Quality in Undergraduate Education Georgia State University
A Projet by the Education Trust & the National  Association of System Heads (NASH) in Association with Georgia State University

Disciplinary Standards

Standards for Biology major - level 14

Draft version developed by Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College, August 2002

          Barbara R. Baumstark, Georgia State University

           Therese M. Poole, Georgia State University

           Virginia Michelich, Georgia Perimeter College

           Sheryl Shanholtzer, Georgia Perimeter College

         In recent years, the field of biology has entered a state of unprecedented growth and opportunity.  The development of new technology has enabled biologists to ask fundamental questions that appeared insoluble a few years ago. Because of the rapid accumulation of new information, the knowledge base available to the student of biology is constantly changing.   Those seeking to develop standards for the biological sciences must build a set of criteria that encompasses the theoretical framework and scientific information essential to the modern biologist, while at the same time maintaining the flexibility to accommodate and evaluate new hypotheses as they arise.

         The successful identification of learning outcomes that apply to all students in the biological sciences will ensure that these students possess the knowledge and the skills necessary to maintain a high level of scientific literacy throughout their lives.   The following three steps are each essential for this to occur.

            1. Definition of Standards

a.  Scientific process - at what level should students be familiar with the hypotheses, experimental techniques and data analysis that have formed the foundation supporting currently accepted scientific principles?

b.  Content -what information base are students expected to accumulate during the course of their education?

c.  Application - what skills do students need to develop in order to use and extend their accumulated information base throughout their lives?

                2.  Implementation strategies

 a.  How are the standards being addressed through the current curriculum?

 b.  What new courses or initiatives are needed to meet the standards?

                3.  Assessment procedures

 a.  What tools are used to evaluate the success of implementation strategies?

 b.  How will the results of the evaluation process be interpreted?

1.  Definition of Standards.  The goal of any set of standards should be to ensure that students possess a defined core of information coupled with the skills to use that information as well as the expertise to evaluate its validity.  Students will be equipped with the ability to use and extend their scientific knowledge base throughout their lives if that knowledge base is presented in a context that stresses:

            1.  Scientific inquiry, reasoning and communication

            2.  History of biology and its past and present impact on society

            3.  Information content in biology

            Like the organisms that are the subjects of biological study, disciplines in biology can be viewed as continuously evolving entities that rely on the mutual interaction of many different components.  At the root of every scientific discipline, including biology, is an acknowledgement of the importance of scientific inquiry.  Scientific inquiry forms the support structure responsible for the development of each discipline.  The information obtained from scientific inquiry, the generation of new principles to explain this information, and the communication of the results to others strengthens the entire scientific process, thereby fueling further inquiry.

          The ability to convey the true nature of scientific inquiry is greatly enhanced by an understanding of the historical and social contexts that provide the settings for scientific discovery.  A thorough background in the history and nature of science, and the ways that science and technology impact human society, provides students with the necessary perspective to critically evaluate the scientific basis for debates involving developments in the biological sciences.  In order to appreciate the quantitative aspects of biology, it is essential that the curriculum apply the principles of mathematics, chemistry and physics to the theoretical foundations of biological processes.  This integration of biology with other related disciplines is a crucial element for the mastery of biology.

          Students should be informed of the personal and societal impact of developments in biology.  The developments interface with many aspects of human life, such as cloning and the potential for genetic testing and gene therapy, human health and emerging infectious diseases, and environmental concerns.

          Mastery of scientific concepts requires a minimal facility with basic scientific vocabulary.  Students who cannot define a “ribosome’” for instance, will be unable to comprehend the process of protein synthesis.  Therefore, it is essential that students exhibit a familiarity with currently accepted hypotheses, observations, and other material that make up the information content in biology.   However, just as the commitment of vocabulary lists to memory does not provide one with mastery of a foreign language, so memorization of terminology outside an appropriate scientific context will not endow students with a lasting proficiency in the biological sciences.  To obtain fluency in biology, students must continuously reinforce their skills by applying their newly achieved knowledge to the understanding of hypotheses and the interpretation of experimental observations.   They must also be given the opportunity for hands-on participation in the research process.  This will give them an appreciation for the events that lead to the accumulation of scientific knowledge.  Furthermore, it will provide them with the ability to evaluate the strengths and limitations of scientific evidence that is used to support new hypotheses that may be proposed in the future.

 2.  Implementation.  Two elements are vital to the successful implementation of undergraduate standards.

1.  Expectations for level 13-16 must build on the foundations established in K-12.

2.  Facility in biology must be accompanied by an understanding of processes traditionally assigned to other disciplines, including mathematics, chemistry and physics. 

 3.  Assessment.  In its simplest form, assessment involves an evaluation of instructional outcomes; that is, it determines the degree to which the standards have been met.  Deficiencies in reaching the goals set by the standards committee promote a reevaluation of many aspects of the standards process, raising the following questions.

  1. Are the strategies used for implementating the standards providing students with adequate opportunities to gain a thorough understanding of biology?
  2. Are the standards themselves realistic?
  3. Are the assessment tools providing an accurate measurement of the students' knowledge?


            The information content in the biological sciences has traditionally covered such a broad range of topics that it has been difficult to identify with precision those “facts” that every biology student should know.  As a consequence, two students who have obtained a comprehensive education in the biological sciences might exhibit distinctly different levels of familiarity with specific details about a given organism.  However, information recently obtained through the application of new technological innovations (including molecular and cellular cloning techniques, high resolution microscopy, and automated DNA sequence analysis) is making it clear that biological systems are better defined by their similarities than by their differences.  The scientific study of virtually any living organism can be addressed from one or more of the following perspectives.  The information gained from one perspective does not stand alone, but overlaps with and modulates the knowledge base of each other perspective.

  • Evolution and diversity
  • Reproduction and heredity
  • Molecular processes
  • Cell structure and function
  • Organismal form and function
  • Interdependence of organisms and their environment
  • Differentiation and development

         In Standard 3, a short description of each perspective is given along with the knowledge base expected of all students who major in biology.  Typically, an undergraduate biology student would be expected to accumulate this information in the first or second year of study (by year 14).  With this knowledge as a foundation, the student would then be able to focus on specific areas of interest, applying the basic concepts learned in his or her general studies to address questions in more specialized biological subdisciplines (e.g., microbial pathogenesis, toxicology, immunology, benthic ecology).  The material outlined in Standard 3 is not static: its content would be expected  “evolve” in response to new scientific discoveries, so that certain topics may diminish in importance or vanish altogether, while others take on a new significance for those wishing to become literate in modern biology.  

 STANDARD 1: Scientific Inquiry, Reasoning and Communication

Standards:  Students will be able to:

  • Read scientific literature for content
  • Critique and analyze claims of others in a scientific context
  • Ask scientific questions of their world
  • Construct reasonable hypotheses
  • Design and conduct investigations about a variety of biological problems
  • Perform laboratory skills and procedures
  • Formulate and defend alternative explanations and models on the basis of evidence
  • Communicate effectively in oral and written forms demonstrating an awareness of different learning styles
  • Use basic equipment in laboratory courses and demonstrate awareness of specific technology that is used to carry out biological investigations
  • Understand basic principles behind major biotechnology
  • Use computers for data analysis, literature searches and retrieval of data from reliable databases

STANDARD 2: History of Biology and its Past and Present Impact on Society

Standards: Students will be able to:

  • Analyze how progress in biology depends heavily on the political, social, economic, and cultural influences occurring within a society at any given time
  • Discuss historical changes in biological theories over time
  • Recognize the integration of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geology into the study of biology
  • Understand the impact of science and technology on the global society
  • Discuss and identify ethical issues that new technology raises
  • Demonstrate the application of biological concepts to: Personal issues; Society; Economics; Technology; Ethical issues

STANDARD 3: Information Content in Biology

 Standards:  Students will be able to:

  •  Demonstrate knowledge of general principles and applications of biology (detailed below)
  • Exhibit a functional understanding of biological forms, processes and relationships



    Evolution describes a process in which selection acts upon random changes to allow certain individuals to leave more offspring.  When more of one progeny type is produced, this type will tend to dominate in future generations.  Evolution results in diversity because different environments will have different selection pressures and thus individuals with different traits will be allowed to leave offspring in different environments.  Evolution and diversity can apply to organisms, cells, viruses or molecules. 



          •           Darwinian concepts

                                   Modern theory-macroevolution, microevolution, prebiotic

                                   Natural selection


          •           Speciation and diversity

                                   Systems of Classification

                                   Organism classification (plant, animal, prokaryotes, monera)


          • Evolutionary tree(s) and Timeline

                                               The Age of Microbes

                                   Geological gradualism

                                   Structural and reproductive adaptations

          •           Population Genetics as a Tool to study all of the above





   Reproduction involves replication, recombination and partitioning of genetic material in all organisms. In higher organisms, mitosis and meiosis are essential for cellular and sexual reproduction, respectively, and have predictable genetic consequences.

     Heredity involves the passage of traits from parents to progeny.  The processes of inheritance and replication occur at the organismal, cellular and molecular level.



          •           Classical Genetics

                                   Mendelian genetics

                                   Other patterns of inheritance - epistasis, linkage, polygenics

                                   Pedigree analysis

          •           Chromosome Partitioning

                                   Cell cycle - stages and regulation

                                   Mitosis - apparatus and process

                                   Meiosis - apparatus and process

                                   Synapsis, crossing over

                                   Prokaryotic binary fission

                                   Sexual life cycle

                                   Chromosome structure

                                   Genome structure

          •           Information Flow

                                   Molecular basis of inheritance

                                   DNA - structure, function, replication, types and effects of mutation

                                   RNA - structure and transcription and modifications from DNA

                                   Translation of RNA message into protein - genetic code

          •           Genetics of Viruses







       Molecular processes, including molecular interactions and the synthesis of macromolecules, are governed by basic chemical and physical laws.   Chemical and physical interactions, particularly covalent and non-covalent bonding patterns, have a significant effect on macromolecular structure and function.  The application of thermodynamic principles to biochemical reactions can be used to characterize the processes that drive these reactions and predict the likelihood that they will be energetically feasible under cellular conditions.  Enzyme kinetics can help to understand rates of reactions in cells.



          •           Atomic structure - properties, structures, carbon compounds

          •           Chemical interactions

                                   covalent (polar/nonpolar)




          •           Energy


                                   storage in ATP


                                   enzymes and activation energy

          •           Relationships between chemical reactions and energy

                                   glycolysis, fermentation

                                   TCA cycle and respiration

                                   Electron transport


          •           Regulation of cellular reactions - feedback






     In both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, there is a clear relationship between cell structure and function.  Single-celled organisms are capable of independent self-replication.  Multicellular organisms are generally  composed of collections of cells with specialized functions.   The organelles present in eukaryotic cells play well-defined structural, metabolic and protective roles.




          •           Organelle structure and function - from the nucleus on “out”


                                   Membrane components - nucleus, ER, golgi, lysosomes, peroxisomes







                                   Movement of substances in cells

          •           Prokaryotes vs. Eukaryotes


                                   Cell division

                                   Metabolic pathways

                                   Regulation of gene expression

          •           Exterior of cell

                                   Cell membrane

                                   Cell wall

                                   Extracellular matrix

                                   Transport into/out of cells

                                   Signal transduction

          •           Differentiation

                                   Sperm and egg structure


                                   Cleavage, gastrulation and formation of germ layers






      Basic anatomical structures and physiological processes play distinct roles in determining overall organismal form and function.  Molecules and cells combine to form different tissues and organ systems, which interact with each other to enhance the efficiency and adaptability of the whole organism. 



          •           Unifying concepts

                                   Energy source

                                   Oxygen source/CO2 removal

                                   Water balance

                                   N2 waste removal

          •           Concerns of multicellular organisms


                                   Information transfer



          •           Animals

                                   Animal organ systems - form and function


                                   Interactions with environment

                                   Reproduction and development

          •           Plants

                                   Plant tissues (roots, shoots and leaves) - form and function

                                   Plant regulation

                                   Adaptations to environment

                                   Reproduction and development - cloning & alternation of             generations






     Organisms interact with each other and the environment in complex ways.  The interdependence of organisms and their environment can strongly influence the evolution and development of organisms and the composition of the populations to which these organisms belong.


          •           Organismal ecology

                                   Adaptations to ecosystem dynamics

                                   Abiotic factors, Law of Tolerance

                                   Organism responses to environmental variation

                                   Ecological niche

                                   Environmental cues and mating

          •           Population ecology

                                   Biotic potential and exponential growth

                                   Environmental resistance

                                   Density independent limits and boom-bust cycles

                                   Density dependent limits, logistics, population curves and carrying capacity

                                   Population demographics

                                   Survivor strategies

                                   Human population growth

                                   Competitive mating and social behaviors

                                   Inclusive fitness and altruistic behavior

          •           Community ecology

                                   Geographical distribution of terrestrial and aquatic biomes

                                   Selection processes

                                   Intra- and interspecific community interactions

                                   Symbiotic relationships

          •           Ecosystem ecology

                                   Ecological succession

                                   Ecological pyramids and trophic levels

                                   Biogeochemical cycles (matter recycling)

                                   Alterations of biodiversity secondary to human activities