September 2016 | Nuts & Bolts
Starting off on the Right Foot
By Adrian Dingle
So, you’re hitting the AP chemistry trail for the first time? Welcome to the (mild) insanity! I could simply say, “Good luck”! — but although you will need some of that, you’d probably appreciate a little more concrete and pragmatic advice.
Let me start by saying that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackling the delivery of an AP chemistry course. There are simply far too many variables in play to glibly state, ‘This is the way.’ Those variables fall chiefly into two categories: ones driven by the teacher’s own philosophical position, and ones driven by the particular set of circumstances that confronts each of us.
In terms of personal philosophy, there is a vast array of differing opinions. As chemistry educators, we are a very broad church, and many of our own core values and beliefs are pretty well established. I find that entirely appropriate, and something that provides great strength in the diversity that it manifests across the profession. For example, you may be a teacher who loves and highly values lab work — or you may not. You may believe in a strong mantra of teaching to the test — or not. You may even be a teacher like me, who believes in a set of what are now seen as old-fashioned values surrounding graded homework, frequent one-chance-only testing, and ‘sit down and shut-up’ lectures — or not. All of those positions (and dozens of others) are represented in the real world.
In terms of circumstances there is, of course, the proverbial smorgasbord laid before us! This diversity goes way beyond the obvious factors such as public versus private, a student body of 3,000 versus one of 300, affluent versus impoverished, and single sex versus co-ed. The diversity also reaches into many, much less tangible differences. These include factors such as the tradition (or lack thereof) of an AP program in the school; the degree to which administration truly believes in, and understands, the place of an AP program within the school; and the degree to which you feel unswerving support from parents and the rest of the community. Each of these factors (and a plethora of others), make up ‘your circumstances.
Having said all of the above, whatever your own guiding principles, and whatever circumstances you may find yourself in, it is my sincere hope that what follows will prove to be useful to you in some practical way.
|Adrian Dingle's Top Ten Tips for
New AP Chem Teachers
|1 Time management|
|2 Emphasize language skills|
|3 Get students to practice what they write|
|4 Get connected – social media is your friend|
|5 Know what’s NOT on the exam|
|6 Be aware of the time thief that lab work is, and know its ‘bang for buck’ value|
|7 Be cantankerous, focused, demanding, and unrelenting|
|8 Expose kids to real AP questions|
|9 Know the course|
|10 Get organized|
What follows are ten action steps that I think can positively help any philosophy, in any circumstance. Why ten? Why a list? Well, EVERYONE loves a list, and ten gives me some discipline in paring things down from a much longer list, so that you get what I consider to be the most distilled and important. The most potent elixir for success, if you will!
Perhaps the single most infuriating messages from teachers that I used to read on the College Board (CB) AP chemistry electronic discussion group (EDG) — and trust me, there have been a lot of candidates for ‘most infuriating’ — were the ones that went something like this: “Having spent lots of time preparing for Mole Day, and then tie-dyeing T-shirts for a week, I have run out of time and need to know which two of kinetics, thermodynamics and acid-base chemistry I can leave out, and still have the kiddos do well on the AP exam.”
This type of message — and there were many of them — used to drive me NUTS! What, precisely were you thinking? You put AP chemistry on the door of your classroom, put AP chemistry in the school’s course catalog, but then failed to deliver the AP curriculum because of Mole Day and tie-dying T-shirts? That’s just plain incompetence.
So why the rant, and how does this relate to what you should be doing come Day 1 of Semester 1 in your AP chemistry class?
Well, you have one absolute responsibility that is paramount over anything else when you have AP chemistry on the door of your classroom. And that is to deliver all of the AP material prior to the AP exam. That means that the very first thing that you should do — before worrying about the specifics of delivery — is construct a timetable to allow you to discharge that responsibility.
In short, work backwards from the date of the AP exam. First build in the bazillion known non-academic interruptions (it’s tricky to anticipate the unknown as well, but believe me, I’ve tried!) Next, decide how much review time you want, and then develop a private (i.e., one that is not shared with the students) schedule that includes covering all 117 learning objectives (LOs) that begins with the first day of school. Having gotten that out of the way, only then you can move on to some specifics.
#2: Emphasize language skills
As you may be aware, the new AP exam has an extremely heavy bias toward language and comprehension, and away from calculations. I don’t intend to discuss the merits of that fact here, but suffice it to say that’s the situation, like it or not. This means that on the question side of things, students should be exposed to dense and rambling introductions to problems. To highlight this recent shift in emphasis, Peter Moskaluk, a member of the AP chemistry community, calculated that the average word count of a multiple-choice question had gone up from 47 on the legacy exam (prior to 2014), to 79 on the new exam (2014 forward). So your students should expect questions that are drenched in text and data! The key to success is to extract the pertinent information, and to see that it is often alluding to some simpler concept that may appear hidden at first. It’s a skill that needs to be nurtured; exposure and practice are the keys.
#3: Get students to practice what they write
You can expect a level of text density in the free-response questions (FRQ’s) of the exam that is similar to that of the multiple-choice section, but in the FRQ’s your focus must include careful consideration of the answer side of things as well.
It has never been more important for students to be clear in what they write, so you should be aware of some of the CB’s current foibles in this respect. As I type (June of 2016), there is a furious debate occurring on the AP chemistry EDG about this. Other similar debates have taken place in the past. Suffice it to say that the parsing of language that is taking place these days in AP reading instruction has never been more intense, and it’s in your students’ interest for you to be on top of this.
How can one ensure that the kids write solid, meaningful answers? One strategy that has been suggested by a member of the CB’s Test Development Committee (TDC) is to treat the AP chemistry class like an English class – YIKES! While that prospect literally makes me shudder, it does seem to be a potentially useful thing to do in this brave new world. I know, it’s crazy, but it’s a fact.
What does this look like? Well, ask the kids a simple question like, “How can the difference in the first ionization energy values of sodium and potassium atoms be explained in terms of atomic structure?” You’ll be amazed at the fiction that an incredibly simple prompt like this induces. I suggest spending some time kicking those answers around until the class arrives at an evolutionary or hybrid answer that is clear and precise. This takes time!
#4: Get connected – social media is your friend
So how does one stay abreast of all of these machinations? Well, with the relative lack of transparency coming from the TDC and the CB, it’s up to you to seek that information out. Here are five things that you can do to get as clued in as possible.
- Join the CB’s AP community and watch the AP chemistry EDG closely. You won’t get much from the CB themselves (we still have no “AP chemistry czar”), but you will get extensive, knowledgeable conversation from a bunch of well-connected, enthusiastic folk.
- Join the National AP Chemistry Teachers group on Facebook. Again, nothing official will be found here, but some great rants and advice, away from the official discussion group, with a much looser feel.
- Read my blog.
- Follow relevant people on Twitter. Again, lots of nuggets can pop up in 140 characters or less.
- Become a member of AACT.
#5: Know what’s NOT on the exam
Make sure you know what NOT to teach. I’ve written a number of articles and blog posts over the last few years that have highlighted all of the content that you should have already jettisoned from a legacy AP chemistry course — including phase diagrams, colligative properties, extensive organic chemistry, Lewis acids and bases, extensive knowledge of solubility rules, etc. So without cataloging all of that here again, it’s really important to ensure that precious time is not wasted on topics that are irrelevant to the exam. Know what they are and eject them from your course.
#6: Be aware of the time thief that lab work is, and know its ‘bang for buck’ value
Avoid being sidetracked by lab work. Without wishing to start a philosophical war, please know this: extensive lab work is absolutely not necessary in order to achieve success on the AP examination in May.
As I noted above, you may love lab work; if so, fine. You may have made an assessment about the groups that you teach that suggests lab work will help them — fine as well. You may even have a philosophical bent toward lab work, which is also fine. But none of those things negates the validity of the italicized statement above.
Also note that there are no ‘required’ labs, and that the CB lab manual is only intended as a resource, rather than a list of prescribed experiments. Extensive lab work represents horrible ‘bang for the buck,’ in my opinion, and it can lead to the same unacceptable conversations that tie-dyeing and the celebration of Mole Day create. Treat it with great caution.
Also, please know that ‘inquiry’ means absolutely nothing — or if you prefer, absolutely everything! I believe that inquiry is a complete red-herring when it comes to AP chemistry exam success, and that you should essentially ignore it, or at least know that because of the almost complete lack of agreement on the definition of inquiry, just about any lab that you do can qualify as such. This is not to say that you won’t find inquiry useful in your circumstances, but just know that it is most definitely not a prerequisite for success. (It’s probably worth noting that I wrote one of the ‘inquiry’ labs in the College Board’s lab manual).
#7: Be cantankerous, focused, demanding, and unrelenting
So much of delivering a successful AP chemistry course is linked to a state of mind — both from the kids and the teacher. Make no mistake: this is not a course that just any kid should be taking, or indeed one that just any teacher should be delivering. It’s designed for kids who can deal with college level work in high school, and that’s not every student.
Of course, you may find yourself in a situation where you have no control over your student population. If that’s the case, you must press on! You cannot allow the speed or rigor of the course to be dictated by kids who should not be in the group. It is up to you to deliver the course, at the correct pace and level. Holding back to accommodate the stragglers does nothing for anyone, and is fraudulent. In other words, be cantankerous, focused, demanding, and unrelenting!
#8: Expose kids to real AP questions
The only way that kids will ever be assessed in this course is via the AP exam, i.e., via actual AP questions. The style of those questions is different than that used in textbooks and other resources, so it is important to use old AP questions. Three years ago this was a huge problem, since at that time almost no questions were in the public domain that reflected the new exam. That problem is easing somewhat, and will continue to ease as we now have three released exams, plus other practice material available. However, don’t neglect the fact that there are huge numbers of old AP problems that still offer relevant content either ‘as is’ — or with some careful ‘scrubbing,’ can allow for the changes in content and emphasis of the new exam. Use them!
#9: Know the course
You have both a duty and a responsibility to familiarize yourself with the Course and Exam Description document in intimate detail. This includes macro-logistics, such as the number of questions in each section of exam, their weighting, and the time allowed for each section. It also includes precise details, such as all 117 LOs and all the edubabble that goes with them. This is more than knowing the chemistry content of the course (which is of course is crucial), and will open up a whole new world of strategy, logistics, and general understanding that will allow you to better deliver an AP chemistry course.
#10: Get organized
Yeah, some people are organized, others aren’t — but either way, the teachers who are will stand a better chance of succeeding in a high-demand, fast-paced, unrelenting class. Now, I’m not about to offer any sage-like, Oprah-based advice about this particular human trait, but suffice it to say that you’d better know how you plan to deliver 117 LOs between the first day of school and the first Monday in May. And that brings us back to my recommendation number 1.
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