Discovering Patterns in the New AP Biology Framework

Big Idea 1
Big Idea 2
Big Idea 3
Big Idea 4


Beginning in the fall of 2012, the revised Advanced Placement (AP) Biology Course and Exam Description (CED) will serve as the guiding document for developing AP Biology curriculum.  The revised AP Biology CED includes the AP Biology Curriculum Framework (CF) as a topical outline highlighting important content needed for building a deep understanding of biology concepts.

At its uppermost level, the AP Biology CF is organized into four major “big ideas.” Concepts relating to the “big ideas” are then organized into “enduring understandings.”  Within each “enduring understanding” are statements of “essential knowledge.”  At the lowest level, each “big idea” features learning objectives that offer very explicit statements as to what students should be able to do after studying each “big idea.”

AP Framework Analysis Icon 2

There are areas of overlap between each of the four Big Ideas. Concepts relating to each Idea should be discussed in a manner that illustrates this interconnectedness.

The AP Biology CF offers clarity as to what students must know in order to be successful in an AP Biology course and on the AP Biology Exam.  However, when considering the level of detail provided by the AP Biology CF it may serve useful to identify underlying trends and themes that are not immediately explicit within the outline. Doing so may help educators as they refine their AP Biology curriculum, helping them make further distinctions between the “need to know” and “nice to know” concepts.

The purpose of this analysis was to discover patterns within each Big Idea as described in the Concept Outline of the AP Biology CF.  The importance of any single term or phrase was determined by the frequency in which it appeared in the text.  Terms and phrases that appeared the most often were determined to be the most important.  This quantitative analysis was intended to establish an objective hierarchy between phrases and terms within the text, based solely on usage frequency.  This analysis does not provide a suggested sequence as to the order in which these concepts should be presented.

The text of the AP Biology CF included phrases with similar meanings but non-verbatim structures.  An element of subjective judgment was required in order to recognize and combine these similar statements.  Parentheses were used to offset words that varied between similar phrases.

Studying the AP Biology CED lexicon is, in itself, an exercise likely to yield benefit.  At the very least the reader will become familiar with the wording styles likely to appear in the AP Biology Exam.  Emulating the AP Biology CED vernacular in the classroom will help to minimize the chance of students encountering unfamiliar terminology during the AP Biology Exam.

Initially, the text of the AP Biology CF contained words and characters that were part of the original document but not included in the final frequency tables.  This text included “artifacts” such as page numbers, bullets, headers, and footers.   Punctuation marks were not included in the final analysis nor were any parts of speech, words, or phrases not directly related to science concepts or whose meaning was not obvious when viewed out of context.

Every attempt was made to remove any smaller phrases that were reproduced in longer phrases at the same frequency.  For example, the two-word phrase “capture free” occurred 8 times as did the three-word phrase “capture free energy.” It is therefore reasonable to assume that “capture free” and “capture free energy” are not distinct entries but rather “capture free” is always part of the larger phrase “capture free energy”.  In comparison, the two-word phrase “feedback mechanisms” occurred 14 times and was included in several three-word phrases such as “negative feedback mechanisms” and “positive feedback mechanisms.”  Therefore, the two-word phrase “feedback mechanisms” was not excluded because its value could not be determined by looking at any single three-word phrase.

Introduction  Big Idea 1  Big Idea 2 Big Idea 3 Big Idea 4



  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, creative, and concise approach to deciphering the new AP Curriculum Framework. I intend to share your word clouds (properly giving credit to you, of course) with my AP Bio students to help them grasp the overall framework of the 4 Big Ideas. The word clouds will be the introduction to a “Big Idea” poster-making group activity that will allow the students to look at our textbook and identify places where various topics may fit into the 4 BI’s. Thanks again for sharing!
    Kathleen Crawford
    AP and IB HL Biology
    Science Hill High School
    Johnson City, TN

    • Hey Kathleen, I think the poster making activity sounds great! Thanks for the comment and sharing your ideas. ~ Jeremy

  2. Why can’t someone do an analysis of the curriculum framework that just explains what it means!?! As an AP Bio student, I don’t understand what, exactly, I’m supposed to study for the big test… can someone simplify it or make a list or something?

    • Hi Jay, I know preparing for the AP Biology test can seem overwhelming, especially if your looking at a biology book that’s well over 1000 pages long. The good news is that the Curiculumn Framework IS the list your looking for. I just posted an article to try and help students sort out the content in the framework. Check out my page AP Biology 2013 Exam Review. Good Luck! If your willing to do the work, it will pay off.

  3. Dear Jeremy,
    Thank you very much for putting this site together. I’ve been teaching this course for 7 years and find the new curriculum, believe it or not, more challenging. I find the exam has become harder and above and beyond what most high school students are use to taking. Preparing them for this new exam is difficult and after reviewing your site I find many helpful ideas from yourself and other colleagues. I look forward to using your site this year and for sharing ideas with all participating teachers.


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