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Teaching Cellular Respiration

You have reached the point in your biology or life science class where you must teach cellular respiration.  Do you approach it with dread and trepidation, or do you get all energized and excited?

For many teachers, it is the former.  The negative thoughts start swirling in their head:  "This is so hard for the students.  Students hate this topic!  They never understand what I am trying to teach!  How can I explain this in a way they can comprehend?"

In my first years as a biology teacher I felt exactly like this.  But now, cellular respiration is one of my absolute favorite topics to teach!  And when I am excited about the topic, my students get excited about the topic. Cellular respiration is a topic that cannot be skipped or glossed over in your biology class.  Cellular respiration is the conversion of food into a form of energy the cell can use.....ATP!  All living things perform cellular respiration and it is fundamental to the study of biology.

How do you teach this to your students?  I have several suggestions for how to make this a fun and interesting topic for your students.

  1. First of all, you, the teacher, must have a thorough and complete understanding of the material you are about to teach.  After teaching for 28 years, I still study the topic each year before I teach it.  I try to anticipate the questions that students might ask, and I make sure that I can answer their questions accurately and with a vocabulary they can understand. Remember, if you are not sure about the processes that are taking place within the cell, you will not be able to explain it to your students.  Once the students are "turned off" on a topic, it is very hard to get them back. Bottom line?  You need to study and know what you are talking about!
  2. Don't oversimplify the process.  Many teachers try to make the process of cellular respiration as simple as possible for their students.  Obviously, we are not teaching a college level class in cell physiology, but we need to include enough detail so that the chemical pathways of glucose make sense.  I try to avoid using the very complicated charts and diagrams found in the biology textbooks.  After all, we want our students to know the main ideas of each stage of respiration.  They do not need to know every minute detail, but they do need enough detail to understand the process.  I drew my own diagrams for each stage of respiration showing the key points of each chemical reaction.  My students enjoyed having these outlines to fill in as I taught the lesson.
This digram gives the basic details of Glycolysis

This digram gives the basic details of the bridge reactions.

This digram gives the basic details of Krebs cycle.
My final bit of advice....make sure you include some hands-on activities while teaching this material.  
Here is one very simple activity that I do with my biology students:  I place all of the keywords of respiration on pieces of card stock paper.  Each word is then laminated to be used year after year.  The key words I use include: glucose, PGAL, pyruvic acid, ADP, ATP, NAD+, NADH, Coenzyme A, acetate, oxaloacetic acid, citric acid, FAD, FADH2, CO2, cytochromes, electron transport chain, hydrogen, ATP synthase.  Each group of two student gets a set of words.  Students are asked to arrange and order the words to show the entire process of anaerobic and aerobic respiration.

My latest project has been to develop a set of notes for the teacher and a set of notes for the student on cellular respiration.  Once the notes were refined and polished, I put together a 72 slide PowerPoint presentation on cellular respiration.  Over a month in the making, I was both relieved and excited to have this project finished.  I am very pleased with the result.  My students enjoyed the unit on respiration and I think they came away with a far greater understanding of the process than my former classes.

Here is the link if you want to check it out:


  1. Amy, I have your product. I am getting ready to do the use of glucose in respiration. I see listed that you need fermentation tubes. I see in your pictures that you have beakers with test tubes instead. Can you explain to me how to set that up, since I do not have fermentation tubes. Thanks.

    1. The fermentation tube is the small test tube you see in the picture. It is a 10 x 75 mm test tube. The procedure in the student handout gives instructions for setting up the tubes as you see in the pictures. Thanks!