What's in an AP Biology Syllabus? Guide and Examples


A great syllabus is the backbone of any AP course, but it can be challenging to create one that fits all the requirements and is easy for students to follow. In this article, I'll give you the ingredients you need for a solid AP Biology syllabus, including all the concepts and curricular requirements of the course.

I'll also provide a sample syllabus so you can get an idea of what a syllabus for this class might look like (if you're a student) or how you might structure your version of AP Biology (if you're a teacher). Finally, the end of this article is devoted to a few quick tips for teachers and students on how to successfully teach and learn the material.


What Does the AP Biology Course Cover?

The curriculum framework of AP Biology was revamped in 2012 and is now organized around four Big Ideas, which are overarching themes that connect the concepts you’ll learn in the course. 

Within each Big Idea are several “Enduring Understandings” that students are expected to develop by taking the course.These are slightly narrower themes that can be broken down even further into smaller parts that are aligned with specific facts about biological functions.

I’ll list the Big Ideas and their corresponding Enduring Understandings in this article, along with the labs that fall under each category. I won’t go into the smaller concepts within the Enduring Understandings so that this guide doesn’t get too long to digest. If you’re interested in a detailed rundown of the more minute concepts involved in AP Biology, check out this page.

As students explore the Big Ideas, they are also expected to learn several key scientific practices, and the classwork must cover certain curricular requirements. After I go through the Big Ideas, I’ll list the scientific practices students should develop and the curricular requirements that any AP Biology syllabus is expected to fulfill.


body_bigideagiraffes.jpgThink of each Big Idea as a giraffe. Why? Because it's fun. Live a little. (Yes, I know there are only three giraffes - Big Idea 4 is camera shy.) 


The Four Big Ideas of AP Biology 


Big Idea #1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.

  • Enduring Understanding 1.1: Change in the genetic makeup of a population over time is evolution.
  • EU 1.2: Organisms are linked by lines of descent from common ancestry.
  • EU 1.3: Life continues to evolve within a changing environment.
  • EU 1.4: The origin of living systems is explained by natural processes.

Labs for Big Idea 1:


Big Idea #2: Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.

  • EU 2.1: Growth, reproduction and maintenance of living systems require free energy and matter.
  • EU 2.2: Growth, reproduction and dynamic homeostasis require that cells maintain internal environments that are different from their external environments.
  • EU 2.3: Organisms use feedback mechanisms to regulate growth and reproduction, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.
  • EU 2.4: Growth and dynamic homeostasis of a biological system are influenced by changes in the system’s environment.
  • EU 2.5: Many biological processes involved in growth, reproduction and dynamic homeostasis include temporal regulation and coordination.

Labs for Big Idea 2:


Big Idea #3: Living systems store, receive, transmit and respond to information essential to life processes

  • EU 3.1: Heritable information provides for the continuity of life.
  • EU 3.2: Expression of genetic information involves cellular and molecular mechanisms.
  • EU 3.3: The processing of genetic information is imperfect and is a source of genetic variation.
  • EU 3.4: Cells communicate by generating, transmitting and receiving chemical signals.
  • EU 3.5: Transmission of information results in changes within and between biological systems.

Labs for Big Idea 3:


Big Idea #4: Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties

  • EU 4.1: Interactions within biological systems lead to complex properties.
  • EU 4.2: Competition and cooperation are important aspects of biological systems.
  • EU 4.3: Naturally occurring diversity among and between components within biological systems affects interactions with the environment.

Labs for Big Idea 4:


Cooperation is always happening in biological systems! This is an approximation of what the inside of a cell looks like at any given time.


The Seven Scientific Practices of AP Biology 

#1: The student can use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems.

#2:  The student can use mathematics appropriately.

#3: The student can engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations within the context of the AP course.

#4: The student can plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question. (Note: Data can be collected from many different sources, e.g., investigations, scientific observations, the findings of others, historic reconstruction and/or archived data.)

#5: The student can perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence.

#6: The student can work with scientific explanations and theories.

#7: The student is able to connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts and representations in and across domains.


The Curricular Requirements of AP Biology 

Here's a list of the requirements that an AP Biology course must fulfill to be considered an appropriate and thorough survey of the material:

  • The course must use a college-level biology textbook published within the last ten years.
  • Students must connect the Enduring Understandings of each Big Idea to at least one other Big Idea (for example, connect the evolutionary concepts in Big Idea 1 to the idea presented under Big Idea 3 that genetic information is sometimes processed imperfectly, and this leads to variation).
  • Students should be assigned projects and activities outside of labs to meet the learning objectives for each Big Idea (for example, students might do an activity where they create a model of the cell cycle and give an oral presentation on its most important aspects).
  • The course must give students the opportunity to connect biological knowledge to major social issues and current events (for example, a project researching stem cells and their potential to impact the medical field).
  • Labs must give students the opportunity to apply the seven science practices I listed earlier, and the course has to go through at least two labs that correspond with each Big Idea.
  • Labs must make up at least 25% of class time.
  • Students should be asked to demonstrate verbal, written, and visual communication skills with lab reports, summaries of scientific literature or evidence, and oral presentations.


body_projector.jpgI was going to make a joke about teachers wasting class time by trying to get the projector to work for presentations, but then I realized that I don't even know if they use projectors anymore. I'm sure there's some other essential piece of classroom technology that never works by now.


What Does an AP Biology Syllabus Look Like?

The College Board has released some sample syllabi to help guide teachers in their instruction of the new format of the AP Biology course. The example that I’m looking at divides the class into nine different units of varying length. 

The resources for the course include:

  • Reece, Jane, et al., Campbell Biology, 9th Edition, 2011, Pearson Benjamin Cummings
  • www.campbellbiology.com  (The main text’s accompanying website that provides animations, investigations, PowerPoint and other audio-visual resources)
  • Giffen, Cynthia and Heitz, Jean. Practicing Biology (to accompany Campbell- Reece Biology), 3rd Edition, 2008, Pearson Benjamin Cummings
  • AP Biology Investigative Labs: an Inquiry Based Approach

I’ll give an overview of the topics discussed in each unit and the projects and labs students might complete throughout the year. I’ll also provide the approximate length of each unit. In this case, the class met four times a week for two 80-minute periods and two 50-minute periods (4 hours and 20 minutes a week total).


Sample AP Biology Syllabus

Unit 1: First Week and Introduction (4 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

  1. Introduction: Themes in the Study of Life
  2. The Chemical Context of Life
  3. Water and the Fitness of the Environment

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • Darwin and the theory of natural selection
  • Inquiry as a way to learn science
  • Structure of atoms
  • Emergent properties of water
  • Make construction paper models of atoms and molecules to illustrate chemical concepts.
  • Conduct an open inquiry on a biological topic of choice; formulate a question, design an experiment, and present the findings.


Unit 2: Biochemistry and Introduction to the Cell (11 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

4. Carbon and the Molecular Diversity of Life
5. The Structure and Function of Large Biological Molecules
6. A Tour of the Cell
7. Membrane Structure and Function

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • The impact of carbon as the “backbone of life”
  • How monomers build polymers, including the roles of nucleic acids
  • Examples of organelles that are membrane bound to compartmentalize their functions
  • Membrane structure and function
Projects and Labs:


Unit 3: Cellular Energy and Related Processes (14 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

8. An Introduction to Metabolism
9. Cellular Respiration
10. Photosynthesis

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • Metabolic pathways
  • Laws of energy transformation
  • How ATP powers cellular work
  • Enzyme structure and function
  • Harvesting chemical energy: glycolysis, citric acid cycle, oxidative phosphorylation
  • Light reactions and the Calvin cycle
  • Evolution of alternative mechanism of carbon fixation
Projects and Labs:


Unit 4: Cell Communication and the Cell Structure (9 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

11. Cell Communication
12. The Cell Cycle

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • Evolution of cell signaling
  • Reception, transduction, response
  • Apoptosis
  • How mitosis produces genetically identical daughter cells
  • Evolution of mitosis
  • How the eukaryotic cell cycle is regulated by a molecular control system
  • Origin of cell communication

Projects and Labs:



Unit 5: Genetic Basis of Life (7 classes)

Textbook Chapters

13. Meiosis and Sexual Life Cycles
14. Mendel and the Gene Idea
15. The Chromosomal Basis of Inheritance

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • Genes are passed from parents to offspring by the inheritance of chromosomes
  • How meiosis reduces the number of chromosomes (diploid to haploid)
  • Evolutionary significance of genetic variation that results from sexual life cycles
  • Concepts of Mendelian genetics (laws of probability, inheritance patterns)
  • Genes are located along chromosomes (concepts of gene linkage, mapping distance between genes, causes of genetic disorders)

Projects and Labs


Unit 6: Gene Activity and Biotechnology (13 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

16. The Molecular Basis of Inheritance
17. From Gene to Protein
18. Regulation of Gene Expression
19. Viruses 
20. Biotechnology 
21. Genomes and their Evolution

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • DNA is the genetic material (historical experiments, DNA structure and function, DNA replication)
  • Flow of genetic information (genetic code, role of other polymers, transcription, translation)
  • Mutations
  • Gene expression (operon systems in prokaryotes, eukaryotic gene expression)
  • Virus structure and activity
  • Restriction enzymes, plasmids, transformation
  • DNA technology (how gel electrophoresis works and applications of this technology)

Projects and Labs:


Unit 7: Evolution and Phylogeny (19 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

22. Descent with Modification: A Darwinian View of Life
23. The Evolution of Populations
24. The Origin of Species
25. The History of Life on Earth
26. Phylogeny and the Tree of Life
27. Bacteria and Archae

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • How natural selection serves as a mechanism for evolution
  • Scientific evidence supporting evolution
  • Hardy-Weinberg concept
  • How allele frequencies can be altered in a population
  • Concepts of speciation
  • Origin of life; fossil records
  • Events in the “history of life” (origin of single-celled and multicellular organisms; mass extinctions; adaptive radiations)

Projects and Labs


Unit 8: Diversity in the Biological World: Organism Form and Function (22 classes)

Textbook Chapters:

40. Basic Principles of Animal Form and Function
43. The Immune System
48. Neurons, Synapses, and Signaling
49. The Vertebrate Brain
(Chapters 28-49 will be utilized to provide students with resources for the enduring understandings in this unit)

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • Evolutionary trends (endosymbiosis, adaptations that allowed plants to move from water to land, reproductive adaptations of angiosperms, environmental roles of fungi, animal body plans, progressively complex derived characters in animal groups)
  • Unique features of the angiosperm life cycles
  • Signal transduction pathways (plant and animal hormones)
  • Photoperiodism in plants
  • Feedback control loops in animals
  • Thermoregulation in animals
  • Energy allocation and use in animals
  • Examples of functioning units in mammal systems (alveoli in lungs, villi of small intestines, nephrons in kidneys)
  • Structure and function in immune systems
  • Structure and function in nervous systems (neurons, resting potential, action potential, synapses)
  • Structure and function of the human brain

Projects and Labs:

  • Construct a cladogram for a group of organisms with certain traits
  • Jumpin’ the Gap (students pretend to be components of neural communication)
  • Research project on stem cells and whether they should be used to treat brain and spinal cord injuries


Unit 9: Ecology (17 classes)

Lecture and Discussion Topics:

  • Aspects of animal behavior
  • Aspects of biomes
  • Models describing population growth
  • Regulation of population growth
  • Community interactions
  • Species diversity and composition
  • Community biodiversity
  • Energy flow and chemical cycling in ecosystems
  • Primary productivity
  • Energy transfer between trophic levels
  • Human activities that threaten biodiversity

Projects and Labs

  • Fruit Fly Behavior Lab
  • Dissolved Oxygen and Primary Productivity Lab
  • Design a model of a biome
  • Improving species richness by adding phosphate to a pond - how would you determine how much to add to avoid eutrophication? Present your hypothesis.
  • Investigate how the fungus Pilobolus succeeds as a decomposer? Study adaptiveness of spore dispersal methods

body_fungi.jpgIn AP Bio, you'll get to hang out with some fun guys.


Teaching Tips

Writing a great syllabus is the first order of business, but as you probably know, most of teaching is in the execution. If you’re a teacher trying to provide the best experience for your AP Biology students, here are a few tips you might consider using in your lessons.


#1: Provide Brief Lecture Outlines

Give brief outlines to students before you start your lecture so that they’ll have a clearer picture of what you’re going to cover. I say brief outlines because you don’t want to give them notes that list everything they need to know about the lecture topic. List the main points of the lecture (around 3-5 of them), and list a couple of important subtopics under each. Provide plenty of space between concepts for students to write notes. They should have some incentive to pay attention in class. This will create a better environment where students aren't confused or tuned out.  


#2: Break Up Your Lectures With Class Discussions

I remember dreading double-period lecture classes in high school, and I was better than most high school students at sitting quietly and forgoing social interaction. You should try to engage the class in a discussion midway through your lecture to break up the monotony. I’d recommend calling on people randomly so that kids will have an incentive to pay attention and more introverted students will get a chance to participate in the discussion.


#3: Be Accessible During Labs

Chances are, kids will have tons of questions during labs. Sometimes the procedure is a little confusing or the results are different from what was expected. Make a point of walking around the room and checking in with each lab group to ensure that everyone stays on task and students have a chance to ask questions. This can also prevent students from doing the lab incorrectly and wasting time - you’ll catch mistakes early!  


#4: Model Your Tests After the Real AP Test

My AP Biology teacher gave us tests throughout the year whose questions were very similar to real AP test questions.  These tests were super challenging (I don’t think I ever got a solid A on any of them), but I was very well-prepared for the AP test. Nothing on the exam was more difficult than the questions I had encountered on in-class tests, so I felt pretty confident.  


body_caterpillar.jpgBobby, what did I tell you about eating the caterpillars!? We need those for the lab! Also, why are you even in AP Biology? 

Tips for Students

Here are a few additional tips directed towards students who want to do well in AP Biology. 


#1: Do the Readings on Time

There’s a lot to cover in this class, so it’s critical that you keep up with the readings in your textbook. If you fall behind, it will be hard to catch up. There also may be important things that your textbook covers that your teacher won’t mention in lectures. Plus, you’ll be able to participate in class discussions and avoid failing any pop quizzes!


#2: Take Notes During Lectures

Don’t zone out when your teacher is talking! I know it can be difficult, but taking effective notes is a great skill to have for college and beyond. Your notes will also help you study for in-class tests and, eventually, the AP test. It’s easier to study your own notes because they’ll be written in a way that you understand. 


#3: Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to speak up in class discussions and engage with the lecture topics. If you feel like you don’t understand a concept, ask your teacher about it. Believe me, it's better than finding yourself totally lost later! Also, if you have any doubts about lab procedures or how you should write your lab reports, consult with your teacher before going forward.


body_thiskid.jpg"This kid is all of us in AP Biology," is what I would say if I wrote for Buzzfeed.



AP Biology covers a huge amount of information, so writing a syllabus that organizes everything effectively is super important. The four main Big Ideas encompass many smaller themes, each of which covers a variety of complex concepts.

The College Board also requires classes to introduce students to seven scientific practices and fulfill a litany of other curricular requirements. Hopefully, the sample syllabus in this article gave you a good idea of what the structure of an AP Biology class should look like and how you might choose to cover all of the material. Guiding students through this intimidating maze of concepts can be pretty difficult!

To review, some teaching strategies I recommend are:

  • Providing brief lecture outlines
  • Breaking lectures into more manageable chunks
  • Being available for questions during labs
  • Using tests that mimic the structure and content of the AP test

For students, here are a few other pieces of advice that I would suggest following:

  • Keep up with the readings 
  • Take notes on lectures
  • Ask lots of questions


What's Next?

Looking for some good AP Biology review books? Check out my guide to the best books for this year's version of the test.

I've also written a complete study guide for the AP Biology test that goes through all the concepts and has links to free online resources that you can use to review.

Finally, this article goes through an analysis of whether AP Biology is more or less difficult in comparison to other AP classes and tests. It might be helpful if you're not sure about taking the course or just want some insight into how much you'll need to study for the test!



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About the Author
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Samantha Lindsay

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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