What’s in a Pass Rate?

I started teaching AP Physics 1 two years ago. I was scared. The national pass rate was appallingly bad and I was afraid to push a course that no one could pass on my students.

I feel very different after teaching it and getting through two National Exams.

I firmly believe that the national pass rate does not accurately reflect the course. If you look at the numbers, many many more students took AP Physics 1 than the old B exam. Schools pushed AP Physics on too many unprepared students – I have heard tales of freshmen taking it, of schools completely abolishing all Physics but AP, and offering 1 and 2 in the same year. I think all of these things artificially deflate the national pass rate.

What’s the big difference in the newer course? Less rote memorization and plug-and-chug. More analysis and critical thinking. These are important skills that I hope my students take away from the course. I always says that Physics teaches you how to think – I’d rather them remember how to think than recite a definition.

My hypothesis is that the national pass rate will slowly rise to 50% or so as teachers learn the test and students are able to more adequately prepare. Only time will tell. My biggest fear is that students will see the pass rate and not take the class – you will learn, you will pass, I will make sure.

My Favorite AP Physics 1 Resource

Good quality AP Physics resources can be hard to find. I searched for review materials and videos on the interwebs, but was overall disappointed by the quality of the content I found. Enter Flipping Physics.


So I’m not actually a big proponent of flipped classrooms. I don’t believe any teaching strategy should be used all the time. However, the flipped model is an excellent one when used in supplement of other strategies. When I was looking for great review videos, I stumbled across Mr. Palmer by accident. I don’t know how I didn’t find him sooner – he was exactly what I was looking for.

Students sometimes find the videos cheesy, but I find using these to reinforce ideas has been a great tool. Some of my students re-watched every video before the National Exam and said it tremendously helped them remember concepts! They also loved the lecture notes associated with the videos.

If you are looking for an excellent video resource, Flipping Physics is the best out there. He even has videos explaining some of the released FRQs. My only complaint is that he doesn’t have Physics 2!


Here is one of my favorite videos to show right before the National Exam, his reflections on the 2015 exam. It has some excellent tips to remember.

5 Tips for the AP Physics 1 and 2 FRQs

The free response questions on the AP Physics 1 and 2 exams can be daunting. Students tend to not be used to writing in science classes, and the AP Physics B exam had a lot more calculations and a lot less explanations. These FRQs require careful thought and a deep knowledge of physics concepts. Here are my top tips for tackling the free response section.

1. Support your answer.

This is my biggest pet peeve with student responses. If a question says to refer to a graph or has to analyze a student’s statement or uses any sort of source, directly refer back to that source.

For example, questions #2 on the Physics 1 2016 released FRQs was an experimental design question that referenced a student’s hypothesis. The experiment outlined should directly address this, not just generally discuss the overarching concept.

Make sure that explanations are not generally statements, but directly refer back to the question at hand.

2. Do not just write equations into words.

The qualitative/quantitative translation question will frequently include parts that say “explain without the use of equations.” This does not mean to write out “Well, force equals mass times acceleration…” Be sure to explain, and make reference to the law or principle you are explaining.

3. Know when to explain and when to not.

Sometimes, a question says things like “State…” or “Determine…” These types of questions are looking for an answer, not a long winded explanation. Read the first word of the question to clue in to what type of answer is needed.

4. Use the given symbols.

If a problem has you solve something symbolically, use the given symbols. For example, a question might read, “Solve for the acceleration in terms of m, θ, and physical constants.” This means your answer should not have tension, friction, normal force, or any other variables in it.

5. Be clear and concise.

Most answers are designed that a simple sentence or two can explain what you need, except of course the paragraph length response. Even for the paragraph, however, it is important to get to the point. Writing a diatribe about an unrelated concept shows that you do not truly know the principle at hand.

5 Tips for Blended Learning in a Science Class

Blended learning is the new buzz word in education, but this trend isn’t all talk. Here are five things I have learned in my blending learning endeavors that have greatly impacted student achievement.

1. Immediate feedback assessments

The biggest pitfall of assessments is the lack of feedback. Students take a test and wait days, weeks, or even months with state assessments for their results. This model does not support the learning process.

Enter online assessments. These can be done through your learning management system and provide instantaneous feedback. I have given pre-tests to my students through Canvas and used that data to drive how to break students into groups and where to go with instruction. It is amazing to have this data the moment they are finished with the assessment.

With most LMSes now, you can even secure your tests to make sure responses are genuine. Timed assessments, access codes, password protections – all of these things help remove the threat of cheating.

I also like using online assessments for free response questions – even though I still have to grade them, virtual rubrics make scoring a breeze.

2. Personalized learning menus

This is perhaps my favorite review method, and it can even work for introducing new content. Students are given a choice of several different assignments, with a goal of how many to complete or how many points to earn. I like weighting the assignments differently to give more complex assignments an incentive to complete. This strategy give students choices in their learning and allows them to pick what helps them most.

With learning menus, the assignments can vary from practice problems to videos to labs. I like including a small group lecture so students that benefit from having a real person working with them get a chance to have more guided direct instruction. This is also a great strategy if you only have a few computers available – perhaps only one or two of the items is technology based

3. Reinforcement videos

This one can go hand-in-hand with the learning menus, but it’s a good one. Sometimes it just helps to have something explained by more than one person. While showing videos all the time isn’t the best teaching method, assigning videos to help reinforce concepts can be extremely beneficial.

I like assigning videos for homework when I feel like my class needed further explanation. Including these videos on a work-at-your-own-pace assignment can help students get the reinforcement they need or provide extension opportunities for your ahead-of-the-curve students.

Khan Academy is always for videos. I am also a fan of Crash Course and Flipping Physics.

4. Virtual lab notebooks

This is one I am still experimenting with, and it is such a great idea. Canvas, Google Docs, and OneDrive all have collaborative document integration. Students can submit their lab work online, work on lab reports together, and the teacher can track who added/edited in the document.

Virtual lab notebooks enhances the laboratory experience by allowing for a more collaborative data analysis phase, as well as being closer to what students can expect in college and career.

5. Virtual lab experiences

Virtual labs are excellent tools for a variety of reasons. Whether you don’t have the equipment, the topic is too abstract, or just to reinforce an idea, virtual experiences enhance the learning process in a profound way.

I love using the PhET simulations from https://phet.colorado.edu/. I often create inquiry based labs using these. Many are being converted to HTML5 so they can be used on mobile devices as well.

One example of a virtual lab I use is the Photoelectric Effect from PhET. My school does not have the equipment available to perform this lab, and students often have trouble understanding it without a visual. The virtual lab for this is the perfect resource to give them a laboratory experience without the supplies.

AP Physics 1: FRQ 1 Thoughts

Here is my messy solution to AP Physics 1 2017 free response question 1. I will be adding a video solution for the FRQ soon!


This FRQ was very simple, but students may have overthought what the question was asking. For example, students may have not recognized the need to analyze the energy usage in terms of power dissipated in each. However, almost every teacher does a lab that involves the principles behind this FRQ, so hopefully it was familiar to students. I predict this being the highest scoring FRQ.

Using APOD in the Classroom

One of my favorite teaching resources is NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. The subjects and sources vary greatly, and pictures are often topical to things happening in space news.

I begin my Astronomy class every single day with the APOD. It gives the class routine, but students also find it fascinating. They especially love the amateur astronomy photos – showing that these things are real and you don’t always need super sophisticated equipment to see them. We often delve deeper into how and where photos were taken and research more on the background of the subject. It’s a great way to learn something new every single day.

Here is one of my recent favorites, of the Cygnus spacecraft taken from the ISS. We watched the launch together, so it was exciting for my students to see the craft actually in space.


Image Credit: ESA, NASA

Check out APOD at  https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

Grading AP Physics

I try to give my students only AP style quizzes and tests. I vary between using released questions, old AP Physics B questions, and writing my own. I get asked a lot how to grade these. My rationale is this – a student’s test average should be indicative of their performance on the AP national exam.

Here is the data I know: for AP Physics 1 and 2, the 2015 and 2016 IPE have composite score ranges. This is from the released exams only, and I feel these score ranges are fairly low compared to the operational exam.

AP Physics 1:

Score 2015 Range 2016 Range
5 51-80 57-80
4 39-50 43-56
3 29-38 31-42
2 20-28 20-30
1 0-19 0-19

AP Physics 2:

Score 2015 Range 2016 Range
5 59-80 54-80
4 49-58 44-53
3 34-48 30-43
2 19-33 18-29
1 0-18 0-17

As you see, this does vary from year to year and exam to exam. I err on the high side. I extrapolate their grades from a graph, correlating a A to a 5, B to a 4, and so on. Note that this is for their summative assessments only – students can still earn a higher grade from things like homework, labs, etc.

I also do my best to score similar to the AP exam – no “just because you wrote something” points and MC/FRQ equally weighted on tests. I feel that this gives students realistic expectations.

Reviewing for the AP exam

I tried something new this year to review for the AP exam. Instead of giving my students a ton of practice questions as usual, we tried a diverse and personalize review.

First, we did Multiple Choice Monday and FRQ Friday every week for the two months before the exam.

Second, the month before the exam I gave my students a practice test and scored them on each topic. Then, they had a Canvas module to review. I like to call this a “personalized menu”. Students chose from 20-30 different assignments, encompassing all the topics on the exam. Assignments varied from multiple choice questions, FRQs, virtual labs, review videos, review lecture notes, etc. Students chose assignments based on their needs and preferred learning style, with a goal of earning 100 points however they see fit.

Here is a sample of some of the options available for the review:


I felt this style of review was much more targeted and personalized than other things I have tried. I got to work with students in small groups on specific learning objectives they struggled with. We will see how their scores reflect this enhanced review opportunity!

I gave them the 2016 exam as practice last week. 100% passed. I hope that is reflective of their performance this year!

Test day reflections

Yesterday was the AP Physics 1 national exam, and today is the day for AP Physics 2. I haven’t heard much from my students yet, but tomorrow the FRQs will be released. My students have only said so far that they thought they did well.

I love the day the FRQs come out. I read through them all quickly and do an assessment of how well we covered that topic in class. Then, I solve them and share the solutions with my students. We discuss thoughts and pitfalls. It’s great to get immediate feedback on their performance, even though the scores are not released until July.

Here’s to solving those FRQs tomorrow!