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06 April 2009

Revealing test question topics

My AP class is ready to take the 2008 -- that is, last year's -- actual free response exam. We've been in real review mode for less than a week. That means that I've covered every possible topic on the exam, but the students are by no means confident yet. Everyone seems a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material they need to know. That's okay, for now. In a month, after lots of targeted practice, they'll be fine.

Normally, when my students ask me what's on a test, I say "everything." Physics is a cumulative subject -- principles from earlier in the year, like force and energy, show up in every subtopic as overriding themes. But philosophically, I don't think I can say I've taught anyone physics if I give them license to forget anything that we covered more than a month ago.

A funny story that came out of my cumulative testing: one year a very bright student just wouldn't let this subject die. Chat kept asking me, "what exactly do we have to know?" He was concerned because a quiz had required the class to know that the period of the earth's rotation was 24 hours, a fact that -- gasp! -- I had not covered in class. "Do we have to know random stuff like that for the test?" He asked. I said yes. "How obscure is the information we have to know? You wouldn't ask us about, say, the gross national product of Tanzania, right?" I basically ignored that question. On the next day's quiz, everyone else got a set of straightforward multiple choice questions, while Chat's paper said, simply, "What is the gross national product of Tanzania?" He laughed with me, but I would have given him full credit had he answered the question correctly.)

A few years ago I took an idea from my history department colleagues. They occasionally distribute a list of possible essay questions before a test, and then use one of the possible questions verbatim on the actual test. The idea is, students will too often throw up their hands in despair if they are faced with studying for a broad spectrum test. But, if they have something concrete to prepare, they do much more work ahead of time, and that preparation is productive.

Now, I'm not going to give my test problems out ahead of time -- that would defeat the purpose of testing. Instead, in general physics I began announcing the general topic of each question. Even if all 7 questions covered every possible topic, the class felt better knowing exactly which question would cover which topic. They prepared in an organized manner. They entered the test with confidence, and performed well.

I state the topic of each question for every general physics test beginning with the first trimester exam. Of course, I have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of revealing too much. I do not not NOT want to be that teacher who says stuff like "I'd really suggest studying the coefficient of friction when a 20 kg sled comes to rest over a distance of 50 meters, hint hint hint. That might show up on the test." The test must be a fair evaluation of what the class knows and doesn't know. I don't believe I'm giving away anything by stating, for example, that they'll see a collision problem -- they should have been able to guess that themselves!

I've never given out the topics of AP problems, reasoning that the class doesn't get such a benefit on the May exam. But, for the first time this week, I tried announcing topics. The picture at the top of the post shows my whiteboard from this morning, when I foreshadowed the 2008 AP Physics B free response. I could feel some of the students' tension evaporating while I wrote -- "Ah, so I don't have to study circuits, they won't be there. Thank goodness." I was careful to point out that they will, in fact, be expected to understand topics that aren't covered this time; but we'll work on those things later. For now, my class is spending the evening watching basketball and reviewing just these seven topics. We'll see how they do tomorrow.


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