Teaching Methods

Tackling the Long AP FRQ

Sometimes APP1 is literally the worst.

The folks on the writing committee for questions must get really excited about writing interesting questions for the long FRQs… the issue, however, is that students generally suck at them.

Average and standard deviations for the last 4 years of long FRQs (2020 omitted for obvious reasons)

Here’s the thing though: I know that in a non-testing environment, my students should be able to perform way better than these national numbers. However student responses in an exam setting tend to be long-winded, lacking a clearly defined direction and often taking too much time down useless avenues.

So how do we correct this?

Firstly, I believe it is more important to give students the confidence that they can tackle these problems than insisting they do tackle these on a unit exam. Mindset makes a major difference.

Also, given the suggested time of 25 minutes, it’s not fair or appropriate to put one of these on a unit exam because it means the students grade will mostly be based on the question type, rather than their actual mastery.

To build student skills and prepare for the exam I set a few days aside during the year to specifically practice the long FRQs. Sometimes it’s the lab question, sometimes it’s the quantitative reasoning problem, but I try to do it at least once per unit.

Here’s the cycle:

Round 1: Skim and annotate on your own (5 minutes) I want students to have the feeling of sitting down for this question cold, with only their brain available to them. However, I also want to build their testing strategies and problem solving skills. For English we teach students to skim the passage and annotate the text by making a note of big ideas for each paragraph (I’ve worked as an ACT tutor). Why shouldn’t we do the exact same thing for these items in physics?! In fact, sometimes there are some easy points nestled in at the end… or… we can find the meat of the problem doesn’t show up until part c or d. Students often sit at the problem and begin at the begining and work until the end. While this is ok for homework, on a high stakes exam they are possibly leaving minutes and points to waste.

Round 2: Friends No Pens (10 minutes) you may have seen me talk about this strategy before a test. Many folks comment about how this reduces anxiety. I see friends no pens serving two extremely valuable purposes. First, it helps students organize their thoughts by saying them aloud. Second, it forces students to clearly and accurately communicate with their peers. By doing this, they will write more succinctly when it comes time to do the work.

Round 3: Individual Work (10-15 minutes). I explain to students they’ve already had 15 minutes to “work” the problem, so they should only need 10 more to finish. I ask them to complete as much as they can in the time.

Round 4: Discuss in a group: Sometimes I omit this phase and give them the scoring guides immediately. Other times I let them discuss their solutions in a group. When I do this, I mix up the groups from the students they talked with during friends no pens. Students are asked to make corrections as needed

Round 5: Self-score: Lastly I give students the AP scoring guidelines. This is a really important piece because they should see exactly how they are evaluated. A student noticed today “Ms R… there’s no point for the answer” NOPE! It’s all about the work. Other students noticed how stating momentum is conserved is worth points. At this time in the year we’ve pretty much covered all of the physics and now I want to work to maximize the points they can earn on the exam so their score reflects what they are actually capable of.

Sometimes (especially the first one we do) we debrief afterwards about the activity. Sometimes I have them turn these in for quiz points. Sometimes I let them keep the assignment. Sometimes I skip friends no pens. I will have them annotate, then solve the problem then discuss. I ask them to give themselves a “my score” grade and a “with friends” grade so they can see the difference between the two. Much of our conversation is focused on identifying big ideas and writing in a conscience manner.

How do you tackle preparing students for these items on the AP exam?


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