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05 March 2015

Does a "paragraph response" in AP Physics 1 require sentences? Or are bullet points enough?

One of my friends who's a bloody awesome College Board physics consultant has a follow-up question to the "white paper" about paragraph response free-response items on the new AP 1 and 2 exams.  She says she's had several teachers ask "hard and fast" if the CB need the answers in complete sentences, paragraph style; or if a numbered list or bullet points would suffice.

Thing is, I don't know for sure, because grading an AP Physics paragraph response item is new to pretty much everyone in the world.  I can make a well-educated guess, based on the scoring guidelines on the published practice exam.  Nothing in these guidelines says anything about complete sentences; it talks about a "coherent argument".  My instinct is that if I got bullet points that addressed the correct issues and formed a logically-connected, coherent argument, I'd be fine with that, even if some of the entries weren't complete sentences.  

That said, bullet points that DON'T make an obvious coherent "argument" won't work.  Saying "*potential energy mgh, kinetic energy 1/2mv^2 -- both blocks, momentum conserved, energy shared, move both ways" doesn't cut it.  "Oh, but I addressed each of the points in the rubric," says the student.  No, you didn't -- you didn't COMMUNICATE.  The response must make sense on first reading; the reader is not going to make connections for the student, the student must make connections for the reader.

What I'm sure many teachers are concerned about is the silly fifth grade social studies "answer in a complete sentence" meme.  Remember, the end-of-chapter question asked, "What are three major exports from the state of Texas?"  You wrote, "oil, beef, and football."  But your teacher condescendingly marked the answer wrong, saying "You didn't answer in a complete sentence."  Really?  You directly and accurately answered the question that was asked.  Turns out she expected you to restate the prompt in the answer, saying "Three major exports from Texas are oil, beef, and football."  The smart students who eventually became physics teachers considered that this teacher was making idiotic, anti-intellectual, bureaucratic demands that had no relation to the content being developed.

Had the book instead asked, "Based on the reading, describe several features of the Texas economy," then my initial "oil, beef, and football" response could justifiably be ignored.  In that case, *I'm* the idiot for giving a four-word answer to a complex question.  And if the question prompt included direction to answer in a clear, coherent paragraph, then I'm charged with an additional count of "failure to follow directions" on top of impertinence, laziness, and general wrongness.

In a physics context, the essay question will not ask "How fast will the ball go when it hits the ground?"  The test will ask something much more deep, which cannot be justified in one word or one equation.  Communication of complicated concepts will be required, and such complex communication generally requires sentences with subjects and verbs.  No one will be grading your students' grammar.  If they structure their response with bullets, I suspect that's fine... but a good response will *of necessity* include many sentences in those bullets, and those sentences will be logically connected.

Hope that helps.  I'll know more once I'm at the reading.  I'm a table leader for Physics 1 or 2... I'd actually love to try the essay question, even though it will make my brain hurt.  :-)

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