Life Science—Biology Concept and Skill Progressions

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Life Science—Biology*

Concept and Skill Progressions

Sequenced concepts and skills to support student learning of science and technology/engineering from PreK to high school, informed by pre-conception, conceptual change, and learning progression research

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

November 15, 2010

* Please note there are corresponding documents available for:

Earth and Space Science

Physical Science—Chemistry/Introductory Physics

The concept and skill progressions are meant to inform and support curriculum and instruction, but are not meant to replace the current Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) standards. Curricular and instructional goals should continue to be aligned with current STE standards; the state’s STE MCAS tests will also continue to reference current STE standards.

Table of Contents

Section Page
Introduction to the Concept and Skill Progressions 2
Visual organization of the Concept and Skill Progressions (Figure 1) 4
Life Science—Biology Concept and Skill Progressions**
Anatomy & Physiology 5
Cell Biology & Biochemistry 14
Genetics 24
Evolution & Biodiversity 32
Ecology 38


Barbara C. Buckley, WestEd, California

Dr. Ravit Duncan, Rutgers University, New Jersey

Dr. Erin Marie Furtak, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado

Dr. Rebecca Jordan, Rutgers University, New Jersey

Dr. Joel Michael, Rush Medical College, Illinois

David Mellor, Rutgers University, New Jersey

Dr. Harold Model, Bastyr University, Washington

Dr. Aaron Rogat, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York

Dr. Leona Schauble, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee

Dr. Ann Wright, Canisius College, New York

** There is not a concept and skill progression for every topic typically found in state Life Science—Biology standards; authors were only available for the five topics included. **

Introduction to the Concept and Skill Progressions
This document presents concept and skill progressions for 5 common Life Science—Biology topics. These concept and skill progressions articulate idealized sequences of concepts and skills that can effectively support student learning of core scientific ideas from PreK to high school. These summaries draw from a variety of research genres, including pre-conception, conceptual change, and learning progression research on science education. These summaries are written and reviewed by educational researchers who study student learning of each science and technology/engineering (STE) topic. They are set up to reflect a learning progression approach to student understanding of core STE ideas. These are research-based resources that can inform work in curriculum development, instruction, and assessment. These are also have been referenced, in conjunction with the many other available STE resources, by the Massachusetts STE Review Panel in the revision of Massachusetts STE student learning standards.
Learning progression research is beginning to provide a framework for understanding student preconceptions, obstacles to learning, and transitional ideas about the world as they learn science. A learning progression makes explicit the successively more complex ways of thinking about STE concepts and skills that students develop over time (Smith, Wiser, Anderson, & Krajcik, 2006). While learning progressions are research-based, they are hypothetical; they propose how to bridge the intuitive ideas children have developed about core ideas before formal instruction with the scientific version of that idea if students are exposed to appropriate curricula (Corcoran et al, 2009). Additionally, ideas in learning progressions are not always scientifically accurate. For example, the idea that any piece of matter, however small, has weight is not completely scientifically accurate as it only applies to matter in a gravitational field. It belongs in the learning progression, however, because it makes the idea that atoms are the key components of matter easier to accept (students often believe that weight is not a property of matter, and if a piece of material gets very small it has no weight). Considering student cognition from a learning progression basis allows us to take students’ initial ideas into account, to characterize productive transitional ideas, and to design curricula that move students' network of ideas toward scientific understanding in a purposeful way.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked educational researchers to draw from the research literature on students’ pre-conceptions, conceptual change, and, where available, learning progressions to provide up-to-date summaries of how to sequence student thinking and learning of common STE topics. The research base to complete this task is certainly not complete, so for the grade ranges, domains, and/or concepts for which learning progression research is not available, each author used available pre-conception and conceptual change research to provide informed estimates of what a progression of learning is likely to look like. So while the authors have made informed recommendations about when certain concepts and skills should be introduced, these do not limit what or when students can learn those concepts and skills. These are idealized articulations of how we would want students to progress. The concept and skill progressions do, however, help to convey how to move young children’s initial conceptualizations to scientific theory over time.
Each concept and skill progression includes both a “narrative storyline” as well as a “concept and skill details” section that are intended to convey a story of how students’ conceptual growth can develop over time. Both sections tell the same story, just at different levels of detail. Each concept and skill progression is organized to reflect the nature of initial ideas in a topic (lower anchor); the 'stepping stones' that can serve as intermediary targets between initial ideas and scientific theory; and specify the scientific core ideas, concepts and skills in that domain students should achieve as the result of their education (upper anchor). It is important to note that each grade-span cell in the details section should be read in its entirety; the individual concepts and skills should be viewed as a set rather than individually. See Figure 1 on page 4 for more details on the organization of the summaries. Providing a common template across topics allows curriculum developers, educators, and others to make sense of particular core ideas, concepts and skills in relation to each other across grade levels and topics. It is important to be clear that the individual elements in the concept and skill progressions are not standards; taken together they describe what students can know and do over time as they come to learn core scientific ideas.
These concept and skill progressions can be used in conjunction with the 2001/2006 STE strand maps (; modeled on the AAAS Atlases of Science Literacy) to visualize student learning over time. Productively building upon relationships between ideas that span multiple grade levels will require greater communication and coordination than is currently typical. Teaching that honors progressions of learning will also require educators to clearly understand where their students currently are relative to desired outcomes. This can be accomplished with pre-assessment strategies—including strategies that move beyond simple identification of misconceptions—as well as greater differentiation of lessons to meet the needs of particular students. Being able to access a variety of instructional and learning resources, such as through the National Science Digital Library (NSDL;, will help educators implement these strategies. Coordinated use of strand maps will help educators approach teaching and learning from a perspective where ideas are consistently related to each other over extended periods of time. Such an approach can effectively account for student conceptions and more effectively promote achievement of science and technology/engineering standards.
Please note: Topics included in this document were selected based on both available research and the availability of an author to write the summary. In some cases research is available but an author was not, or some common concepts within a topic were omitted due to lack of a research base; these are not exhaustive summaries. These concept and skills progressions will likely be updated in the future as additional research and information is available. Please direct any comments, feedback, resources or research that may inform edits or additions to these concept and skill progressions to

Corcoran, T., Mosher, F., Rogat, A. (2009). Learning Progression in Science: An evidence-based approach to reform. Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Smith, C.L., Wiser, M., Anderson, C.W., Krajcik, J. (2006). Implications of research on children’s learning for standards and assessment: A proposed learning progression for matter and the atomic molecular theory. Focus Article. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research and Perspectives, 14, 1-98.

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