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10 June 2017

Making students - not parents - self-select for an honors or AP course

An oft-repeated refrain: due to the ignorance of counselors and pressure from helicopter parents, too many students who aren't ready tend to be placed in advanced physics courses.

Understand that I believe in physics for all, not just for the best and brightest.  However, in order for a physics class to be successful, the participants have to be ready academically for the level of the course.  When students reach to take a level of physics that's beyond them, they generally have a miserable time... and they drag down the class such that everyone has a sub-optimal experience.  

Why reach?  When there's a general-level physics course available, the only people who should be placed in a higher course are those who would be bored by the simplicity of the general course.  Honors placement isn't a prize to be won, it's a match to be made.  Epidemic at the high school level is the student who is inappropriately pushed to take honors-level science and math courses, then successfully whines and argues for grades, just to be placed in an even higher-level course then next year... then crashes and burns in college, where the student-emperor is revealed to have no intellectual clothes.

I've talked to more than one high school teacher who adapted in ridiculous but practical fashion by cutting out unweighted, general-level courses altogether.  These folks label their basic course "honors physics," and their advanced course "AP physics."  They teach "honors physics" sort of the same way I teach my ninth grade conceptual physics.  Whatever works, I suppose.

I never want to shut a student out from ever taking an advanced physics course.  When physics teachers kvetch about unprepared students in their classes, the classic riposte is that "tracking" permenantly marginalizes those who don't have resources at home to push themselves academically.  This is a legitimate and important point.  Many not-so-great students could, in fact, handle advanced physics if they had been introduced to high-level quantitative skills early in their academic careers.  One of our goals as high school physics teachers should be to cast a wide net to catch everyone who can possibly learn our subject at some level.  

And right there is why I love teaching conceptual physics.  Any college-bound student - and probably a significant fraction of non-college bound students, too - can handle rigorous physics with no calculator use.  And a large fraction of conceptual students are then fully capable of success in AP Physics 1 as a second year course.

The trick, then, is to identify students ready for AP Physics 1 as a first-year course, while at the same time teaching an outstanding lower-level course to those who don't meet that bar.  How to do that in a political environment in which parents whose special children aren't selected for AP Physics feel personally slighted and storm your boss's office demanding retribution?

Your answer must depend on your particular school environment.  It likely begins with relationship building among the science faculty and administrative decision makers.  Make sure your counselors and principals and deans not only understand your placement procedures, but also the reasons behind your procedures.  Reassure them that you are serving all students, that those pitchfork-wielding parents' children will still be well-served by your program.

An elegant solution that has worked for us has removed placement decisions entirely from parents and administrators.  We place all 9th graders in a general-population conceptual physics course at year's beginning.  Three weeks in we resection, creating one AP Physics 1 section (labeled as "honors physics.")  Below is the procedure, as it's described to interested faculty and parents.

Students who are interested in honors placement have been asked to do two things.  We have been very clear with all sections, both orally and in writing, about the process.

(1) Honors practice problems.  We are posting one to two extra problems each week which are at the level expected of honors students.  Those who are considering honors are asked to solve these and turn them in.  We encourage the students to discuss their solutions with us before they are turned in if they have questions.  

(2) Honors quiz/test questions.  Each of our first three weekly assessments includes an honors-level question similar to the honors practice problems.  We ask the honors candidates to attempt these problems -- this gives us a gauge of how well they understood the practice questions.

After three weeks of class, the physics teachers will choose the honors section based on a holistic evaluation of all interested students.  We look at their performance and effort on the honors practice problems; at their performance on the honors assessment questions; at their effort and performance on the regularly assigned work, including laboratory work; and at whatever progress they do or do not make in the first three weeks.  We've found that the class is nearly self-selecting, in that those who attempt the honors problems figure out within a week or so whether they can -- or whether they want to --  handle that level of work. 

One important point about honors selection is that students must themselves want to take on this level of work.  We’ve had a number of students over the years who could possibly handle the material in honors, but they chose not to do the test questions, and thus to remain in regular conceptual.  That was a good choice universally for those students – they earned high grades, then had the opportunity to take the honors course in their senior year.  We are purposely trying to divorce the honors decision from the parents, advisors, and even physics faculty -- the students are the ones who are in large part deciding whether they can or want to do the work.


  1. Hi Greg,

    Big fan of your blog, your AP1 prep book, and all of your hard work more generally. Apologies for the slightly off-topic comment, but curious if you could help with something. I'm in the process of generating a summer assignment for my 2017-2018 AP Physics 1 students and want to include a reading component, giving them the opportunity to read and learn more about the AP Physics 1 curriculum. I really love your prep book's chapter 1 and 2, but for obvious reasons I cannot simply "post" those chapters to my personal class website. Do you have a favorite resource you draw from to give students a basic, but accurate and informative, idea of what the AP Physics 1 curriculum is all about? Thanks!

  2. Steve, I've often referred students straight to the source - to the official course and exam description. You can have students read the first 6 pages or so and the topic list.

    (I've also heard of teachers whose summer assignment is "procure the 5 Steps book" :-) )

    Take a look at the post linked here for a letter I wrote to my class in August outlining what to expect: