The Importance of the AP Biology Learning Objectives

The Importance of the AP Biology Learning Objectives
57
SHARES

“The learning objectives should be used to guide teaching and learning.”

~ AP Biology CED, pg. 126

 

About a year ago I was fortunate enough to attend the AP Annual Conference and sit in on a session presented by the AP Biology Development Committee.  A key point I took away from the session was that AP Biology Exam questions are written using the language of the learning objectives. The released free response questions and the summary of results for this year’s AP Biology test reinforce this claim.

The subject of biology is vast.  AP Biology textbooks are enormous.  I celebrate transparency in the new exam.  The learning objectives are a guide for not simply what students should know, but for how they need to demonstrate their understanding of the most salient points in the AP Biology curriculum framework.

Here is a quote from Trevor Packer, The College Board’s Head of AP, in a recent correspondence to the AP Biology community.

“To earn a 5, students must learn the course content well enough to be able to perform the skills required in the grid-ins and the free-response section: when confronted with scientific data or evidence illustrative of the required course content, students must be able to ‘calculate,’ ‘predict,’ ‘justify,’ ‘propose,’ ‘explain,’ ‘perform,’ ‘specify,’ ‘identify,’ ‘describe,’ ‘pose a scientific question,’ and ‘state a hypothesis.’ True understanding requires that students develop the depth of understanding required to perform such tasks with accuracy and precision.”

 

The table below lists a refinement of the “performance statements” used to write the AP Biology learning objectives. Next to each statement is the total number of learning objectives in which that statement appears.

 

Frequency of Performance Statements in the 149 AP Biology Learning Objectives Frq
construct, create, describe, refine, or use representations or models to predict, analyze, describe, explain, connect, or pose questions 39
use evidence to make, construct, or justify a scientific claim, explanation or prediction 28
describe, explain, or represent connections between concepts 12
describe or explain how 12
evaluate or refine evidence, scientific questions, or hypothesis based on data 12
use or analyze data to predict or explain 11
predict consequences or effects 8
describe a process, theory, or example 7
justify the selection of data 7
apply math 4
design a plan 4
generate or pose scientific questions 4
compare and contrast 1

Clearly, there is a connection between the words in the table above and what Trevor Packer states students must be able to do in order to demonstrate an understanding of the course content and score well on the exam.  The AP Biology learning objectives are not specifications as to what students should know, but an indication of the of the manner in which they will be called upon to demonstrate what they know through application.

In the days proceeding May’s exam, there were multiple reports of feelings of consternation as students walked away from an assessment that, in the mind of many of those being assessed, did not provide enough opportunity for factual recall.  I can certainly understand the frustration; most students probably had limited experience with this type of assessment.  If they had been expecting the old AP Biology exam, it probably felt like a bait-and-switch.  The College Board is not to blame.  In their defense, I’ll reference page 126 in the AP Biology Course and Exam Description.  Under the section titled How the Curriculum Framework Is Assessed are seven bulleted statements. Below are two of those bullets. They completely lack ambiguity.

  • The exam will assess the application of the science practices.
  • Questions on the AP Biology Exam will require a combination of specific knowledge from the concept outline as well as its application through the science practices.

In college, my biology education became completely sidetracked when I developed an interest in the social sciences.  Fortunately, I learned a few ideas in my classes on social theory.  One concept that comes to mind is that of praxis (not the pre-service teacher assessment coincidentally produced by ETS, makers of AP exams). Here’s how Dictionary.com defines praxis:

“practice, as distinguished from theory; application or use, as of knowledge or skills.”

I’ve always liked that word, “praxis.”  I’m really glad that the AP Biology Development Committee does too. The AP Biology learning objectives are praxis.

The importance of the AP Biology learning objectives has been firmly established.  Teachers of AP Biology need tools to aid them as they continue to organize and assimilate the objectives into their courses.  I’m a visual learner, but I also like to manipulate information in a tangible way; I made lots of flashcards in college.  And so—driven by my love for manipulatives—I formatted the 149 AP Biology learning objectives into sheets of equally sized boxes, perfect for cutting into cards. The cards can be downloaded by clicking on the images below.

Learning_Objective_Study_Cards_Thumbnail

Study Cards (Color)

AP Biology Learning Objectives: Study Cards (B/W)

Study Cards (B/W)

Here’s a short primer on the layout of the AP Biology learning objectives.

 

What are Learning Objectives?

Embedded in the AP Biology Curriculum Framework are 149 student Learning Objectives.  The objectives are “action” statements indicating tasks students should be able to complete after completing an AP Biology course. Learning Objectives are created by merging the AP Biology Science Practices with the statements of Essential Knowledge.

AP Biology Learning Objective Formula

How Are Learning Objectives Formatted?

Learning objectives are coded to correspond to one of the 4 Big Ideas in the AP Biology curriculum framework.  Let’s take a look at the meaning of the codes from learning objective (LO) 1.8 in the diagram below.

 

Learning objectives connect the science practices with the statements of essential knowledge.  At the beginning of each LO is a performance statement that details how the student will demonstrate an understanding of the corresponding essential knowledge. Exam questions are written using the language of the learning objectives. In the brackets you will find codes for the specific science practices and essential knowledge statements that connect to the learning objective.

Learn More

Learning objectives connect the science practices with the statements of essential knowledge. At the beginning of each LO is a performance statement that details how the student will demonstrate an understanding of the corresponding essential knowledge. Exam questions are written using the language of the learning objectives. In the brackets you will find codes for the specific science practices and essential knowledge statements that connect to the learning objective.

The Learning Objective Code tells us which of the four Big Ideas this learning objective is associated with.  In this case 1.8 means that this is the eighth learning objective of Big Idea 1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.

The Essential Knowledge Code tells us which essential knowledge and enduring understanding this learning objective is connected to.  The code EK 1.A.3 ties this learning objective to Essential knowledge 1.A.3: Evolutionary change is also driven by random processes.  We can also see that this essential knowledge is rooted in Enduring understanding 1.A: Change in the genetic makeup of a population over time is evolution.

The Science Practice Code indicates which science practice is being utilized in order for the student to demonstrate an understanding of the essential knowledge.  The code SP 6.4 refers to Science Practice 6.4: The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.

The following two tabs change content below.

Jeremy Conn

Science Teacher and Founder of Clear Biology at Clear Biology
I hold a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and have been teaching science in public schools since 2004. I have a love for biology and instructional design. My mission is to share with other educators the best of what I know about teaching.

Latest posts by Jeremy Conn (see all)

9 Comments

  1. What do you recommend students put on the back of their objective cards?

    Reply
    • Unfortunately I think the cards are a little small to write anything useful on the back. Instead of having students write on the cards, maybe you could have them review a completed lab or other activity and see if they can determine which learning objectives where addressed. Or maybe you could assign them a few learning objectives and then ask them to bring back evidence to demonstrate their mastery of the objective.

      Reply
  2. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this. I would never be able to get this done, IF i had ever realized it would be a great thing to do.

    Reply
  3. Could you give an example of how you teach your students to approach reviewing for a specific Learning Objective?

    Reply
    • Hey,
      The Learning Objectives are all about demonstrating an understanding of science content. In my opinion, the content part is typically straightforward (e.g., “nervous systems transmit information”). The science practices are the part that can be challenging to decipher. Consider the following two Learning Objectives.

      1. LO 3.45 The student is able to describe how nervous systems transmit information.”
      2. LO 3.49 The student is able to create a visual representation to describe how nervous systems transmit information.”

      On some levels the first LO seems easiest to understand. Students will likely have past experience describing things. On the other hand, the word “describe” does not really provide any real parameters. The second LO is more defined, but students may have uncertainty as to the meaning of “visual representation.” Unfortunately, the AP Biology CED does not include a glossary. However, the College Board created a document several years ago that includes a glossary that provides definitions for some of the terms used throughout the AP Science Practices. The The College Board Standards for College Success was released in 2009 and really seems to be the precursor to the new AP Science Curriculum Frameworks.

      Another resource for supplementing an understanding of the Learning Objectives can be found within the CED itself. In the very back of the AP Biology Course and Exam Description, you will find a section called Preparing students for Success in AP Biology. This section provides additional elaboration as to the way students will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of content knowledge for each of the 4 Big Ideas of the AP Biology Curriculum Framework.

      Reply
  4. Thank you so much for all your hard work! It is so helpful!

    Reply
  5. Thank you for sharing this. I will be using this information this year to improve student’s success in AP bio!

    Reply
    • Hi Lori, Thanks for the feedback. Hope you have a great year.

      Reply

Please Leave a Comment