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23 December 2013

How do you tell the difference between AP and "regular" physics?

Josh Morckel writes in with the observation that the new AP Physics 1 curriculum pretty much covers the same state standards that his regular class covers.  That's not surprising, as (for better or for worse) the College Board was very careful in developing AP Physics 1 that it would meet the legislative criteria for a first-year physics course in as many states as possible.  Because state legislatures and political committees certainly have superior expertise in physics education than the professionals associated with the College board, I guess.  Phthph.

Disregarding my own impertinence, Josh's pertinent question is, if AP and regular high school physics are covering the same state standards, then what's the difference?  I think Josh is asking a twofold question here... (1) What is the difference in how I should teach these classes, and (2) How do I sell this difference to parents, administrators, and students who are ignorant of physics generally, and who see the same state standards listed in the course description?  Both of these questions should probably be answered similarly, so I'll start with:

If an AP and a Regular course cover the same "standards," how are the two classes different?

Don't use standards to define courses; use tests and exams, preferably as written by someone external to the course, to define courses.  Once you're clear on the level, topics, and depth of question that your students will be expected to answer, then you can make up a concordance with any state standards you need to.

What I do: My regular course for upperclassmen is based heavily on New York Regents exams.  You can see many, many previous years' exams here.  I teach my regular sections such that they can answer all the mechanics and waves questions, plus the lens/mirror questions from the pre-2002 exams, plus the circuits questions.  (I also added in a basic astronomy unit based on the Regents Earth Science Exam.)  Virtually all of my tests and exams are based on authentic Regents questions -- the only difference is that I include a "justify your answer" section in addition to multiple choice and open response.  If any physics teaching reader would like to see or use a sample test, please email and I'd be happy to share.

The AP Physics 1 exam covers much of the same material as regular/Regents.  The major difference is the depth of that coverage, as evidenced in the test questions.

A regular question can generally be categorized in a single topic area, and can be answered in one step, or two brief steps, or a one-two sentence explaination with reference to a single fact of physics.

An AP question generally requires cross-categorization across two or three topic areas.  Most require multi-step reasoning, or a two-three sentence explanation with reference to more than just one fact of physics.  AP questions, for the most part, require students to make connections across skills and topics.  You can take a look at a few of the kinds of questions the new exams will ask in the curriculum guide... but the Physics B questions you've been answering for years still give the right idea of multi-concept problems.

As an additional comparison, you might consider a conceptual class.  Conceptual Physics can cover many of the same topics as "regular" physics, but without using a calculator.  I make my conceptual test questions by rephrasing Regents questions, as described in this post.  Some teachers may find that their "regular" class is more like my conceptual class.  That's fine.  It all depends on your own feeling for what your students can do, and the style in which you prefer to teach.  A conceptual approach provides a greater contrast between AP and non-AP physics.  Feel free to email me if you'd like a sample conceptual test.

Okay, so how do I explain all this to parents and administrators who don't know anything about physics or physics teaching?

Me, I'd explain exactly what I described above, with a few hand-picked example questions on similar topics to illustrate the difference.  
Recognize that a truly bad administrator or an intransigently hostile parent an isn't going to be swayed by logical arguments, no matter how correct, no matter how well presented.  Forget them.  

I'm talking about how to approach an open discussion with competent, well-meaning, but physics-ignorant people.  Often, such folks's faces will quickly glaze over, just like my wife's face when I start talking about the differences between high school and professional football rules.  You're speaking a different language, but you're speaking it fluently and confidently.  The hope is that these folks will recognize your expertise and defer to it.  Even if you personally don't feel like a true physics teaching expert, you are far more expert than most; do what you think is right, and evaluate and acknowledge later if your suggestions need tweaking.  That's how you become an expert.

If you're lucky, your audience remains engaged, asks questions, and learns something new about physics and physics teaching.  Treasure such people.    

Take all that I write here as my personal opinion, which is informed, but not by the Almighty him- or her-self. Physics teaching is about teaching skills, not topics, and those skills can be taught using whatever topics and whatever standards you want.  Hopefully the approaches I've described, perhaps in combination with the College Board's materials and my own tests, can be useful to you in differentiating your courses.  Understand, though, that every school and every physics teacher is unique.  The world would NOT be a better place if only everyone would give the same tests, homework assignments, and quizzes each day as I do.*  Everyone reading needs to do what's right for your students, your school, and your personal style. 

I'm happy to talk directly with you or your administration if you need further help defining your courses.  Send an email.  Or attend a summer institute, or my summer "open lab," where you'll hear a multitude of ideas.   


* That is, unless I were to get a seven-figure grant in the bargain.  Then we would live in a physics utopia.

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