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5 STEPS TO A

AP Physics 1:
Algebra-Based
T E A C H E R S M A N UA L
Greg Jacobs

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Copyright 2014 by McGraw-Hill Education, LLC. All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-182952-6
MHID: 0-07-182952-0

AP, Advanced Placement Program, and College Board are registered trademarks of the College Entrance Examination Board, which
was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

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About the Author


Greg Jacobs teaches AP Physics at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. He is the
author of 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics 1, Algebra-Based 2015.

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Introduction: Five Steps for You to Help


Your Students Get 5s
Todays AP Physics student has no shortage of resources for his or her class. No
longer tied to just the teacher and the textbook, nowadays a student can look at
online simulations, apps, computer-based homework, video lectures . . . even the
College Board itself provides so much material related to the AP exam that the
typical studentand teachercan easily become overwhelmed by an excess of
information.
5 Steps to a 5 is intended to distill the important bits from these myriad resources. It
explains, in straightforward language, what a student needs to know for the AP Physics
1 exam . . . nothing more and nothing less.
But what about a straightforward, direct teachers manual for the AP Physics
1 course? Everything the College Board offers is so full of education buzzwords that even
the most careful reader takes away inquiry after inquiry after inquiry. (I promise that
I will not use the word inquiry again after this paragraph and footnote.1)
This teachers manual will take you through what I would consider the 5 Steps of
teaching an AP Physics course. Ill go through each of these steps, some in more detail
than others. Most of the suggestions and ideas are things that Ive done in my own class,
but this doesnt mean that theyre uniquely mine. Physics teachers, like baseball pitchers,
do best when they hear new things, try new things, adapt new things, and eventually
make new things their own.
The Five Steps of Teaching AP Physics
1. Learn and practice the course material for yourself.
2. Prepare a strategic plan for the course.
3. Hold an interesting class every day.
4. Evaluate your students progress.
5. Taper for the AP exam.
Depending on your personal background and your school situation, some of these steps
might be more important for you than others. For an experienced physics teacher who
is looking to adapt a course to the AP Physics 1 standards, Steps 4 and 5 may be key.
1

I ts not that inquiry-based physics education isnt a good idea. Ive been doing it for nearly two decades. Inquiry
simply means teaching physics as being much more than plugging numbers into equations and teaching labs as being
much more than following a recipe to get the Teachers Right Answer. But to me, making a big deal about inquiry-based
education is a lot like making a big deal about breathing.

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But if youre teaching physics for the first time, having last taken a physics course many
years ago, then Step 1 might be primary for you.
So skip around in this manual. Pick the parts that are relevant to you. Read bits
and pieces to inspire new ideas that you can use in your own classroom. And feel free to
write to me with your own thoughts. Im always collecting and trying out new teaching
ideas for myself, so Id love to hear from readers. My physics teaching blog at jacobs
physics.blogspot.com is regularly updated with new ideas, most of which are inspired
by correspondence and discussion with other physics teachers.

Step 1: Learn and Practice the Course


Material for Yourself
Okay, if youre comfortable that you could get a 5 on the AP exam right now, skip
this step and jump to Step 2. Thats probably true of a good many of you who have
been teaching physics for a while, and some whose college experience was recent
enough that you dont have to think about the equation for the moment of inertia
of a point mass.2
If youre not confident that you could get a 5 on the exam right now, thats okay.
You havent failed before you start. You just need to approach your first year of teaching
AP Physics 1 a bit differently.
I know youre expecting me to advise you to spend the summer learning the course
material well enough so that you could get a 5 before school starts. Um, no. Thats great
to say, but it doesnt work in practice. Just as students need time to process and practice
their newly learned physics skills, so do teachers. Sure, read this book before the course
begins, take a summer institute or a summer class, and study on your own, but dont
expect to be an expert physicist on the first day of school if youre not already an expert.
Instead, take a long-term approach. Be honest with your students and tell them
that youre learning some of the course material along with them. Seek out a mentor:
an experienced physics teacher at your school, a college professor, or even a genius
alumnus/a of your school whos now a physics major. When you have content questions
that you cant answer, e-mail that mentor.
And dont get hung up or discouraged when you solve a problem incorrectly and
your students tell you so. Handle it in a self-deprecating manner, and move along. Every
physics teacher hasrepeatedlysolved problems incorrectly. The more open and honest you are with the students in your class, the more theyll trust you to guide them to
the best of your ability.
All that said, the goal of this first year must be for you to learn the material well enough
so that you yourself could get a 5 on the May exam. Teaching AP Physics does require
subject-matter expertise. Developing that expertise takes a year. If youre still not able
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to solve exam-level physics problems after a year or two of hard studying and some supplemental coursework, well, you need to find something else to teach. But until then,
dont be intimidated.

Step 2: Prepare a Strategic Plan for the Course


By a strategic plan, I mean a general idea of how your course is going to be structured
from August to April. The obvious part of the strategic plan is which topics will be
covered over what periods of time; however, while that is an important feature, theres
much more to consider.
Begin your preparation by grafting topic coverage onto your own schools academic
calendar. The AP Physics 1 exam includes eight major topic areas; 5 Steps to a 5 covers
each of these as a separate content chapter. You should begin your course preparation by
deciding how much time to spend on your initial coverage of each major topic.
A simple way to do this is to use the sample syllabi published on the College Boards
AP Central website. Pick one you like. Look at the number of course days dedicated
to each topic, and use that as an approximate guide to how much time you must spend.
Next, look at your own schools calendar. Cross out special days when your class
doesnt meet or when you know nothing will be accomplished. Label each remaining
day of the school year with one of the eight chapters; now you have the beginnings of
a plan.
What about a math review? What about it? Your students have learned how to solve
algebraic equations in a single variable, and they know the definition of sine, cosine,
and tangent. Thats all they need to know.
Sure, they may not be good at either of these math skills, but so what? Theyll get
good by practicing in the context of physics problems. By diving into real physics on
the first day of class, you get students excited about the kinds of concrete, experimentally verifiable problems you can solve using these math skills. (See Step 3 for a further
discussion of how math should always be introduced in context.)
Then be prepared to actually follow the plan. Invariably, your calendar will tell you
that its time to end, say, the study of Newtons laws and move on to energy. But,
I know they dont truly get Newtons laws yet, youll say. Perhaps youll hear some
pointed, passive-aggressive commentary from students, parents, or even colleagues:
You know, the school isnt gonna lose its accreditation if you slow down a bit. Never
mindmove on. Make the yearly plan nonnegotiable.
Yes, you will have students who still dont understand a topic when its time to move
along. Thats okay. What makes you think that those students who are not getting every
problem right will suddenly have an epiphany the twelfth time you review a topic? And
what about the students who are doing fine and are ready to keep going? They should
not feel slowed down by their peers in what is billed as a college-level course.
Dont fret. Reviewing is best done in context throughout the course. For example,
when you talk about work done by friction, you will probably draw a free-body diagram

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and calculate the force of friction. That right there is a review of Newtons laws. Do a
problem with blocks colliding at the edge of a cliff in such a way that the blocks become
projectiles after the collisionyouve just done a kinematics review. Its amazing how
students who, back in September, couldnt solve a projectile problem to save their lives
suddenly figure it out when the projectile problem is in the context of new material.
Dont ask me why that is because I dont know. Maybe the concepts have had time to
percolate in the students brains; maybe the urgency of needing one topic to deal with
another promotes understanding. All I do know is that Ive seen it happen every year,
without exception. Those who initially seem hopeless figure things out the second or
third time they are exposed to a topic.
Double coverage? An alternative approach that Im going to try in my course is to
race through the eight major topics at a more basic level than that demanded on the
AP Physics 1 exam. Then, round about February, Ill go back to the beginning, but this
time asking questions that require the deep verbal responses that youll see on the exam.
The AP Physics 1 exam requires much more than calculations and one-sentence justifications. Nevertheless, since students often need multiple exposures to the same topic
before they get it at any level, I dont think many students are ready for deep reasoning
right away. Ill get them to the point where they can calculate the speed of carts after
a collision and explain how acceleration is different from velocity. Then, the second
time through, Ill take their recall of fundamental facts and their calculation ability for
granted. We can then tackle questions like, Describe a system for which momentum is
conserved, and another for which it is not. Or, Explain why doubling the initial speed
of a projectile does not necessarily double its maximum height.
What does your schools daily and weekly schedule look like? How you use your time in
class will be heavily determined by the structure of your meeting times. But dont think
like an administrator; the number of minutes per week you have available is a useless
statistic. Rather, think in terms of how many times you see your class each week and
whether you have a lot of time (that is 75 to 90 minutes) or a little time (that is,
35 to 45 minutes) with your students each day.
Physics, like hardtack, is best digested in small chunks over long periods. The number of class meetings is far more important than how long those meetings are. Ideally,
youd see your class every day for a short time, and then once a week youd have a lot
of time so that you could do lab work with extended data collection or give a test. And
ideally youd start in mid-August and have minimal breaks so that you could maximize
your class meetings.
Ha! you say. No one has that kind of ideal schedule. In fact, at my school . . .
[reader: insert valid complaint here].
I know. There is nothing you can do about it. You need to deal with all the obstacles
and find a way to teach a college-level course on a high school schedule.
The good news is that AP Physics 1 is substantially shorter than AP Physics B used to
be and shorter than AP Physics C is. There are only two scheduling possibilities that
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend.

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Dont teach AP Physics 1 and 2 in the same year unless you have 90 minutes every
day with a class thats universally MIT-bound, or unless everyone had an honors course
in the previous year that was substantially similar to AP Physics 1.3
Dont teach AP Physics 1 in a single-semester block, in which the course ends in
December or doesnt start until January, no matter how many minutes of class time
you have.
But you can make virtually anything else work.

Are you on a block schedule? Teaching every other day for a year can work just fine.
Youll have to be creative in your use of class timeits tough to sit still or focus
for 90 minutes straightbut theres still plenty of time for students to absorb what
youre teaching them.
If youre asked to teach a single-semester block, try offering two physics courses:
honors physics in the first semester, and then AP Physics 1 in the second semester with the honors course as a required prerequisite. Youll really be teaching AP
Physics 1 all year, but those honors students who drop out after a semester will still
learn a whole lot and have a positive experience.
Do you not have a long class for a lab period? Thats tough, but its okay. Try to
minimize setup and takedown time. Do as much supervised data collection in class
as possible, and then expect students to do the analysis at home. Or be creative with
the laboratory exercises so that many of them dont require extended single-day data
collection. (See the discussion of laboratory activities in Step 3.)
Do your students miss class all the time for pep rallies and student council days and
Panda Awareness Assemblies? Plan for the unexpected by teaching on a four-day
schedule. Expect three class days and a lab day each week, with the fifth day planned
to be something low-key like test corrections, an in-class problem-solving exercise,
student grading of homework to a rubric, an online exercise, or something else thats
useful but not critical to the courses progress.
Assign test dates in advance, and do not change them for anything less than the apocalypse. Ill talk in Step 4 about the enormous utility of tests, as a test is the only event
for which you can be guaranteed to have the classs universal attention. Its therefore
important that you schedule tests carefully. By scheduling them ahead of time in stone,
you can avoid as many conflicts as possible. Dont schedule a test the Monday after the
Super Bowl or the Friday before the prom. But theres no reason to postpone a test other
than for the cancellation of school.
I discourage giving frequent unit tests. These give the wrong impression of what
physics, and a physics test, is. Instead, schedule a test once a month. Whatever youve
covered from the first day of class up to the test date goes on the test; if youre a day
or two behind, then dont put the material you havent gotten to on the test. Students
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In which case, youre really just teaching AP Physics 2, anyway.

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and parents will no doubt complain that such infrequent testing makes each test high
stakes. Good! Thats kind of the point. The AP exam is a one-shot opportunity to
earn college credit. By the time the AP exam happens, your students will have had
experience with eight or so high-stakes practice tests, making the AP exam itself no
big deal.
Dont expect students to do more than one or two problems each night. Solving a physics problem is equivalent, intellectually, to writing a paragraph for English class.4 If
you assign too much homework, it wont be done right, and therefore it will be worse
than useless for your students progress. As youre pacing your course, expect that your
students can get through only one or two problems per night.
But this doesnt mean that you have to assign work due at every class meeting. As
long as students are accountable for doing thorough work (see Step 4), you can have
problems due every other day or even once a week. Still, whenever it is due, homework
should be assigned at a rate of one or two problems per night.
Use problem assignments to manage the pace of the course. Lets say your overall plan
involves 15 class days of work on kinematics. That means that you can assign only
15 to 20 problems on kinematics. In that case, better make em good.
Theres no point in publishing a schedule of problems due more than a few days in
advance. Students dont often work ahead at all, and, when they do, they work no more
than a day or two ahead. But students dont react well to changes in plans. Im sure this
has happened to you (if not, ask a colleague about it): you make a change in a previously
published assignment, you write that change on the board, tell everyone, send e-mails,
maybe even hand out a hard copy of the changeand sure enough, not just one but a
bunch of students dont get the message.5
So publish assignments on a weekly or semiweekly basis. Then you can adjust your
pacing as you go. Did you fall behind because of unforeseen circumstances? No problem; just add an extra day of problems on the current topic. Do you need to move on to
the next topic and skip some problems? Just do it. Since you didnt publish a long-term
schedule, no one will be the wiser.
The short-term unchangeable problem set becomes a way of ensuring that your
students cooperate with your daily class activities. They know that tonights assigned
problems involve the material you intend to discuss in class, and they know that theres
no chance of changing the assignment. So the class will be pretty cooperative with you
when you say, Johnny, I know you have more questions about [whatever Johnny wont
shut up about], and Ill be glad to work with you during extra help time. But tonights
problems involve the calculation of impulse, so I think its important that we get to

 nless youre assigning problems that are too simplistic. Keep reading for a discussion of the appropriate assignment of
U
nightly work, and see Step 4 for a discussion of the evaluation of nightly work.
5
Theres no point complaining that your students dont pay attention to what you say in class, any more than its
worth complaining that electrons have wave properties. Dont complain; just accept it. Minimize the possibility of
miscommunication, and then dispassionately hold students accountable for following clear and reasonable instructions.

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some impulse demonstrations, right? (Smile, dont wait for an answer, and start the
impulse demonstration.)6
So what makes a problem good, anyway? Homework problems should be similar in
level and style to AP problems. Then, when its time for the real exam, everyone has the
experience to know instinctively when he or she is overthinking or oversimplifying a
question. I recommend giving only one or two of these good problems per night, so that
students can reasonably be expected to present a thorough, annotated solution rather
than just 3/2 = 1.5 m/s/s.
You might be tempted to assign a bunch of straightforward plug-and-chug problems,
such as, What is the acceleration of a 2-kg object experiencing a 3-N net force? Perhaps
you want students to gain experience solving new equations; perhaps you want to build
your weaker students confidence. Nevertheless, assigning such problems is harmful, not
helpful. It lets weak students develop a false sense of confidence. Because they can do the
baby problems,7 they reason, they can do some physics, so theres no need for them to
work too much on those other problems. And even worse, the good students develop an
unhealthy antipathy to homework problems. To most students, plug-and-chug problems
fall into the category of busywork, or homework for the sake of giving homework
rather than for serious practice. So the good students will tune out all the homework,
assuming that everything will be busywork.
Conversely, you might be tempted to challenge your top students by assigning some
really tough, involved problems that are beyond the level of the AP exam. Dont! Its easy
to think that those top students will enjoy the challenge because you like a good challenge. But its more likely that they will resent the burden of the additional work. And for
the rest of the class, even one problem thats beyond the level of the AP exam will frustrate them and make them doubt their own skill. Their learned hopelessness means that
they are likely to assume that an AP exam problem is beyond them, even when its not.
Fine, Ill use AP-level problems. How do I know what is AP level? For the old AP Physics B exam, that was easy: you used the middle level of difficulty in any textbooks endof-chapter problems. All textbooks have some sort of ranking of problems by difficulty,
say, Levels I, II, and III. The Level II problems were generally what you were looking for.
Now, with AP Physics 1, the Level II problems probably wont include enough
demand for descriptive verbal responses. If youve taught physics for a long time, you
can probably still use Level II problems by adding some of your own additional explain
why types of questions to the textbook problem. That doesnt help a relatively new
teacher, though. How do you know what other kinds of verbal response questions to ask?
6

 ost of Johnnys classmates will be breathing a huge sigh of relief because they wanted him to shut up, too. Oh, and
M
dont expect to see Johnny at extra help time. Certainly help him in the one time in a hundred that he does show up, but
most likely, he doesnt want help; he wants either a distraction or an argument.
7
But they cant even do the baby problems right, you say. They divide 3/2 and get 0.6, and they forget the units!
Gotcha. But thats going to happen. Do you think your drill is going to solve your students basic algebra deficiencies,
when many years of math classes havent helped? Theyre more likely to pay attention to details when theyve done all
sorts of good work to solve a problem, but a division error prevented them from getting the right answer. This falls under
the old aphorism choose your battles.

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Try just assigning the Level II problem straight up. Look at your students
responses to see what mistakes they made, or what parts of the solution they didnt
show well. Then you can use the actual student responses to inspire a follow-up
question on a quiz or a later homework, something like, In order to calculate the
objects acceleration, what value do you use for the net force? Explain your choice
in words. Or, Explain how you know that the downward force of the ball on the
cart is 1.5 N.
When you have a chance, read and solve all the official College Boardreleased
AP Physics 1 items. Read the practice problems and the practice test in 5 Steps to a 5.
That should give you an idea of the style and level of descriptive response questions that
your students will need to be prepared for. Then mimic those kinds of questions as they
might apply to the situations described in a textbook problem.
Who should enroll in your course? The old AP Physics B exam was designed as a
second-year physics course. Students in AP Physics B needed either a previous year of
high school physics or a reasonably high aptitude and tolerance for fast-paced work in
order to succeed. Thats not true for AP Physics 1.
Teachers have all sorts of philosophies about deciding who should be allowed to
enroll in an AP section. For many of you, the decision is out of your handsadministrators play the role of general manager, and you coach whoever shows up. But if you
do have input into enrollment, Id recommend being as inclusive as possible.
Among college-bound high school students, the difference between a regular student and an AP student isnt really the students ability to handle material at the AP
level. The difference is the pace at which the student can absorb the material.8 For many
years I taught a regular-level physics course that took a full year to cover about a third
of the old AP Physics B curriculum. My regular-level students performed equivalently
to my AP students on authentic AP problemsas long, of course, as I restricted the
problems to the topics we had covered.
Now the Physics 1 exam contains about 60 percent of the material on the old Physics
B exam. You should probably be able to expand the pool of students in your AP-level class.
My own approach is to allow anyone to enroll in AP Physics 1. If a student asks my
opinion, I suggest that if he or she earned any sort of A in biology or chemistry classes,
or if he or she is enrolled in any honors math course, the student should give AP Physics
1 a shot. But pretty much any student who wants to try APand who knows what she
or he is getting intois welcome in my class.
Once the class starts, though, dont pull any punches, even for students who have reached
a bit to be in the AP course. Open enrollment can turn into a disaster if students at the
weaker end expect the class to slow down for them, or if they expect a route to high
grades that doesnt involve performance on tests. The meaning of the AP gradethe 5,
4, 3, 2, 1 scaleis that it represents approximately an A, B, C, D, F in the equivalent
college course. If a student is earning straight 1s on tests, that student should be getting

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Often, this also includes the students motivation to do whats necessary to handle the material successfully.

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Ds or Fs, not Bs. Ideally, though, I recommend counseling such a student out of the
AP class once its clear that he or she has little possibility of passing.9
You may well have to develop a relationship with the administrator in charge of
course movement. Because AP Physics is a college-level quantitative course, students
generally need more than the typical weeklong drop-add period to determine
whether they belong in it. More students than I can count have wanted desperately to
drop my class after getting their first few problems and quizzes back, but subsequently
they earned 5s on the May exam. See if you can arrange for students to be able to wait
until a couple of months (and a couple of tests) have passed before you make a final
decision to keep them in AP or to drop them to a regular-level course.
What should I assign as summer work? Nothing. Summer work is a terrible idea.
First of all, when does it get done?10 The night before class starts. What can be accomplished? Not much. Do you really want your students trying to learn about Newtons
laws without your guidance? Thats just begging to entrench misconceptions that youll
have to get rid of later. Oh, so you want to do a math review? The math in AP Physics 1
consists of algebra in a single variable and the definitions of the trig functions. Your
students either know or dont know this material; a review is not going to be productive. Worse, a mathematical summer assignment gives the wrong impression: physics is
not a math course! A summer math assignment means months of explaining why merely
solving for x does not earn much credit on the AP Physics exam.
The worst part of the summer assignment is that it sets you up for a worthless
confrontation. In all their other AP courses, your students have summer assignments,
most of which are far more integral to the course than anything you can do for physics in the summer. Therefore, most of them will show up resentful at having had to
do your work on top of everything else, and some of them will show up without the
work at all. Now you have to make a decision: Do you ignore their failure, perhaps
just giving them a slap11 on the wrist? That sends the message that you dont really
care whether your students do the assigned work, meaning that youll have a huge
fight on your hands to get the class members to take their problem sets seriously. Or,
do you bring the hammer down12 on the lazy bums who didnt do the summer work,
giving them a horrible grade out of the gate? That will present you in the most hostile
way possible on the first day of class. The perception, right or wrong, will be that you
are full of yourself and trying to enforce your authority. Why not save that battle for
the regularly scheduled problem sets, which are crucial to developing an understanding of the active course material?

 n this point, many people disagree with me. The College Board will tell you that a student who gets a 1 on the AP
O
exam still has gained valuable experience that will be useful in college. I say, why would you allow an overmatched batter
to hurt the team and lose confidence by hitting .100 all year, when you could have put that player on JV where he or she
would have hit .300 and been a star?
10
If it gets done at all.
11
Figuratively, I mean.
12
Again, figuratively.

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Step 3: Hold an Interesting Class Every Day


Most class days in an AP Physics course include some mix of these broad categories of
activities:




Teachers presentation of material to the class


Lab work
Independent or group work
Quizzes
Tests

Theres no way to plan each class to the minute before the school year starts. But
you certainly can decide how you want to distribute these activities over a typical
week.
Rule 3 of teaching: your students dont listen to you. Its nothing personal; mine dont
listen to me, either. Theres no point in complaining about the danged kids these days.13
Deal with your students as they are, not as you think they ought to be. And they are
inclined to tune out if you talk at them for more than a few minutes.
Dont feel that you need to go over every last little thing in class, because the class wont
remember what you went over, anyway. Heres where 5 Steps to a 5 comes in very handy.
At the end of each chapter is a list of facts. Your students should know these facts cold.
You dont have to say them or write them on the board; they can read them just fine out
of the book. Go ahead and assign students to learn some of these facts (or facts from a
textbooks chapter summary), and quiz them on these facts before youve said a word
about them in class. As an incentive to get your students to read and try to remember
the facts, you might even consider letting them use for the quiz any notes that theyve
personally handwritten.
In class, then, you assume that your students know fundamental facts, and you
work with them on applying the fundamentals to new situations. Thats what physics
is all about.
Give a short quiz every day. While students dont listen to you, theres no question
but that they pay attention to quiz questions. Therefore, if theres a point you want to
make about a common mistake on the homework, dont talk to the class about it; ask a
pointed question about it on a daily quiz.
Quizzes can use any format you want. My colleague Curtis convinced me to use
short-answer questions that can be either straight fact recall (The slope of a velocitytime graph is _____) or a bit more open-ended (On the homework problem for today,
why was the normal force greater than the carts weight?). Multiple-choice questions
have the advantage of being quick and easy to grade. A quiz can be word-for-word from
a homework problem, thus ensuring that students didnt just copy their friends or an
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In my day, kids listened, respected their elders, and never texted in class.

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11

online solution, or you could change the situation in the homework slightly by making
the cart heavier or doubling its initial speed.
However the daily quiz is structured, its worth doing. It serves a multitude of
purposes:

Any issues of students arriving late will vanish after a few daily quizzes. Youre not
in your seat when the bell rings? Im not mad at you and youre not in trouble; you
just dont get to take the quiz. Without confrontation or rancor, Ive bought five
extra minutes per class period.
The quiz provides a few quiet minutes for me to collect the students homework
individually. I can find out immediately if someone is unprepared without interrupting the flow of the class. I can also deal with the unprepared student immediately. Students know that they cant hide missing homework.
Going over the quiz as soon as its over is as good a content review as you can find.
Students care deeply about the answers, so theyre willing to listen and engage in a
way that they wouldnt if you just said, Lets go over homework problem 1.
If you can do it, try having students grade each others quizzes.14 Then each student
is paying double attention to the answerslistening to see whether his or her own
answer is right or wrong, and listening to see whether the other students paper
should be marked right or wrong.
Sure, you might have to deal with some drama-mongering colleagues breathlessly
wondering how you could be so cruel to your class as to give so many quizzes. Your
response is to wonder, in return, why must a quiz be considered cruel? Is the football
coach cruel because he has the team play football during practice? Is the soccer coach
cruel because he runs a 15-minute scrimmage at the end of each practice? Is the tennis
coach cruel because she has players play challenge matches? So whats the problem with
having students practice responding to physics questions every day? Isnt that exactly
what were supposed to be doing in a physics class? Keep giving your quizzes, and the
complaints will vanish in the wind.
Do quantitative demonstrations that combine problem solving and demonstrations.
How is a physics problem different from a math problem? The result from a physics
problem should not be called the answer, it should be called a prediction. In physics,
were not just crunching numbers; were deciding what we truly think would happen if
we were to set up the problem for real.
Therefore, I never do abstract textbook problems in class. Instead, I pose problems
based on a real, physical setup on my demonstration table. The answer to the problem
becomes a quantitative prediction, which we test right away with a measurement. Each
demonstration takes between 10 and 30 minutes to get through; thats the time it takes
to pose the problem to the class, demonstrate the problem-solving technique, ask a
14

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 his will probably work even if the quizzes themselves count minimally or not at all in the students course grades.
T
Try it.

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check your neighbor question here and there, and then do the measurement to verify
the prediction.
Where do you get ideas for quantitative demonstrations? Take a typical textbook problem and reimagine it at a scale thats appropriate for your classroom, with equipment
that you have available. That means, for example, string forces that are measurable with
your 5-N spring scales; masses of carts in the 2501,500 g range that match your lab
carts; speeds that you can measure easily with a sonic motion detector; currents in the
neighborhood of hundreds of microamps, which can be produced by a typical 12-V
supply and 100-kW resistors.
For those situations that wont scale down to the classroom, you can try searching
for a measurable video. For example, you can probably find stock footage of traveling
water waves or jets on a runway. Make testable predictions about the wavelength of the
waves or the takeoff speed of the jet.
And finally, if neither live equipment nor authentic video is available, computer
simulations are a useful last resort. Take a look at the PHET series of simulations provided by the University of Colorado. These are generally amenable to the same sorts of
measurable predictions that Id do live in class.
Can you give some examples of quantitative demonstrations? Absolutely. Here are some
demonstrations associated with each chapter in 5 Steps to a 5. Other ideas can be found
by browsing through the Jacobs Physics blog online.

Chapter 10: Kinematics


My projectile launcher gives a ball a speed of 4.8 m/s. How high will the ball go when
its fired straight up? How much time will it be in the air before it hits the ground
1.2 m below the launch position? I pose these problems and solve them on the board.
That gives me the chance to model problem-solving methods. But when I get an answer
of 1.1 m, its not just an answerits a prediction that Im going to test, live, right away.
Sure enough, the ball reaches 110 cm (measured by metersticks) above the launcher.
Physics works. The projectile launcher can be angled to deal with two-dimensional
motion problems.
A fan cart has known acceleration. Sketch a velocity-time and position-time graph
for the cart moving (left, right) and (speeding up, slowing down, moving at constant
speed). Then, use the sonic motion detector to make those graphs live.

Chapter 11: Force


I set up all sorts of equilibrium problems with strings, pulleys, and hanging masses.
The tension of the strings can be measured with spring scales. Later, a motion detector can be added to measure the acceleration of the masses when they are no longer in

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equilibrium. So pick any textbook problem with strings and pulleys, and scale it so that
the tensions are under 5 N, which is the maximum reading on the good spring scales
you probably have.
A fan cart will provide a consistent force of the fan on the cart, one that can be
measured easily (mine is 0.28 N when the fan is fully charged). You can use the cart
to do straightforward Newtons second law calculations (to determine the acceleration
of the cart), but you can also combine this fan force with string forces, put the fan cart
on an incline (try predicting the incline angle for which the cart remains at rest), angle
the fan so that only a component of the fan force is relevant to the carts acceleration,
and so on.

Chapter 12: Momentum


A force plate is a digital platform scale. I use it for qualitative and quantitative demonstrations with the impulse-momentum theorem. Get a happy and a sad ballone
bounces high; the other barely bounces at all. Predict which experiences a larger force
in colliding with the ground, then drop them on the force plate to verify the prediction.
Jump off the force plate and use the impulse calculated from the force-time graph to
predict how high you jumped.
For collisions, set up virtually any collision on a track with motion detectors measuring the speeds of the carts before and after the collision.15 You can be selective about
what information from the detectors is given as part of the problem and what you are
predicting with conservation of momentum.

Chapter 13: Energy


I focus on the three major situations in which constant-acceleration kinematics is an
invalid approach, and so the work-energy theorem must be used: carts on curved tracks,
vibrating springs, and pendulums.
Its straightforward to put a cart on a curved track, predict the carts speed at the
bottom of the track, and verify that speed with a motion detector. I use a bowling ball
and a rope to create a several-meter-high pendulum. Some trigonometry is necessary to
determine the vertical height of the bowling ball when its released, but nevertheless, its
easy to use a motion detector to verify the maximum speed of the ball at its lowest point.
For the mass on a spring, I pull the mass down a few centimeters and release it.
I predict the maximum speed of the massbut I deliberately do the prediction incorrectly, using F = kx to get the spring force, F = ma to get the masss acceleration, and
15

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I dont believe in air tracks. These are a boondoggletheyre loud, they take up a lot of space, they break or lose
functionality easily, and they do nothing that cant be done equally well with high-quality lab carts on a track.

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kinematics to find the maximum speed. The motion detector reading emphatically does
not match the predictionphysics didnt work for once! The class members discover
that they really do have to use energy methods to predict speeds when acceleration isnt
constant, as the prediction is dead-on when we re-solve the problem with the workenergy theorem.

Chapter 14: Rotation


For torque in equilibrium, hang a meterstick horizontally by two strings with spring
scales attached. Hang one or two masses at random spots on the meterstick, then predict the reading on the scales.
For circular motion, I stick brass weights on a turntable for which I know the coefficient
of static friction and the period of rotation. We predict the maximum radius for which
the weights stay on the turntable. The result, mathematically, is independent of mass, so
I replace the weights with heavier brass weights, and they stay put in the same locations.
I mainly do qualitative rather than quantitative demonstrations for rotational
dynamics. For example, I ask, Which of these rolling objects will reach the bottom of
the ramp first? or, Which of these metersticks with masses attached at different locations will swing fastest? To make rotational demonstrations quantitative, try getting a
wheel with adjustable weights for which the rotational inertia can be trivially calculated.
If you or your students have access to an air hockey table, take some video of the pucks
colliding with a meterstick for a quantitative demonstration with angular momentum.

Chapter 15: Gravitation


Okay, its hard to do true in-class quantitative demonstrations with gravitation. What,
youre going to take a trip to Jupiter to measure the gravitational field there?
I use this chapter to teach the techniques of order-of-magnitude estimation, as
described in 5 Steps to a 5. Its pretty easy to find animations of planetary or stellar
orbits; you can predict the masses of stars or planets (or the entire galaxy) using circular
motion data, predict gravitational fields using mass and radius data, and so on. Im still
always making a testable prediction in my problem solving; its just that Im testing
that prediction via online sources rather than via direct in-class measurement.

Chapter 16: Electricity


Circuits lend themselves very well to quantitative demonstrations. Set up any textbook
problem in the classroom with ammeters and voltmeters; you may have to scale the
problem to accommodate the power rating of your resistors and the maximum or mini-

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mum current that can be measured on your ammeters. You can put flashlight bulbs
in the circuit and predict which should be brightest. If you have a light meter, you can
even test that prediction quantitativelydouble the voltage should give four times the
brightness, since brightness depends on power. So if you double the voltage, the light
meter reading will quadruple, not double.
Coulombs law is a tough one. Many people swear by the Van de Graff generator
charge it up and hang a Styrofoam ball near it. If the string is long, the angle at which
the ball is deflected should be related to the force on the ball. Double the distance from
the Van de Graff and the force on the ball should be cut by a factor of four.
Me, Ive never gotten this to work right. My classroom was notoriously humid,
and the belts on the Van de Graff always seemed to be broken. I couldnt even get
anyones hair to stand up.16 So it is the simulation and video route for me. Try to find
the old PSSC Coulombs Law video by searching onlinein a very 1950s way, it
demonstrates conclusively the inverse-square force relationship using charged balls and
a room-sized device to read force on the balls.

Chapter 17: Waves and Simple Harmonic Motion


Resonance and standing waves in PVC pipes can now be done with smartphone frequency generators; I use resonances to measure the speed of sound. If you do this in
wintertime,17 redo the experiment outside to find a slightly but measurably slower
sound speed. Back in my day,18 we used microphones hooked to oscilloscopes to display
the amplitude and period of a sound wave. Nowadays, any smartphone or tablet can
do the job. Predict what the simulated oscilloscope trace will look like for a sound with
doubled frequency (that is, an octave). Without getting into too much music theory,
I predict the lengths of PVC pipe closed at one end that will allow me to play the song
Louie, Louie in the style of the Blue Man Group. We measure and cut the PVC, and
play the song.
Harmonic motion demonstrations can be done easily with springs and pendulums.
To find the spring constant of a spring, stick a mass on it and hang it from a force probe
with a motion detector underneath. Let it oscillate while plotting force vs. position; the
slope of this graph, which can be made in five seconds, is the spring constant.
Graphical analysis of data canand shouldbe the focus of your lab course. The
advantage of quantitative demonstrations is that you need only one set of equipment
arranged properly at the front of the room. If you have only one motion detector, one
photogate, and so on, you can still do experimental physics with your class.

16

It doesnt help that I teach at a boys school where long hair is actively discouraged. And dont talk to me about grease.
Or, if you teach in sunny Hawaii or Florida, use your cafeterias walk-in freezer.
18
June 23, 1987.
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Nevertheless, the College Board requires that 25 percent of class time be spent on
lab work, which it defines as work in which the students themselves manipulate equipment, so you need to go beyond solving problems on the board, and even beyond just
quantitative demonstrations. How?
Get away from the idea that lab work is making measurements of a few data points, filling in a table with averages, doing some calculations, then (no matter what the actual numbers are) saying, The answer is close. Thats sixth-grade science. Instead, expect to spend
a lot of time having students collect and graph data. Get students used to the process of:




Collecting and plotting raw data on a properly labeled graph


Replotting data on axes that produce a linear relationship
Drawing a proper best-fit line
Determining the slope and intercept of the line from the experimental graph
Comparing these to the slope and intercept predicted by a theoretical equation

As an example, consider the first laboratory exercise I do with my AP class.19


I start by briefly showing the experiment. At the front of the room, I stick a cart
on an angled track. I hold a string with an attached spring scale parallel to the track
and read the scale; I put an angle indicator20 on the ramp and read the angle. I make
a table on the board with columns for the tension in the string and the angle of the
incline. I sketch a graph on the board next to the table, with axes labeled Tension in
the string (N) and Angle of the incline above the horizontal (degrees). I place a dot
on the graph. Then I make one more measurementand were just about ready to go.
The last thing I do before breaking everyone into groups is to briefly discuss
therules of laboratory work, including that all data go directly on the graph, and that
you may not measure the same data point twice. (Many students will ignore these rules.
Dont get frustrated; just expect it and deal with it. Even in my AP Summer Institute,
several teachers made a table of data without a graph, despite the fact that I said two
or three times, very loudly, You may not just make a data table now and graph later!)
Finally, I choose partners randomly withrandom.org, and we go at it.
Go at what? you ask. Wheres the lab sheet?
There is no lab sheet. The students have to listen and watch, then do the experiment. If they didnt figure out what to do by watching,a lab sheet wont help.
So how do you set up all the stations before lab?
I dont. I show everyone where the equipment is kept. Thats it. They have to tie
the string themselves. They have to find their own space to use, even if that space is in
the hallway. And they have to clean up after themselves. This approach saves me time,
sure, but its also more authentic experimental physics. For students, doing the setup
19
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 he experimental description here is taken from the Jacobs Physics blog, as posted on August 22, 2013.
T
If you dont have the $20 PASCO angle indicatorand you probably shouldntuse the Clinometer or iHandy
Level app on the iPhone. Android has similar and free apps.

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themselves, with no lab sheet, makes the experiment less an exercise in following directions than one in collecting data to which they have a personal connection.
How many data points should they collect?
Theyre not allowed to ask that silly question. They keep collecting data until a first
grader could clearly determine whether the data points are making a line or a curve.
When they think they have enough data, groups show me the graph, and I take a look
at it. More often than not, on the first day, I say, What, you think five points provide
a clear pattern? Pah, back to the experiment before I send thee to the dungeons. Then
comes, Oh, these data are looking good, and they do in fact look linear. But the angles
only go up to about 40 degrees. Lets explore all the available angles . . . why not go up
as steep as possible? Then well be sure that the line continues.
Finally, groups will produce a graph that flattens out at larger angles. At this
pointand not beforeI show the free-body diagram and equations relating the tension in the string to the angle:T = mg sin . No wonder the graph flattens . . . thats
what a sine graph does for angles from 0 to 90 degrees! This is a pretty awesome aha!
moment for many students, one that wouldnt have happened if I had shown them the
equation or the analysis before we started.
All this data collection generally takes most of a 90-minute period. Those who finish put away their equipment and begin the analysis, in which they make a new graph
of tension vs. the sine of the angle. Then they use the linear graphs slope to determine
the carts mass.
To determine the physical meaning of the slope of a graph, identify variables in the
relevant equation with variables in the general equation for a line, y = mx + b. In this
case, students identify the tension T with the y axis and sin q with the x axis. Therefore,
the slope of the graph is identified with mg. To find the mass m of the cart, take the
slope of the graph and divide by g.
Once a student has determined a mass for the cart, he or she will undoubtedly tell
you that this is close to the correct mass, even if it is off by a factor of 10. Dont let
anyone get away with such a vague statement. Make students quantify close. How
close? Find a percent difference between the mass measured in this experiment and the
mass measured on a scale (or the mass as stated by the carts manufacturer). In a typical
physics lab, youre happy to be within about 10 percent.
An even more rigorous comparison can be made by plotting a line on the graph
that represents the slope using the manufacturers value for the mass. We already said
that the slope of the graph represents mg, the weight of the cart. So if youre using a
500-g cart, the slope of this experimental T versus sin q graph should be 5 N. Have
the students use a different color of pen to draw a line of slope 5 N on the graph.
If that line could conceivably be considered a best fit, then your experiments mass
calculation agrees with the manufacturers value. However, if the line with slope 5 N
is far steeper or shallower than the actual experimental graph, then either the equation doesnt apply to this situation or you werent measuring what you thought you
were measuring.

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Give the students less guidance as the year goes on. The College Board sets as its holy
grail the open inq*ry21 laboratory exercise, in which students are given a problem to
solve with absolutely no guidance: Heres a rubber band. Does it obey Hookes law?
Thats great in principle, but its not going to work early in the school year. Your students simply wont have enough experience to make that assignment successful. Notice
that I give pretty darned specific instructions in my first lab. I wont hand out a lab
sheet, but I will certainly and carefully show everyone how to use the equipment to
make the measurement correctly. Within a few months, I can start giving less detailed
instructions, saying something like, Measure the speed of the cart at the bottom of
the hill as a function of the height of the hill and expect groups to come up with their
own methods of measuring the carts speed.
If you do a bunch of labs involving measurement and graphical analysis, then somewhere around December, youll start to hear grumblings along the lines of, Again with
the graphing and the best fit. Boring! Thats when you know that your class is ready for
more open-ended assignments. Eventuallymaybe even after the AP exam itselfyou
can ask your students to create their own experiments in the style of the labs youve been
doing all year. However, you shouldnt feel pressured to make every lab as open-ended
as the College Board will tell you it prefers. Build your students gradually to the point
where they feel like they can do anything in the laboratory.
Use 1960s equipment for laboratory exercises. While I recommend using whatever
technology you can lay your hands on for demonstrations, I think its perfectly reasonable to minimize technology for lab work.
The whole point of lab work is for students to get their hands dirty with experimental physics and to help them learn to be creative and rigorous in making direct
measurements of physical quantities. If everything in the lab is a preset app on a smartphone that automatically calculates whatever the students are measuring, much of that
creativity is lost.
Perhaps you have enough motion detectors or photogates to give one setup to each
group. Perhaps you have a class set of iPads with video analysis software. Thats awesome. But if you dont, thats fine, too. You can do all sorts of AP Physics 1 experiments
using only equipment that was available in 1960: masses, carts, stopwatches, pulleys,
strings, batteries, resistors, metersticks, spring scales, and so on. Just pick an equation
from your text for which you can make direct measurements of two of the variables.
Have the students measure and graph those variables, and you have created a laboratory
exercise.
Make all graphs by hand; never, ever use a graphical analysis program. Many students
will certainly kvetch about making graphs by hand. Thats what Excel is for, theyll
say. Youre just making me do busywork. No, thats not the case. How many of your
students have ever had to take a piece of graph paper, create their own scales for the
axes, plot the points, draw a best-fit line, and take the slope with no aid other than a
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ruler and a calculator? Probably none. Yet the AP exam expects students to do just that,
and to do it as just a small part of a 20-minute free-response problem.
Graphing by hand every week in lab not only gives your students practice so that
they will do well on the exam, but gives them visceral experience with analysis. For
example, early on, students might try to record data from a voltmeter to four-figure
precision. I dont object; I let thembecause when they try to put those data on the
graph, they realize for themselves that 4.318 V looks exactly the same as 4.3 V, but
different from 4 V. Or, as they graph by hand, they see what looks like a linear pattern
developing, but then they see for themselves that larger angles cause the graph to flatten.
Later in the course, students will recognize for themselves how to collect data over an
entire range of interest. But that recognition doesnt happen so easily if the computer
just magically spits out a picture.
Are there other ways to do lab work? Sure. One different approach would be to pick
one homework problem each week for which you have sufficient equipment for everyone to set it up live in class, just as you might set up a quantitative demonstration.
Making the explicit link between problem solving and lab work is always a good idea
if you can do it. Some teachers like to set up stations, in which students are asked to
make quick measurements of some quantity. After 20 minutes, students rotate to a new
station that uses similar equipment to ask for a different measurement. Any exercises
that require your students to manipulate equipment with some degree of creativity work
as AP Physics 1 labs.
Dive into real physics from the first moment of the first day of class. Within 10 minutes
of arrival, Im doing physics with both problem solving and experimentation. I introduce
the definition of equilibrium, showing with spring scales that up forces must equal down
forces and left forces must equal right forces. By the second day of class, Ive introduced
the idea of a normal force, and Ive shown what happens when forces act at angles.
Rule 1 of teaching: never condescend. What about reading the syllabus, discussing
grading policies, and describing class rules? I dont understand the thought behind even
having class rules. Your students may not be adults in the eyes of the law, but if you
want a relaxed, cooperative atmosphere in your class, you absolutely must treat your
students like adults. When adults come together for, say, a business conference or a
national meeting, the event doesnt start with an authority figure reading a list of things
that the attendees can and cant do. How would you react to such a start to a conference?
I know Id be thinking right away about how I could passive-aggressively stick it to the
jerk who is trying to tell me what to do. I mean, I signed up for this conference to learn
something, not to be a pawn for somebodys power trip.
You see what I mean. Your students are generally juniors or seniors, and good
students at that. They have plenty of experience taking high school classes. They can
readso give them the syllabus with a brief summary of grading policies and tell them
to read it. Going over the syllabus and the rules is asking for an argument and leaves the
students trying to figure out how to game their grade based on the rules you laid out.

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But doing physics leaves the students saying, Cool, and asking questions like, Wait,
doesnt the block also apply a force to the table?
If nothing else, you know darned well that virtually every other teacher at your
school is using the first day of class to read the syllabus and discuss policies. You will
have an especially enthusiastic audience if youre the only teacher doing something
active and content-related on the first day of school.
What about a unit of math review? Dont do that. Everyone whos ever tried an alternative to starting the class with a math review unit will never go back. If you believe
education literature, every study has suggested that students do far better without the
initial math review unit.
Remember, youre not teaching any new math,22 except possibly techniques of
vector addition and the use of vector components. And these topics are far, far better
learned in the context of physics problems.
In fact, I never use the word vector until a couple of months into the school year.
In the first week of school, we break forces into components, and I do that without
true mathematical rigor. I show a rope pulling at an angle, equilibrating a 1-N left force
and a 2-N down force. I ask, Is this rope providing an upward or a rightward force?
The students instantly see that it is providing both. Next, we calculate the amount of
force it must produce using the known horizontal and vertical components of the force.
When I draw these forces as arrows pointing right and up, they see immediately that
the resultant force of the rope cant be 3 N; the component forces have to add to 2.2 N,
using the Pythagorean theorem.23 Using the tangent function, we can predict that the
rope is angled 63o above the horizontal.
Finally, I run the problem backward; given a (new) resultant force and its angle q,
can I predict the component forces? Sure. Multiply the resultant by sin q for the vertical
component and by cos q for the horizontal component.
From this point on, I expect students to be able to break vectors into components and to find resultants. When we get to projectiles launched at an angle, I
dont have to do any further teaching; students see right away that the horizontal
and vertical components of an initial velocity can be found in the same way as those
for forces.
I save my real discussion of the conceptual difference between vector and scalar
quantities for collision problems involving energy and momentum. Momentum is a
vector, so two identical carts moving at the same speed in opposite directions have a
total system momentum of zero. However, kinetic energy is a scalar, so these carts have
nonzero kinetic energy.
22

 he one student every few years who claims not to have seen the sine, cosine, or tangent before does just fine when
T
I (or some classmates) take five minutes outside of class to explain SOHCAHTOA and how to use the buttons on a
calculator.
23 
Well, they say that the component forces add to 5 N. I have to point out that the spring scale doesnt have a mark for
square roots before someone says 2.236 N. We finally get the right answer when I show them that the scale can be read
only to the nearest 0.1 N or so. By the way, this is pretty much my entire lesson in significant figures, and it works just
as well or not well as a week of worksheets and reading.

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Until this point in the course, though, I treat speed and velocity as almost synonyms;
I replace the word magnitude with amount. The point is that I want students to focus
on using physics facts and equations to make predictions; until they have significant
experience, the difference between a vector and a scalar is esoteric and frustrating, distracting them from developing their problem-solving skills.

Step 4: Evaluate Your Students Progress


Im a strong advocate of a less is more approach to teaching physics. You dont have
to assign enormous amounts of work, you dont have to give tests every week, and you
dont have to assign any reading at all. One problem per night, a short quiz every day
or two, and a test every month should be easily sufficient to enable your students to
make appropriate progress. For one thing, such a small amount of assigned work will
buy you a good bit of political capital, making students willing to work harder and
without complaint.24 Even though the one problem each night has three or four parts
and requires a full page of presentation to answer, students will compare their assignment favorably to that of a math classs do problems 151 odd. They will be pleased
that your expectations seem to them to be reasonable in scope (that is, 20 to 40 minutes
per night rather than the hours expected in other AP classes) and productive in nature
(that is, not perceived as busywork).
The more important reason to use a less is more philosophy is that by keeping the
amount of work minimal, you can expect that work to be utterly brilliant.
Demand that homework problems be presented, not merely answered. A homework
problem in physics is far more similar to writing a paragraph for an English class, or
even to an assignment for AP Studio Art, than to solving a math problem. Its not
good enough for you to get the right answer, or even just to show your worka wellpresented problem should provide an annotated, reasoned solution. The explanation of
the reasoning behind the answer is more important than the answer itself.
Imagine that an English teacher assigns an essay on Hamlet. A student writes, as
an entire essay, Prince goes crazy; everybody dies. How well did this student meet
the teachers expectations? What grade is that student going to get? The student will
complain, perhaps, about not deserving an F . . . because the answer is exactly right.
You may think Im arguing ab absurdum, but have you not seen solutions to
physics problems along these lines? A student whose answer to a physics problem is
F = ma, 30/6 = 5 m/s/s has in no way engaged with the problem, any more than the
Prince-goes-crazy student has engaged with Shakespeare. You have every right, nay,
every responsibility, to require more.
Rule 2 of teaching: trust, but verify. Grading homework problems doesnt have to be
a detailed process. Grades on problem sets must exist; otherwise, less is more devolves

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into just less.25 But those grades dont have to be the result of a long, careful, rigorous
process. Ideally, youre grading homework every night or two. Unless you have no life
beyond school, you must find a way to grade a stack of problems quickly.
Start by recognizing that theres little point in writing more than a word or two on
anyones problem set. The students almost certainly wont read what youre writing, at
least not carefully. Your time is valuabledont use it in noble yet fruitless endeavors.
I recommend grading homework holistically. That means, look at the solution as
a whole. Did the student apply the correct physics principle? Did she or he explain the
important or tricky parts of the solution? Is the answer right? Is a conceptual portion
of the problem justified with a fact, equation, or calculation, and is that justification
clear and correct? Does the solution include words, equations, diagrams, and numbers?
If you answered yes to all of these, give the homework full credit. If you have doubts
about some of these issues, give the problem partial creditexactly how much doesnt
really matter. And if pretty much none of the questions can be answered in the affirmative, dont give the problem much credit at all.
But wont the students argue about my grading? At the beginning of the year, probably they will. So what? Dont engage in a discussion about homework grades, especially
during class. Answer any questions about physics principles carefully and enthusiastically. But as soon as anyone asks about points, or as soon as you hear a hostile attitude,
stop talking and move on to something more pleasant.
Since youre grading problems every night or two, your students will quickly come
to the realization that a point on one nights problem set, like a teensy drop of gasoline
that didnt quite make it into the tank, is negligible and thus not worth worrying about.
Especially once they realize that you wont even argue, theyll just drop the issue and
move on. A few malcontents might complain behind the scenes, but thats going to
happen no matter what your grading style might be.
However, if youre worried about defending yourself to administrators, you might
consider posting your solutions on a bulletin board. When a student or a parent complains, Teacher took off points and wouldnt tell me why, you can point to the posted
solutions: Oh, thats weird. I asked Johnny to compare his work with the posted solutions and to come back to me if he still needed help solving the problem. He never
came back, so I assumed that he understood. Did Johnny compare his work with the
posted solutions? Make any argument that ensues be about physics comprehension and
appropriate steps toward learning physics, not about grades.
Treat tests as the best teaching tool ever invented. Because your students care so much
about their test grades, milk the tests for all they are worth to firm up their physics
ability. A test can be visited and revisited at least three times: once on the test itself,

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 ou are welcome to believe that students should do the work on their own initiative, because their love of learning and
Y
their dedication to intellectual improvement are the greatest motivators. Now show me a football coach who doesnt
make practice and conditioning a required part of being on the team. You cantsuch a coach would be winless and
unemployed.

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23

once when students do corrections on the problems that they missed, and once more
when you ask targeted quiz questions about issues that the class struggled with. The
process of giving and debriefing a test can be compared to a football teams treatment of
a regular-season game. Perform on game day; then, win or lose, deconstruct what went
right or wrong so that the next game is even better.
Start with an authentic test. Thats going to be tricky for a few years, while theres
still a scarcity of AP-style questions. Ideally, a test should have a style and format identical to those of the AP exam itself. That means that students are given a bit less than
two minutes per multiple-choice item, and two minutes per point on the free-response
items. That means that the test should have few, if any, questions that ask merely for a
one-step calculation, and certainly no questions at all like, Write the equation for net
force in terms of acceleration.
For now, use the items released by the College Board and use the questions in the
practice exam in 5 Steps to a 5 and some of those at the end of the chapters. See if your
textbook offers test questions in the style of the AP Physics 1 exam. Be careful about
test question sources, though. Try to find questions written by people with a connection
to the AP program. And use your own spidey-senses, tooby reading all the available official sample questions, you can get a feel for the kinds of questions that will
appear. Since every test has a few hard questions and a few easy questions, be sure
that your tests mix difficulty levels so that the overall test is consistent with what you
see in official samples.
Make the test as long and as broad as time allows. I use my extended lab period for
testing once a month. This allows me to give a nearly half-length AP-style exam. If you
dont have that kind of time available, try giving the multiple-choice section on one day,
then following with the free-response questions on the next day. The longer the test, the
better students will perform because the more likely it will be that theyll find questions
that they are comfortable with, and, therefore, the more time theyll have to approach
the difficult questions.
Make the test cumulative, including all material youve covered this year. Otherwise,
you give your class an excuse to forget or ignore old topics. Testing on only the current
unit sends the message that the previous unit isnt important anymore, and that attitude
will come back to bite your students in April, when they are preparing for the exam.
When every test has several questions from previous topics as well as some free-response
questions that integrate techniques from multiple topics, your students will spread their
review time over the course of the year rather than trying to cram their review into an
all-nighter on May 13.
Urgent: never, ever, allow students to ask questions on a test. Every year when I grade
AP exams, I see students writing diatribes about how they dont understand the question, or the question is unfair, or the sort of complaint thats generally accompanied by
palms-up, hands-waving, frustrated anger. And I wonder about itpresumably these
students have been in an AP class all year. So they cant answer one of the questions
why the hostility?

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Its likely such students are not used to a testing situation where they do not have
their teacher to rely on for guidance. Watch a colleague give a test in math or science
class. How many times do you see students get stuck on a problem and instantly come
to the teachers desk to ask for help? Sure, a lot of the time, the teacher may say something innocuous like, Why dont you read the question again, which gets the student
unstuck so that he or she can make progress on the test. I agree that such a teacher is
not being unethical or dishonest. But that teacher is doing the students a tremendous
disservice.26
When the AP exam presents a new and challenging situation, your students will
not be able to ask you or anyone else a question to point them in the right direction.
They will be on their own. They need practice in figuring out problems on their own.
If students havent had such practice, if theyve always had the teacher show them how
to start difficult problems on their in-class tests, then its no wonder that they get upset
when their training wheels are yanked away on the biggest test of the year. And even
if you never gave truly useful hints, just the fact that at the exam they cannot come
to a teachers desk to ask for clarification of a question will throw your students for
a loop.
I am utterly convinced that your school could boost its SAT and AP scores in math
and science instantly if only every teacher would test authentically by refusing to allow
students to ask questions.
Prepare your students ahead of time for your no questions on tests policy. A day or two
before the test, go over testing procedures with the students. Pass out the cover sheet,
on which is written the number of questions and the time for each section, and the AP
table of information. Then explain: Unless you are missing a page, you may not ask
a question during the test. No exceptions.
But think why students ask questions. Its not true that most of them are desperately
hoping that youll give them the answer. Most are genuinely confused 27; and when a
smart student is confused, she or he quite reasonably assumes that the issue is with the
test question itself. (After all, that student has gotten 90 percent and above on every
other test for a lifetime; why should physics be any different?) So the student comes to
your desk to ask something like, You didnt tell us the mass of the cart; shouldnt you
do that, please?
Well, as a physics teacher, you know that this student is missing something importantperhaps the mass isnt necessary to solve the problem, or perhaps the mass can be
calculated or estimated using some indirect method. But no matter what your response,
by allowing the student to ask the question, you have defeated the point of the test question. Even saying, I think you can solve this problem, implies to the studentand to

26

 nd the teacher who actually does help, who talks the student through the problem, has in my mind breached testing
A
decorum. Thats comparable to a referee helping a quarterback read the defense: Now, son, you know they havent
covered your tight end the past three plays. You might want to throw to him. How would you feel about that referee?
27
Im excluding Joey, who thought he was so clever on second-grade spelling tests when he asked, Could you spell that,
please?

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the rest of the classthat the mass isnt important. Thats for the students to figure out
for themselves, not for them to hear from you!
And its an unfortunate fact that every other time the student has challenged a test
question in the past decade of school, the teachers answer has been something like,
Oh, sorry, that question has a major typo.
So ahead of time, you must give your students a strategy for what to do when they
think a problem is misstated. While you may not ask me a question during the test,
you may write anything you like on the test. If you think you need more information
to solve a problem, tell me somake up the information and solve the problem. If you
think a multiple-choice item doesnt include the right answer or is ambiguous, write
that down. When the test is over, Ill look at what youve written. Chances are, youre
missing something; writing down your concern and moving on is the best approach for
getting as much credit as possible. However, in the unlikely event that the question is
poorly phrased, I will look at what you wrote and consider how to award credit fairly.
Proofread your tests rigorously. When you test, youre entering into a covenant with
your studentsthey must, without help from you or their classmates, show you what
they know so that you can evaluate their physics knowledge. But in turn, you must write
a test that fairly and clearly allows them to demonstrate that knowledge. If after every
test you have to explain, Yeah, number 4 wasnt stated clearly; I meant find the speed
of cart A, but I said find the speed of cart B. Oh, and number 6 had an issue, then
youll lose your classs confidence.
Sure, mistakes happen. Theyve happened on the real AP exam; several released
exams say, Number 67 was not scored, or, Since the problem as stated was not clear
on this issue, either of two answers earned credit. If you screw up a question, be fair
about itaward credit for any reasonable approach, or just throw out a bad multiplechoice question. When you return the test, make sure your students know what happened and how youre dealing with it.
But if you have to correct a mistake more than once or twice in a year, you are not
proofreading carefully enough. Take every test before you give it, even if its a test youve
given before or a test you got from someone else.
Stick to your guns when they try to ask you questions anyway. I will bet my life
savings28 that, no matter how well you prepare your students for your first test, one of
them will get up and try to ask you a question. I know I cant ask questions, but . . . ,
the student will say.
Cut that student off.
Are you missing a page? Did the copy machine mess up? Then what the heck are you
doing up here, interrupting the rest of the class as they try to concentrate? Sit down, please,
and consider apologizing to the class later for your disturbance.
Its worth fighting this battle. Once all your students realize that they cant just go
to you for hints, they will settle down and do great work. By the second test, you will

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$134.95.

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be able to get enormous amounts of your own work done during a test. You can have
colleagues or substitutes give tests on days when you have to be gone. You will reduce
stress levels among your class.
Most important, when it comes time for the real AP exam, your students will have
the requisite confidence to deal with difficult and unusual problems, even though no
help is available from the proctor.
Be prepared for tears after the first test. Im not exaggerating when I talk about
smart students who have never earned below 90 percent on a test in their entire
lives. For a number of smart students, the first AP Physics test will be the first time
ever that they havent gotten virtually everything right. Many will feel that they
failed the test even if they got a 5in their mind, 65 percent is a failing grade,
not an A. It doesnt matter how well youve explained the grading scale; Im talking
about a visceral, subconscious emotional reaction to a smart students perception of
failure.
You personally have to be strong to deal with the backlash. Oh, Mr. Jacobs, Im
sure I failed; can I do extra credit? I know I need to drop the class. My daughter
cried all night last night; what are you going to do about it?
On the one hand, I dont recommend engaging with sad and worried students. The
more you try to comfort a student, the more upset that student will get. Its sufficient
to say politely, Well see how you did tomorrow, when well start test corrections.
Remember, we have eight tests this year, and this is only the first. Lets not discuss anything else until we have something concrete to work with. If you can, stay away from
your students until the tests are graded, and grade them as quickly as possible. Just be
as patient as you can with the emotionally shattered students. The few days after the
first test are critical to rebuilding your students confidence.
How do I communicate test grades? Im frequently asked how to convert an AP-style
test to a standard high school grading scale. Generally, it takes about 65 percent of the
available points to get a 5, 50 percent to get a 4, 35 percent to get a 3, and 25 percent to
get a 2. But a typical school scale tells us that 90 percent is an A, and 80 percent is a B.
Ill tell you how I make the conversion. However, my method is not gospel
you need to be creative within the parameters of your class, your school, and your
personality.
When students first get their tests back, they see a grading sheet exactly like the
one on page 235 of 5 Steps to a 5. They can see the range of raw scores necessary to
earn each AP score listed at the bottom. I circle the AP score of 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1. Thats
the first step toward building back confidenceeveryone who thought that he or she
failed sees a real AP score that he or she can understand. And most will find that they
did far, far better than they expected.
I do not communicate a letter grade yet. I make the students earn their letter grade
through test corrections (discussed later). Students get back half the credit they lost for
each problem they correct.

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Finally, I use a square root curve29 to convert the AP scale to the school scale.
The practical outcome is that, with good corrections, 5s on the AP scale become As,
4s become B+s or Bs, and 3s become Bs and B-s. But a lack of corrections means that
even 4s might become Ds.
That sounds complicated. First of all, Im okay with somewhat complicated grading.
I dont want students worrying about grades, I want them doing physics as well as they
can. Complicated grading means that students spend less time in cynical calculation
and more time just working hard. But, I also know that even the worst of my students
can make quick and accurate calculations of what his or her grade would be if he or she
did all the corrections, and what that might mean for the overall course average and his
or her probability of admission to [insert overrated college here].
The exact method I use is not whats important, anyway. The important part is
giving students a tremendous incentive to do good corrections to the problems they
missed. Do that by any means necessary.
Test corrections are the most important assignment you can give. Theres nothing wrong
with missing a test question. Your class will see that even the best students arent getting perfect test scores. However, there is something very much wrong with fatalistically
resigning oneself to missing test questions because physics is hard. For each student,
the test exposes areas of physics that he or she doesnt fully understand. Its now the
students job to use the test as an opportunity to improve his or her understanding.
For each multiple-choice question missed, a student is required to justify the answer
thoroughly on a half-page of unlined paper. For each lettered part missed on the freeresponse portion, a student is required to redo that part and to answer any further questions I may pose. For the free-response items, Ill generally change the input values for
a calculation question, or Ill ask a follow-up question so that merely copying someone
elses original response isnt a sufficient answer.
Especially after the first test, I find it is worth taking a day of class time to
allow students to collaborate on test corrections. Anyone may ask me questions, and
I will talk that student through the problem. However, theres a price for my help: when
the next student asks about the same issue, I dont answer. Instead I say, Hey, good
question. Jimbo here just asked me the same question. Jimbo, could you talk Kearney
here through it? The process of writing the correct answer, followed by explaining that
answer to a classmate, generally improves physics understanding better than 10 of the
best professors best lectures.
As the students do their corrections, youll see their demeanor change from selfpitying sadness to gritty determination. Count how many times you see students hit

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 square root curve takes the square root of a percentage and multiplies by 10 to get the score on the school scale.
A
Thus, an 81 percent becomes an A: the square root of 81 is 9, 9 10 is 90, and 90 is an A. A 64 percent is a B, and a
49 percent is a C. I use this curve on all work, making it practically impossible for a student who does all the work to
earn below a C, or even a B-.

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themselves in the forehead, either figuratively or literally. They quickly see that half of
their mistakes were silly things where they knew better, but panicked under the pressure
of the test, or where they did everything right except one little step. The corrections
process allows students to see that the test wasnt nearly as impossible as they may have
originally thought.
Test corrections can help you deal with parents and colleagues. Its hard to sell a parent
on, Your kid isnt really doing a good job on the homework. Your kid needs to work
harder in order to do well. The student will protest mightily to her or his parents that,
Im trying; its just that physics is too hard. And mom and dad will believe their child,
not you. However, test corrections can give you concrete evidence to bring to a discussion with parents.
If a students corrections are strong, you can show them to the parents and indicate
in a friendly manner that the student now understands the level of work necessary on a
nightly basis; and, incidentally, the fact that the student earned back a bunch of points
on the test buys you a good deal of political capital. Such a student, with continued
effort, will usually end up doing quite well.
In the event that a student does a poor job on test corrections, though, you have
all the evidence you need to show to parents: Mrs. Jones, here are Ralphs test corrections. We worked on these in class, and he was encouraged to work with me and with
the other students to get them right. However, as you see, he got only three of fourteen
corrections right; he even left two of them essentially blank. Had he done all these, he
would have earned a B+ on the test. Instead, he earned a D. I can help Ralph only if
hes willing to help himself.
Follow up on test corrections where students struggle. Often youll find that most of the
class still missed the point of a test question, even after corrections. Dont despairtreat
that as feedback, showing you a weakness that you can help class members shore up.
Maybe you post a message to the classs electronic bulletin board, or perhaps you mention the issue briefly in class. Explain how to solve the question correctly. But also make
sure that everyone knows that youre going to follow up againand make sure to ask a
pointed question on the next quiz about the question that everyone missed. The message
youre sending is that nothing in physics goes away. Its better to confront a hard topic
head-on than to ignore it and hope it will disappear.

Step 5: Taper for the AP Exam


If youre not familiar with training programs for track or swimming, it would be worth
your while to talk to someone who does those sports. Just as your class trains all year
for the AP exam, the track and swim teams train all season for the championship meet.
Some of the general principles of preparation are quite similar.
Early in the season, the members of the swim team push very hard in practice.
Maybe they even take a training trip during a school vacation, on which the swimmers
exhaust themselves thoroughly during two rigorous practicesplus weight liftingevery

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day. This is the time when swimmers build their muscles, their technique, and their
endurance.
But in the weeks leading up to the championship meet, the swimmers taper.
Practices become easier as swimmers allow their bodies to recover from the rigor of the
midseason practices. They conserve their energy for the big day. Its critical that the
swimmers still practice every day, but they are no longer building skill. Rather, theyre
reinforcing what they already have. Theyre maintaining their muscle memory, maintaining their strength, and keeping themselves rested and poised to perform at the
championship. As it turns out, swimmers who work hard and tirelessly early on and
then taper appropriately usually swim considerably faster on race day than they ever
have before.
I suggest a similar approach to AP Physics. Early in the year, when school is still
fresh, the seniors are building their college rsums, and the exam is far in the future
thats the time to push the pace. Mistakes in the early part of the course, whether were
talking about mistakes by students or mistakes by the teacher, can be corrected without
the pressure of the impending exam. While students may panic about their marking
period grades, at the beginning of the class no one panics about the AP exam itself.30
Time the course such that you finish covering all the relevant material by March or
early April.
Then, in the month or so before the exam, taper. You must still assign work on the
same regular schedule that youve been using all year. However, the assignments can be
substantially shorter. All youre trying to do during the taper period is to review material
that youve covered before, to keep it fresh in the students minds. As you review, your
students will become confident about topics that previously confused them.
Long or intense assignments are unnecessary and counterproductive during the
tapering period. In the spring, everyoneespecially seniorsis developing priorities
other than schoolwork. Every other AP teacher is probably piling on assignment after
assignment, demanding more as the students are willing to do less. Remember the less
is more principle: what matters is the quality of the work that your students do, not the
quantity. If you are assigning only about half the quantity of homework in the spring
as you did in the fall (while other teachers are assigning twice the quantity), arent you
more likely to earn your students cooperation in paying careful attention to physics?
Give different assignments to different groups of students. I tend to lump my students
into two tracks when its time to taper. Students who have been earning 5s on the tests
can focus on tougher material. I might give them problems in rotation or standing
waves in pipes.31 But for the rest of the class, theyre probably better served solidifying
their ability to deal with more straightforward subjects.

30

I n fact, they usually dont think much about the AP exam itself until at least April. Theres a reason that sales of 5 Steps to
a 5 peak in April, not in September or January.
31
Or whatever the class struggled the most with, or a topic that I didnt quite get to in the detail I wanted, or even a topic
on the AP Physics 2 exam in preparation for the next year. For a top student, learning about magnetic fields and forces is
an excellent review for AP Physics 1level mechanics.

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I dont like to truly individualize review, for three reasons. (1) Students are generally not diligent or self-aware enough to personalize a study plan for themselves.
They need me to structure their assignments and to hold them accountable for completing the assignments. (2) Students still need to work with one another during the
review. They will usually learn more from helping classmates and being helped by
classmates than from anything I can show them. Thus, they need classmates who
are also working on the same things. (3) I cant keep up with more than two tracks
at a time, and I still need to be involved in the review if anything is going to get
done effectively.
Relax the format of the class during the taper. By the spring, the tone of your class
has long ago been set. I still give daily quizzes during the taper process, and I still
give tests (and do test corrections). But rather than a weekly, structured lab, students
do an open-ended laboratory project that extends over several weeks and can be
worked on piecemeal. Rather than lecture or go over problems, I use class time to
foster collaboration. Its quite effective to put on music, hand out an assignment, and
expect the students to show you their answers or experimental results as they finish.
Dont cram! AP Physics 1 is not a broad class. With even a slow but reasonable
pace, you should be able to cover all the material with a month left for review. In the
course of that month, you can slowly and deliberately remind students of the facts
and techniques that are applicable to each topic. It takes that sort of time to absorb
physics. A five-hour study session in physics is not measurably more productive than
a one-hour session.
But since youve made every test cumulative, cramming in the traditional sense
will be unnecessary! You wont have to return to topics that havent been touched in
seven months, because even the kinematics and Newtons laws that you covered in
September have been reviewed regularly throughout the year through regular tests with
corrections.
So what kinds of things do you assign during taper? I tend to give one AP-style
problem each night, preferably an authentically released exam question. These questions tend to integrate multiple topics, and they prepare the students for the precise
style and format of the exam. Of course, for the AP Physics 1 exam, such questions
are currently in short supply. Old AP Physics B questions rephrased to require less
calculation and more explanation are a good start. Use the practice exam in 5 Steps
to a 5, the released exam from the College Board, and any other source you can find
online or in textbooks.
In 5 Steps to a 5, the Extra Drill chapter provides a targeted review of important
topics. The problems in this chapter are not at the AP Physics 1 level; instead, theyre
designed to drill these situations until basic calculational approaches are second nature.
Assign these to students who are struggling with a particular topic, or give a test that
includes a problem on one of these topics and assign the drill to anyone who performs
poorly on that problem.

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Your Classs Overriding Goal: Get Better Every Day


When you combine and follow all five steps to help your students get 5s, your class will
do quite well on the exam. But what is quite well?
One evaluation: How many students got 5s? How many passed? Note that you should
never look at the percentage of students who earned a certain score. Thats a meaningless
statistic thats open to manipulation. Who do you think is more deserving of a raise: the
teacher with 150 AP students, 40 of whom got 5s; or the teacher with 8 AP students,
7 of whom got 5s? Look at the raw number of your students who earned 5s and the raw
number who passed. Then see if you can get those numbers to go up in each of the first
five years that you teach AP.
Nevertheless, I dont think saying, Your goal is to get a 5, is productive. Sure, every
sports team sets out to win a championship. But failure to win a championship isnt
really failureespecially and critically at the high school level, where outcomes
beyond wins and losses are so important. Did the players have fun? Did they develop
relationships with their teammates? Did they win humbly and handle defeat nobly? Are
they enthusiastic about playing again next season? Most important, did they improve as
individual players and as a team unit?
Some students just wont be able to earn a 5, no matter how hard they work. Some
students will not get their 5 because they have a bad day on the exam. Some are so talented that a 5 should be the minimum expectation; such students might stop working
hard once they realize how easily they can meet the goal of earning a 5.
But what if your class goal is simply get better at physics every day? Be proud of
the slow student who finally figures out Newtons third laweven if all his classmates
figured it out weeks ago. Encourage the physics genius to help her classmates improve
their scores; she might enjoy the challenge of not just doing, but also explaining physics. Take opportunities to show your students how much theyre progressing, not only
by grading tests, but also by showing them the predictive skills theyve developed, or by
showing them the everyday situations that they now understand from the perspective
of a physicist.
And you, as a teacher, can also get better all the time. Dont worry about the demonstration that bombed; make a note, and do it right next week, or even next year. Find
the way to teach conservation of angular momentum that works for you and your students, even if your approach has fallen flat for a couple of years. Try setting up a new
demonstration, doing a new activity, or attempting a different spin on a topic thats
gotten stale for you.
Your first year of teaching AP, especially with this new and different exam, might
well be humbling. Stay the course. Pick little things to work on in the next unit, in the
next semester, and in the next school year. Eventually, you may not have 50 students
earning 5s, but your class will do better and better on the exam, and your program will
grow as it develops a reputation for quality.

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AQ1: Adding space OK? The material changes from examples of demonstrations back to straight text.

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