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19 May 2010

Final Exams in mixed 11th-12th grade courses, or in AP

Most high school courses end with a final exam.  The exam can be a wonderfully positive culminating experience, showing students how much they've learned over the past year.  In my athleticly-oriented mind, the final exam serves the same purpose as the state track meet -- it's what you've been aiming toward in all the year's preparation, and win or lose, it tells you where you stand.

Various situations and school policies can eliminate the effectiveness of the exam as "culminating experience." 

Most obviously, in an AP course, the AP exam itself is the culmination of the course.  If you are required to give your own final to an AP class, you're going to face a tough audience.

Some schools exempt students with an A average from exams; others exempt seniors but require juniors in the same class to take the exam.  Any time only part of a class is preparing for a high-stakes exam, a class management nightmare can ensue: the exempt elite, who don't want to be in class on a beautiful day in May or June, either directly or indirectly distract and frustrate the unexempt plebes who must buckle down to study.  What to do?

I certainly don't have all the answers.  All I can do is relay ideas I and others have spawned in order to deal with unusual exam situations.  Here we go:

* While it's tough for an AP teacher to give an exam, and it's tough to exempt just a few students, the combination of policies can work well in an AP course.  Imagine that students with an A average in AP are exempt from a school-administered final exam, but those below an A are not exempt.  Well, give an AP-style final, and tell students you'll bump their grade up a full letter if they perform on the final.  (That is, a student with a year-long B can have an A for the year if he gets a 5 on the exam.)  Since these are AP students and already more academically serious than most, a few might be inspired to show that they know their physics.  And since physics understanding tends to coalesce after seeing the same topics multiple times, it might be that many of the B students have truly improved their understanding to the A level. 

* When only a select few have to take the exam, make the exam as transparent as possible in order to focus and minimize study time.  My general-physics juniors have to take a final exam.  The exam matters to them, becuase their grade is still meaningful, and many can improve their overall course standing with a good performance.  Yet, I can't prepare them in class like I want to, because my seniors would tune out and become difficult.  So, we end the year building an AM radio -- fun for all.  But I still help the juniors prepare...

I construct the exam from modified AP questions.  My general class is used to this format.  In the second half of the year, I began advertising the topic of each problem before a test -- that helped focus their study.  For this final exam, though, I actually publish the stem itself of each question.  Meaning, I don't just say "problem one is about Newton's Laws" or even "problem one has a sled on a slope."  I paste the diagram, the description of the situation, and part (a) into a file that I give to the class. 

I look at this like a history teacher who advertises some possible essay questions before the exam.  Will I (or the history teacher) get a true, valid sense of the students' abilities to remember and synthesize everything from the entire course?  No.  But I'll get more and better studying for the specific topics on the test than I would otherwise.  And for a mixed junior-senior class in the spring, that's good enough for me.

* And what about the juniors in AP physics to whom I'm required to give a final?  Those who are entering my research course for next year are already working on USIYPT projects. Their exam will be a 5-minute powerpoint based on their preliminary research.  Those who are NOT going into the research course get to take the general physics final exam.  I put it to them as a way for them to help me out -- "The exam will include some questions I've never asked before, and I want to see if they're good and valid questions.  By including some AP students, I'll get a sense of whether the question is clear, whether it asks what I mean to ask."  My AP juniors are happy with this approach -- they don't need to study, and they know they're helping out the school's physics program.  They still may think of the exam as kind of busy work, but they're okay with that.

Other suggestions or ideas?  Post a comment or email me at

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