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Big Biology Books Fail to Convey Big Ideas

AAAS Project 2061


The results of an evaluation of ten biology textbooks showed that:

  • important biology principles were poorly presented or sometimes ignored
  • illustrations were often too abstract or complicated
  • classroom activities lacked guidance and clarity

June 2000


Some textbooks fail to make important biology ideas comprehensible and meaningful to students. Photo: Microsoft Images.

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

In today’s society, one cannot read a newspaper without recognizing the central importance of the discipline of biology to the life of every American. Sadly, it appears that our textbooks continue to be distorted by a commercial textbook market that requires that they cover the entire range of facts about biology, thereby sacrificing the opportunity to treat the central concepts in enough depth to give our students a chance to truly understand them.

Dr. Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences

Surprisingly, although the textbooks are filled with pages of vocabulary and unnecessary detail, they provide only fragmentary treatment of some fundamentally important concepts.

Dr. George Nelson, Director of AAAS Project 2061

Biology textbooks: evaluation results

Many biology texts fall short on content coverage and instructional design.
Not one of the ten evaluated biology textbooks received a high rating.

According to the latest study of Project 2061, the long-term science and math education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

  • today’s high-school biology textbooks fail to make important biology ideas comprehensible and meaningful to students
  • while the high-school textbooks scored slightly higher than the middle-grades science texts evaluated by the project last year, evidence from the current study points to serious shortcomings both in content coverage and instructional design

In this evaluation of ten widely used and newly developed biology textbooks, none was given high ratings [Editor’s note: See end of article for list of books evaluated in this study]. This is the latest in a series of Project 2061 evaluations of science and mathematics textbooks funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

24 criteria were used to evaluate the textbooks’ strengths and weaknesses.

Educators comment on the results

“The AAAS reviews highlight some significant flaws in the math and science textbooks available to our students,” said Andrea Bowden, chief of the Office for Science and Math Programs for Baltimore City Public Schools. “The evaluations produce a profile of each textbook’s strengths and weaknesses across two dozen criteria. Sometimes we have been able to select textbooks with mostly high ratings, and in other cases, we have used the evaluation profiles to make more informed decisions about how to supplement the available texts.”

Students are having difficulty learning; the information is not presented effectively for instruction.

“At their best, the textbooks are a collection of missed opportunities,” according to Dr. Jo Ellen Roseman, director of the study. “While most contain the relevant content on heredity and natural selection, for example, they don’t help students to learn it or help teachers to teach it. On topics such as cells and matter and energy transformations, information is presented piecemeal. In addition, the textbooks fail to convey the coherence among key ideas in biology or their connections to ideas in physical science, mathematics, and technology.”

Common textbook problems: important ideas are ignored, illustrations are not useful, activities are not clearly tied to concepts.
Some textbooks have strengths that should be expanded in future editions.

“There are some excellent teachers who compensate for the poor textbooks,” Dr. Roseman said. “But this takes time and resources, often more than they have.” She cited some examples of problems:

  • Research shows that essentially all students — even the best and the brightest — have predictable difficulties grasping many ideas that are covered in the textbooks. Yet the textbooks fail to take these obstacles into account in designing activities and questions.
  • For many biology concepts, the textbooks ignore or obscure the most important ideas by focusing instead on technical terms and trivial details (which are easy to test).
  • While most of the books are lavishly illustrated, these representations are rarely helpful, because they are too abstract, needlessly complicated, or inadequately explained.
  • Even though several activities are included in every chapter, students are given little guidance in interpreting the results in terms of the scientific concepts to be learned.

“Nevertheless, the evaluation did identify several materials with promising activities that could serve as starting points for future textbook development,” Dr. Roseman stated. “At least half of the textbooks have some elements that are worth looking at.”

What teachers can do

“The Project 2061 evaluation produces a great deal of detailed information that can help teachers to address the weaknesses of their textbooks,” Dr. Nelson emphasized. “This information can also help materials developers and publishers who are interested in thoughtfully revising their textbooks or developing new ones.” He urged educators to:

Conclusion: Teachers, organizations, and publishers need to develop more meaningful and student-friendly biology content.
  • Use some of the excellent trade books that have been published on science topics to enhance their own understanding and help them to compensate for the textbooks’ lack of content coherence. Project 2061’s evaluation reports, available on the project’s web site later this year, will include some recommended titles. [Editor’ note: This information is now available at]

  • Study the research on student learning cited in the evaluation reports to revise classroom activities and develop new ones.

  • Take advantage of professional development experiences that focus not only on increasing teachers’ knowledge of key biology ideas, but also on strategies for teaching those ideas more effectively.

  • Encourage the National Science Foundation to support a new round of curriculum development focused on creating a coherent picture of key ideas for specific biology topics, using a research-based development and testing process to ensure that the instructional strategies promote learning the key ideas.

Editor’s Note: The evaluation included the following biology textbooks (in alphabetical order):

Biology (Miller · Levine). Prentice Hall, 1998
Biology: A Community Context. South-Western Educational Publishing, 1998
Biology: Principles & Explorations. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998
Biology: The Dynamics of Life. Glencoe, McGraw-Hill, 2000
Biology: Visualizing Life. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998
BSCS Biology: A Human Approach. Kendall Hunt, 1997
BSCS Biology: An Ecological Approach. Kendall Hunt, 1998
Heath Biology. D.C. Heath and Company, 1991
Insights in Biology. Kendall Hunt, 1998
Modern Biology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1999

Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a long-term initiative to reform K-12 science education nationwide. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general science organization and publisher of the peer-reviewed journal Science. With more than 138,000 members and 275 affiliated societies, AAAS serves as an authoritative source for information on the latest developments in science and bridges gaps among scientists, policy-makers and the public to advance science and science education.

Big Biology Books Fail to Convey Big Ideas

Rating science curricula

For an evaluation of science content in curriculum standards across the United States, see Lawrence Lerner’s article on our site at:

AAAS Project 2061 biology textbook evaluations

Learn more about how AAAS’s evaluation was carried out and the results.

AAAS educational resources

Choose from a large menu of online resources.

Read a book online

Benchmarks for Science Literacy by the American Association for Advancement of Science Project 2061 (Oxford University Press, 1994). This second publication from AAAS Project 2061 specifies what all students should know or be able to do in science, math, and technology by the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12. You can order the print copy from AAAS for a fee or read the book online for free.

How do your high school’s biology textbooks rate?

Speak out if you’re not satisfied with the quality of the biology textbooks used in your community. The Textbook League, an independent educational book review organization, evaluates biology and other textbooks. Look up the textbooks you’re interested in at

Below are evaluations written by the Textbook League for the following biology textbooks:


Understanding Science