All 4s and 5s: The Top Five Tips to AP® Success

Best Teacher Practices in AP®

By Andrew Sharos

As a former APUSH teacher, I am often asked about how my students experienced success on one of the College Board’s most difficult exams. In 2014, class averages at our school consistently ranged between 1.9 and 2.5, and the culture and history of achievement simply were not in place. In three short years we turned around the culture, scoring a 4.45 class average, and for several years every student in the APUSH program passed the exam. The changes in the program were cultural, but it’s important that we share some of the instructional strategies that became our version of “best practices” in an AP® class.

1. Simplify Homework

This is a hotly debated topic around the country right now. Many of our students are overcommitted to activities, work, babysitting their siblings, and plenty of other non-academic stressors. So the question becomes, “What can we reasonably expect students to do outside our class?”

Most teachers feel like students need practice outside of class. Many others need students to teach themselves some content, so they can save precious class time for teaching skills and application lessons. Thus, students have some responsibility for homework outside of our class. But if we want students to complete homework, it must be two things: simple and purposeful.

What is the one thing you are asking students to do for homework? One thing. Not research papers, notes, group work, completion of work they didn’t finish in class…one thing. Try to figure out what that one thing might be, and assign it with consistency so students see the importance. If students do not see the importance of the work—either how it connects to class the next day, how it impacts their grade, or, gasp, how it impacts their learning, they will not value what you are assigning.

2. Quiz Early and Often

I will let you in on the great secret of teaching. Ready? You have to figure out how to get students to do what you want them to do. How do you get students to do their homework?

Besides simplifying it for them and making it purposeful, you must assess their work frequently. I reserved the right to quiz the students any day or any way. Most students care about their grades, so if you are frequently giving pop quizzes on their homework from the night before, you are providing an incentive for them to complete their one simple task. My favorite quiz to give was a blank piece of paper that said “What did you read about last night?” It was my way of asking “Did you read last night?” I would grade these quizzes pass/fail, giving an inflated score to all students who understood most of the reading, with a zero for students who clearly did not read. Students will be forced to keep pace with your “one thing” and see the value in completing it.

3. Stop Grading Papers

Oh, now I have your attention?! Students do not put value in our written feedback on their work despite all the time we commit to providing it. For large assessments or critical projects and assignments, sit down with a student and read their work out loud. Some teachers call this a writing conference, but whatever you call it or whatever subject matter you are assessing, do it personally.

When I run focus groups with students throughout the country, they consistently value personal feedback. Red pens aren’t personal. Conversations are personal. Try scheduling appointments before or after school, or use class time to pull students aside to conference about their work. This will not only give you an opportunity to assess their progress and provide real feedback, but it will give you an opportunity to know and understand your students better.

4. Embed Review in Assessment

What percentage of your unit tests include review questions? You may be shocked to hear that half of my unit tests included questions from previous units. Whether you teach an AP® course or not, you probably want students to retain the content and skills you taught and display evidence of mastery learning by the end of the year. How are students supposed to remember what you taught them in August if they cannot remember what they had for lunch yesterday?

We have to continue to assess them with the same questions and concepts all year. We shouldn’t care if these review questions become too easy, or students receive inflated grades for knowing the answers to all the review questions. We care more about their learning. 50% of your assessments should be embedded with review concepts and questions. This also creates urgency for students to correct the mistakes they made earlier in the year.

5. Create a Relationship IEP for Each Student

Those of you who are familiar with the special education world know about individual education plans. What if we looked at relationship building with our students through the same lens? We have to have a unique plan for each student and form a relationship on their terms, not ours. All the positive student outcomes we hope for are not about outcomes, they are about students. The pathway for forming relationships weaves through our efforts to get to know what makes each of them “tick” and does not rely solely on the personality of the teacher. Simply put, this is something we all can do.

Often times, we ask prospective teachers where their strengths lie as an educator: knowing content, knowing how to teach it, or knowing kids. I am always partial to those who feel like they know their students. If you know what motivates them, you have a better chance of teaching them content and delivering it in a way they can learn. All of the instructional methods listed above helped my students through a system that ultimately led them to become successful on the exam. But the backdrop to getting students to do what you want them to do always starts with relationships.

Andrew Sharos is an author, consultant, and keynote speaker who still works in a high school. For more thoughts on instructional methods in AP® and the award-winning turnaround story that made history in Andrew’s class, check out his book, “All 4s and 5s: A Guide to Teaching and Leading AP Programs.” 

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