As an AP lead teacher, I often get to observe AP teachers as they are preparing students for the AP exam and there are two practices I see that are commonplace, but ineffective. In some classrooms, I see the teacher at the board working through multiple released free response questions while the students sit passively watching and agreeing with whatever the teacher says. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I see teachers who hand out full sets of released exam questions and expect that the students can tackle these questions for ninety minutes with very little guidance. Students will do what they can, but are soon frustrated and begin doodling and otherwise wasting valuable learning time.
So, how to best approach AP free response practice? Here are a few ideas:
First, I hope that students have been tackling AP free response questions throughout the year as they learn the various topics. For AP Calculus, there is an index to free response questions that allows the teacher to sort questions by topic and find those relevant to what they are teaching.
As the AP test draws nearer though (only three weeks away!), here are a few other things I have done.
Rows and Columns: My students sit in rows and columns and I pass out a set of six free response questions. Row 1 will do questions 1, row 2 begins with question 2, etc. They have 20 minutes to work on their question. If they get done or frustrated they will go on to the next question. They need to do everything they possibly can on their question though before moving on. When timer rings, the kids get together by row to compare how they they approached the problem. They need to come to a consensus as to how best to work the problem and make sure everyone in the group understands. If they are stuck, they can send one person to ask me a question. Once they think they have a complete and correct answer, they send one person to me and I check it. While waiting for the other groups to finish, they can then go on to another question. Once all six groups have checked in with me, the kids will re-group, this time by columns so that each group has a person from Question 1 group, a person from Question 2 group, etc. Each person has to help the rest of the group work their way through the question that they are responsible for. This normally takes two periods to get them through all of the questions.
Best Two of Three: Students get three free response questions (45 minutes worth of work) and have 30 minutes to choose and work as fully as possible whichever two seem most amenable to them. When time is up, I will gather the papers and score them while the kids work on another activity (maybe multiple choice practice?) There are normally some very good papers I can then show the class as exemplars, giving plenty of kudos to particularly detailed or interesting approaches. I will also note which question is NOT chosen most often so that I can provide more review, guidance or practice on that topic.
Be a Leader/Become a Leader: After the students have been working on free response and are getting better at preparing their responses, they will get a full set of questions (six for calculus) to be done in ninety minutes. After I have scored these, I will identify students who have earned the full nine points for each question and set up six groups in my class with a little flag for each group indicating which question will be covered there. Students choose problems on which they did poorly and go to that group and allow the nine-pointer to walk them through the problem. When time is up, the person who was the group leader appoints a new group leader from those who have just heard the explanation. That person stays behind to explain the problem to the next group who arrives. They will then appoint someone to be the next explainer, etc. Everyone is supposed to take a turn being an explainer. This gets them to listen more carefully while the problem is being explained to them and they are more likely to remember something they have just had to explain to others. Students end up serving one round as an explainer and then get to have problems explained to them for three rounds. This activity gets the kids moving around the room and conversing about the material.
All of these ideas are intended to shift the task of explaining material away from the teacher and on to the students. By this time of the year, I need to be ready to step aside and get the students, their explanations and their understanding to take the central role in the classroom. We are doing plenty of free response practice, but it’s not me doing all of the work nor do the kids have many opportunities to slack off or become frustrated.
Good luck to you and your students as you spend these last few weeks preparing them for the AP Exam!