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24 April 2015

Is AP Physics 1 "Too Difficult?" No.

I received an email this afternoon that I think is important to address on the eve of the first ever AP Physics 1 exam, and into the second year of teaching AP Physics 1.  In sum, is AP Physics 1 "too difficult?"  We've known that the exam would be deeper and tougher, but is it too deep and too tough?

After some very kind words about 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics 1, which I appreciate, the note asked:

[The] question has to do with the released AP Physics 1 exam free response section.  I have been teaching physics for 20 years and I have never seen my students so frustrated after attempting those FRQs.  I'm usually the last person to say something is too difficult, but has the AP board gone over the top this time?  Just for a reaction I gave this test to my AP Physics C students and they said many of these questions would have been too difficult for them to answer last year.  What are some of the other opinions you have heard from other AP Physics teachers out there?  What is your opinion of this released exam?

My response: The exam is not over the top -- I think it's actually quite wonderful.  The College Board is doing exactly what they said they were going to do:  create a physics test that goes well beyond mere calculation and into deep understanding.  We knew from the beginning that students who think of physics as crunching numbers, doing algebra, and obtaining a right answer would be in trouble.  Such students could always manage a 3 on the AP B exam, but will not likely earn a 1 on the new exam.  

It's been a tough year for me teaching AP 1, primarily because I didn't have an established "physics culture" to help my students through the difficult times:  see the next few April 2015 blog posts.

That said, my upperclassmen are now doing a great job explaining their calculations, describing what they know, etc.  I am not going to have the same ~70% earning 5s as I used to on AP Physics B, but we will do just fine.  It takes months for the students to adapt to expressing physics understanding in words, and to adapt to dealing with difficult problems that don't have a few gimme calculations in them.

The good news is, you've given your students a real test in the style of the AP -- they can complain all they want, but the exam ain't changing.  Let them get the complaints out of their system, and they'll know what to expect on May 6.

Then, next year, you can think about preparing your students for this level of question a bit earlier on.  Try giving some of the released questions on the January semester exam, or on a major February test.  They're going to have to come to terms with the more difficult nature of the new course; it's going to be a learning process for all of us as to how best to do that.  I know I haven't figured it out yet.  

Good luck -- to you, and to your students next week.  :-)


  1. The first problem I've had with the new Physics 1 exam is practical: it asks students who aren't going to/cannot take the more technical, (lightly) calculus-based Physics C to either take two years of a science unrelated to their future studies, or to take half of an overview course. In ruthlessly concrete terms, it means a great many students are taking an AP course for which they cannot take the SAT subject test.

    The second problem I've had is the disconnect between the AP's approach and virtually every major physics textbook; the latter tends to focus on the combination of physics concepts and equations to solve problems in a mathematical way, whereas the former seems more interested in taking a science from which often already the calculus has been artificially extracted, and seeking to, inasmuch as possible, excise mathematics as well.

    I am not saying that some level of explanation and not-purely-mathematical reasoning is unwarranted; rather, that the available questions feel much less like an attempt to balance math with general reasoning and much more like an attempt to purge the math altogether.

    The third problem I have had is the characterization of Physics 1 as "in depth." Detractors of a more mathematical style may decry that approach as too often "plug n chug," but any degree of competent application of physics equations already requires an understanding of concepts and relationships, that the real hard work comes in translating observables into mathematical terms and vice versa, which really is at the heart of physics. Making students write a paragraph or two isn't more "in-depth" than constructing a well-reasoned chain of calculation for an unfamiliar question.

    Fourthly, there is a problem of perception. Physics has always been a mess in US high schools, with more flavors of class (and confusion amongst teachers as to differences between class types) than any other science class. Physics 1 exacerbates this by telling students, "you can learn the essentials of college-level biology, or chemistry, in a year, but physics is just TOO HARD for a mere year of your increasingly AP-cluttered high school schedule." And this is not the right message to be sending students.

    Already some area high schools have begun combining Physics 1 and 2 back into a single, Physics B like course. I forsee this offering, like the one-year Physics C course, likely to become more standard in the coming years. Especially for schools which do not have the timing/resources to offer Physics C, this is about the only pushback feasible against this peremptory change in the AP.

  2. I tend to agree with Michael. I was disappointed but not surprised by my students low test scores. What surprised me most was the lack of coverage of the new curriculum on the free response test. I can see how having to write more essay type answers is more time-consuming but still, I think the old test covered more (perhaps too many) concepts in the form of equations. To me an equation is a summary of a concept. You teach/investigate the concept and develop the understanding and equation. I agree with Michael that the math is important. You don't build a bridge or a house with just a concept. Having a feel for the numbers is an important part of the real power of Physics in engineering and all the sciences. Surely a better mix can be found than the first AP Physics 1 test. I counted perhaps 12 out of the 37 concepts(equations) covered. No momentum, circular motion or rotational motion was included. Not a single number in five questions seems an obviously deliberate and unnecessary attempt to send teachers a message. I think something will be lost when the AP Physics 1 text book resembles the English Literature or Economics texts. Whose bright idea was it to put AP Physics1 in the afternoon and AP English Lit in the morning?? It certainly didn't help my seniors.
    The biggest concern for me is that 2/3 of students will be put off science. If you can't do well on AP Physics 1 you won't be taking AP Physics 2, so most schools where I live will never offer AP Physics 2. They don't offer AP Physics C. Students will be attracted more to computing and robotics type classes, if they do any science at all. Why bother with Physics?
    I'm not sure that understanding in depth at the age of 16 or 17 is a necessary or even achievable goal for the average modern high school student. A lot of that comes later. Learning a process is perhaps more important. I'm sure teachers will be getting their students to memorize and regurgitate the key concepts that might come up on next year's test. Will they REALLY understand the concepts?
    Greg, you teach 9th grade Physics. Most schools don't. Our kids take Physics as juniors (if at all). They take AP Physics as seniors (many without having taken Physics). That means getting them ready for college. I can't teach them 9th grade investigative conceptual Physics. They are taking Calculus. They can handle the math. In fact,they badly need a science class where they apply the math, so lacking in our high schools. They are going to UC's next year. I want to give them a chance to survive that first year. I'm not sure this test does that.