Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

A Proposal for a Common Minimal Topic Set in Introductory Biology Courses for Majors

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

A Proposal for a Common Minimal Topic Set in Introductory Biology Courses for Majors

Article excerpt


A common complaint among instructors of introductory biology is that the courses cover too much material. Without a national consensus specifying which topics are essential, instructors are leery of excluding material. A survey was administered to two-year college and four-year college and university section members of the National Association of Biology Teachers to identify the topics and skills that college and university biology instructors believe students completing introductory biology should know and comprehend. Analysis identified a strong consensus for 20 topics and seven skills that should be included in all year-long introductory college biology course sequences for majors.

Key Words: Introductory biology; content topics; skills; college biology; essential topics.


Problems with introductory college biology courses for majors have been the focus of several recent reports (Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education, 2003; Smith et al., 2005; Timmerman et al., 2008). Our personal experiences and conversations with colleagues reveal that students enter these courses expecting to gain a deeper understanding of the structure, function, and importance of living organisms. Faculty hope to provide students with a solid foundation in biological principles that can be built upon in advanced biology courses. However, both often leave the course frustrated. Studies have shown that lecturing to a large class generally does not lead to the development of critical-thinking skills and is more likely to discourage students from majoring in the sciences than to motivate them to pursue advanced studies in biology (Labov, 2004; McDaniel et al., 2007; Timmerman et al., 2008; Wood, 2009). A large body of research shows that the incorporation of active-learning strategies can lead to the desired student learning outcomes and can excite students about the subject material (Smith et al., 2005; Cooper et al., 2006; McDaniel et al., 2007; Regassa & Morrison-Shetlar, 2007; Morse & Jutras, 2008). The College Board has recognized the problem in the Advanced Placement (AP) Biology curriculum and is ready to implement a redesigned curriculum in AP Biology that focuses on the process of science and skills development rather than the memorization of facts (Wood, 2009). With the obvious need for change, the question arises as to why reform has occurred in only a minority of introductory biology courses.

Instructors of introductory college biology commonly comment that there is not enough time to cover all of the material. Conversations with colleagues indicate that faculty are concerned that incorporation of active-learning activities, case studies, and open-ended investigations will leave less time for content. As new discoveries broaden the field of biology, the issue of time will become even more of a problem. It has been suggested that expansion of the biological sciences has already led to instructors trying to cover more material in the same amount of class time (Wood, 2009). The perceived pressure to introduce students to every topic in biology is most likely reinforced by encyclopedic textbooks, and by the belief that colleagues at other institutions cover all aspects of biology It is ironic that unlike for chemistry (American Chemical Society, 2008), there is no common or national curriculum for college biology, so the conviction that a certain amount of material must be taught in introductory courses is in reality a self-imposed constraint. Some faculty additionally argue that instructors of advanced biology courses require the basic concepts of their field to be taught in the introductory course sequence. However, lecturing on a subject does not mean that the students have sufficient understanding to either apply or build upon the concepts in more advanced classes. The argument for a broad but shallow curriculum also loses strength when one considers the inconsistency among introductory college biology courses. …

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