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07 June 2016

Report from the AP reading: Teach your class to write concise laboratory procedures. Please.

Howdy!  I've spent the last week grading, and training people to grade, the lab problem on the 2016 AP Physics 1 exam.  I'm a bit punchy, as you may expect.  Nevertheless, I encourage you to apply to be a reader -- I really, really love the people I meet here, even if I'm not always entirely enamored of grading papers for eight hours a day.

Part (a) of our question asks for a description of a laboratory procedure.  It could be answered in 20 words: "Use a meterstick to measure the height of a dropped ball before and after it bounces.  Repeat for multiple heights."

But oh, no... when America's physics students are asked to describe a procedure, they go all Better Homes and Gardens Cookery Manual on us.  Folks, it's not necessary to tell me to gather the materials, nor to remind me to first obtain a ball and a wall to throw it against.  Nor do you have to tell me that I'm going to record all data in a lab notebook, nor that I'm going to do anything carefully or exactly.  Just get to the point -- what should I measure, and how should I measure it.

Please don't underestimate the emotional impact on the exam reader of being confronted with a wall of text.  We have to grade over a hundred thousand exams.  When we turn the page and see dense writing through which we have to wade to find the important bits that earn points, we figuratively -- sometimes literally, especially near 5:00 PM -- hit ourselves in the forehead.  Now, we're professionals, and I know that we all take pride in grading each exam appropriately to the rubric.  Nevertheless, don't you think it's worth making things easy for us, when we be nearing brain fatigue?  Just as good businesspeople make it easy for customers to give them money, a good physics student makes it easy for the grader to award points.
Don't think I'm making fun of or whining about students here.  Writing a wall of text where a couple of sentences would suffice is a learned behaviour.   The students taking the AP exam are merely writing the same kinds of procedures that they've been writing in their own physics classes.  It is thus our collective responsibility as physics teachers to teach conciseness.  

"Okay, Greg, how do we do that?"  I hear you asking.  I have a two step plan.

(1) Give the students a word or sentence limit, and hold them to it.  For virtually any AP Physics 1 procedure, three sentences will do.  When your students list a twelvefold process, award no credit, and don't give in to the subsequent whining.

(2) Don't ever award credit for baloney.  When students have one nugget of valid description buried in a mountainside's worth of muck, just stop reading and award no credit.  The burden of proof is on the students to convince you they understand the methods they describe.  It's tempting to yield to after-the-fact whining and lawyering: "Well, if you really think about it, the meterstick could measure force if..." No and no.  

Fight the clarity and conciseness battles in October; then in May when your students take the AP exam, communicating experimental methods will be (a) easy and (b) quick.  


  1. Great post Greg! After grading that question with you, I couldn't agree more.

    In my classes we continually practice writing concise and clear responses to prompts. Students write their answers and then I ask them to rewrite their response by cutting the number of words in half. We usually do this for another iteration. In the end, their responses are 1/4 the length as they originally started. The responses are also more clear, focused and directly answer the prompt! It's really tough at first but they soon get the hang of what "clear and concise" means.

    In addition, I also only grade the first three sentences of any written response to a justify/explain prompt. Anything longer and I draw a line through the text and write DNG (did not grade) next to it. They get the point VERY quickly.

    It was great to see you at the reading and to be able to work with you again! Until next year, Matt K.

  2. There seems to have been a bit of a mixed message from AP on this subject. I totally get what you're saying, that it's painful to grade a wall of useless fluff. We've also been told repeatedly that the students need to write more, and more often, and explain far more than they used to under the old AP B guidelines. It's also easy to micromanage this when grading during the year, and I don't think that's necessarily a good thing (example: I take off one point every time you write, "Gather materials," and I take off two points if you DIDN'T write, "Take multiple trials." Yes, kids would get the message, but it would be because of memorization and not authentic reasoning.)

    There's a balance in there somewhere, and it'll take a few years for most of the AP 1 and 2 classes to find it.

  3. Greg I was right there with you in the black home known as P1Q2. Students continue to write Russian novels when a short story will suffice. Based upon my experience at the reading last year I had my students do an AP AP style FRQ, prepared an AP Reading style "6 word" rubric, and then sat down in front of them and graded all 21 answers as if I was at the reading. They were amazed at how the process worked, and many of them made an effort to get to the point. Hopefully the lesson stayed with them on Exam day.

    Chris Kappelmeier

  4. "Writing a wall of text where a couple of sentences would suffice is a learned behaviour. The students taking the AP exam are merely writing the same kinds of procedures that they've been writing in their own physics classes. "

    I completely disagree with this. They did not learn this behavior in physics classes, they learned it in language arts and history classes. Remember, we get them usually in the second half of their high school careers and by this time their writing styles are largely formed. If we worked the whole year I would have doubts that it would work on half of them, especially because there is a limit to how heavily students can be penalized. No credit works for an AP reading, but in a classroom it will result in many parent/administration meetings.

  5. My son learned to write all that extra junk in over-rated forced Science Fair projects in Middle School.

  6. Your post makes me chuckle as I recollect on the experience of grading and handing back my first lab reports of year. I give students 2 pages (plus additional tables/graphs if needed) to write a lab report and many high achieving ELA students turned in 5-6 page loads of BS. I crossed out 80% of what they wrote and when I handed them back, I threatened to tear off the last 3 or 4 pages and throw them away before I started grading next time. It became a class joke for the rest of the year, but they all figured it out. I was impressed where they ended up at the end of the year.