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25 July 2011

Honors Physics I: Course Description

As detailed in the previous post, I don't feel like waiting for the AP Physics B redesign.  Woodberry Forest is going to begin teaching according to the principles of the proto-AP Physics 1 and 2 courses right away, beginning in 2011-12.

We're calling our first year college-level course "Honors Physics I."  We're modeling the course structure on the AP program.  That means we're going to commit ourselves ahead of time to a weighted topic coverage list.  That means we have a course exam written which will remain locked away until mid-May, and that will not be changed on a whim.  And, I'm going to arrange for *external* validation of the exam -- I've talked to a few AP readers about a possible "trade and grade," in which I grade a set of their tests or exams, and in return they grade my Honors Physics I exams to the rubric that I send them.

The course topic coverage outline for Honors Physics I can be found here via google docs -- so please forgive any formatting issues.  My goal, approximately consistent with the College Board's goal for AP Physics 1, was to cover about 60% of the current AP Physics B curriculum.  Please remember -- this outline is NOT necessarily related to what the College Board has in development for AP Physics 1.  Nothing about AP Physics 1 topics that has been officially released, because even the people in charge of the redesign have not settled on a final distribution of topics.  My outline represents what I would do if I were solely in charge of the redesign. 

The quick rundown of the six content areas I've included:

Mechanics (40%): Pretty much everything on AP B mechanics, except torque.
Fluids (10%): Static fluids only, i.e. static pressure and buoyant forces.
Thermal Physics (15%): PV diagrams, the ideal gas law, and the first law of thermodynamics.
E&M (15%): Forces due to fields, but NOT the source of E or B fields.  Basic DC circuits.
Waves (10%): Basic properties; sound & light; Snell's law; but not standing waves or optics.
Nuclear Physics (10%): Definitions of particles, conservation laws, mass-energy equivalence.

Also in the linked course description you'll see the exam format.  I've made the exam two hours, so as to fit better into my exam periods.  It's in three sections, but without formal separation; all sections can be worked on at will during the two hours.  Calculators, a constant sheet, and an abbreviated equation sheet will be accessible during all sections.  (Why?  That makes administration easier.  And the calculator won't really help much on the multiple choice, anyway.) 

My major divergence from the current AP exam format is the third "short answer" section.  I'll ask ten brief questions that will usually involve a verbal explanation.  You know how every recent AP free response question includes a lettered part that says "justify your answer?"  Well, these short answer items will each be similar, except in isolation, without the context of a larger problem.  While I have no idea whether such items will appear on the future AP Physics 1 exam, I do know that all formatting options are on the table.  It sounds likely that the current dichotomy of just multiple choice and 10 or 15 point free response items will be adjusted.

Want to use this course?  Go for it.  I'll be happy to send you more materials:  a pratice test that I'll give in November, and hard-copies of the final exam with a rubric next May.  I only ask a couple of things in return:  (1) Collect the exams when you're done, ensuring that they don't get posted online; (2) Report to me how your students did on the final exam, whether they did well or poorly -- I'll keep that info private except for saying globally how everyone did; and (3) Send me a can of Skyline Chili.* 

* or equivalent.  Condition (3) is not mandatory.

If you teach an honors course, this might be just the thing to prepare your students for the AP B exam in 2012-13.  Or, you could use this course and exam to demonstrate the rigor of your non-AP course to parents, administrators, and colleges.  Try it -- I think you'll like it. 


  1. Hi,

    I'd love to see your redesign guesstimate materials. Our school is only in its second year of offering physics at all and while I've been benchmarking the AP B for topic selection (I'm aiming for an honors-level, but not-yet-AP course), I've found it too broad for much depth- sounds like I'm not the only one!

    Anyway, I'm sure I can get my hands on a can of Skyline chili around here somewhere... And I'd be happy to share test results, etc.

    Let me know at


  2. Hello David,

    We are experiencing the growing pains of this issue at our school and school district. We currently have a physics honors 1 course which is the prerequisite for the current AP Physics B class. My daughter is a sophomore who is registering for the junior year classes and my school and district have not made a policy decision yet about the direction they will take. I personally like the idea of incorporating the AP Physics 1 content into the honors course and then allowing that group of students to take the AP Physics 2 in fall 2014. They will have the AP Physics 1 content but not the official name of the course on the transcript. In May 2015, they could conceivably sit for both exams. I would like to share your blog post with my school curriculum director to see what they think. Since this post was made back n July 2011, I wondered how your students performed? What other suggestions do you have based on the information the College Board has released "officially" about the new curricula?

    1. Hey, Elizabeth, Greg here... I'm answering this in a new "Mail Time" post coming very soon. Thanks!