign language to most students.  I know because for the first few years of teaching, all of my students had the same glazed over look that I am sure I had when I took Chinese at a community college.  Dehydration synthesis? Quaternary structure? Lysine???  HUH?

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To really help students to understand biochemistry, I have learned to use the following tools and tricks:


1. SLOW DOWN.  The number of new vocabulary words students can pick up in a class period is limited to about 5 by my estimation.  Throwing a ton of vocabulary words out at once really doesn’t help.


2.  Work on larger concepts before getting into nitty gritty details: I like to start off my unit with a review of chemistry (specifically types of chemical bonds).  Without knowledge of an ionic bond or a covalent bond, how can students try to understand dehydration synthesis or protein structures?

SOAPBOX: I have taught in 3 different schools and in two of them, students took chemistry before biology.  In the other school, biology came first.  Students can understand biology (especially biochemistry, genetics, and cell transport) much much much better and more in depth if they are taught general chemistry first.  Why don’t more schools go to a physics first style curriculum?  Or at least a chemistry-first one?  I know… I know… It has to do with the math that is normally needed for more advanced physics.  And some physics teachers don’t want to teach freshman…  And there are a ton of other reasons that determine each school’s course sequence.  But in my experience, chemistry before biology greatly enhances the learning process.



3.  Use Animations!  Here are a whole bunch of animations that can come in handy in the biochemistry unit. (All animations work as of 7/28/2015.)


Wiley Interactive Animations: A few are useful during the biochemistry unit. The Amino Acids game might be fun for a more advanced class. And the Enzyme specificity animation is pretty good too!


Hydrogen bonding in water: this animation is simple but effective at showing that hydrogen bonds in water form and fall apart quickly as water molecules bounce around.


Protein Folding and Levels of Protein Structure: simple animation but it really shows the primary, secondary, tertiary, and quarternary structure well. Sometimes simple is better than complex. So many animations or protein structure demonstrations are too complex for students when the protein looks like a whole bundle of randomly colored segments.


Another protein folding and protein structure animation: this one is a little more advanced but great to show after the first one I mentioned.


If you get to enzyme kinetics in your biology class (not recommended unless your school’s order of courses has them take chemistry first), this animation can tie in what they learned in general chemistry about kinetics


Protein denaturation: Great animation to show how denaturing proteins changes their structure and function.


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4.  Use Molecular Models!  When I teach the biochemistry unit, I go to the chemistry teacher’s room and raid their molecular models closet!  (Shhhhhh…. don’t tell.)  Having students build a 3D water molecule, glucose molecule, and others really helps them understand biochemistry better.  You might think this takes a lot of time.  And it does.  But remember… you can only teach them about 5 new vocabulary words in a class period.  You need a hands-on activity to get them excited about learning and you don’t want to lecture the whole time past your 5 new vocabulary words.  Students love the models.


5.  Have students create their own macromolecular models!  I like to use beads, pipe cleaners, and paper clips to simulate all 4 types of macromolecules.  Here are some pictures to give you some ideas of how to build the 4 types!



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If you would like a set of activity packets to help your students build these models, you can find my package of macromolecule activities here: 

Hands on Biochemistry Activity


6.  Use coloring to teach identification of functional groups:  I have a favorite worksheet I made that I call “The Scariest Worksheet Ever”.  When I first hand it out, I tell them that is its name and when they initially see it, they totally agree!  I ask them to search and find the functional groups and color code them on different monomers on the worksheet.  (This is before they even know what a monomer is and they have no idea they are actually looking at amino acids, monosaccharides, etc.)  They end up having fun finding, circling, and color-coding the functional groups.  After a week or so where I teach them about each type of monomer and polymer, we go back to that scariest worksheet and they then can see the bigger picture!  You can make your own by simply putting a bunch of monomer structures on a worksheet, or you can find mine here:




What tips and tricks do you use when teaching biochemistry to high school students?  Please leave ideas in the comments below!


If you are interested in other biochemistry activities or resources, check out mine in my teachers pay teachers store!




If you would like more information about how I teach my other units in biology, check out my Scope and Sequence blog post.


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