FRQs and Peer Grading

Peer Grading FRQS

Peer grading free response questions is a great way to
1. Teach kids how the questions are graded by the national readers and how picky and precise the language should be.
2. Save you some personal time.

My method of peer grading has morphed into this method through the years. Like most teachers I’ve take ideas of here and there and merged into what works for me. You can read how I use and teach FRQs here.

When we peer grade, my students write their student ID # on the FRQ instead of their name.  A couple of days after the exam (when most make-ups are finished), I pass out the FRQs to grade. Since I teach multiple sections of AP, classes don’t grade their own class’ FRQs. That way, its harder for the students to know if they’re grading someone that they know.  I also pass out a pink slip.

This is a quarter page slip that accompanies the peer-graded paper.

I don’t usually use the College Board rubrics for peer grading with the students. Many students find them confusing. Instead, I type the most common answers from the rubric that I know my students will use on a PowerPoint. If you are new to teaching the course, I suggest you place the answers that your students learned in the textbook, activities, or lecture. Its unlikely that students will know or guess something different (but it does happen so be sure to answer questions). We go through each part of the FRQ on the PowerPoint and I answer any questions.  The only exception to is when we grade math.

Students need to highlight the exact words that give the points. This helps students understand that they don’t need to write lots of words and sentences for points and helps them clearly identify where the points are. They are not guessing or saying “well it sounds right” and give points.  They need to clearly indicate where the points are by highlighting.

The exact words that earn the points are highlighted. Students also put the points for each section in the margin. The student here received 2/2 for letter c.

When we grade math, I find it best to copy just the page with the math solutions from the College Board rubrics. That way, kids can see exactly what their math needs to look like.  I also make notes on the rubric about remembering units and how any points each question is worth. After the math is graded, we go back to a PowerPoint for the rest of the FRQ.

After all sections are graded, students add up the points out of 10 or 11 and write on the top of the students’ paper. They also write it on the pink slip. If they need me to check something or they had another comment for me only, they need to write it on the pink slip. Students will never get the pink slips back to them. They are only for me. This helps with anonymity.

I go through each pink slip and check for comments.  When I’m finished, I recycle/toss the pink slips.

Students will get their own FRQ returned to them to check over on a different day. I also include a “fudge” point in the curve. If they want to argue 1 point, I say I don’t want to hear it as its factored in the curve. If they find 2 or more points in error, they can come see me, but they have to show me exactly where the mistake was made.  They cannot say “I’m sure I got more points, can you please check it over?” This prevents a long line of students who want to argue one point or grasping at straws to get a better grade.

Here’s my peer-graded curve as an FRQ is worth 50 exam points for me. (Multiple Choice is worth 100 points)




10 Tips for Teaching Large AP® Classes in High School.

Teaching large classes can be daunting in any subject, but especially in a college-level AP® class. Ten years ago, when I started AP® Environmental Science at my school, I advertised to students and had 50 students sign up in two sections.  The next year, word spread and I had 3 full classes (36+ a class in CA). Now, I’m up to 5 classes of APES with over 150+ kids per year.

I usually have 36 students in lab at a time.

How do I handle it without becoming exhausted from grading, lab prep, and constant bell-to-bell lecture? Pedagogical and philosophical shifts.

Pedagogical shifts include teaching methods that might be innovative (what I like to call it) or crazy (what I’m sure other people think).  Then, a philosophical shift from being the “sage on stage” to teaching kids how to self-learn, self-advocate and collaborate with each other in a positive and constructive way.

These shifts are not just for AP® or large classes. These tips can help to not only to avoid teacher burn-out, but to address modern students that are different from students in the past.

  1. Use technology. I’m a firm believer that technology should eliminate stress, not cause it. I utilize technology for online reading quizzes to verify that the kids actually did their reading homework. These are basic, easy questions that aren’t really AP® level and wouldn’t be asked on an exam-they’re only purpose is to check that they’ve read. There are many online quizzing sites or you could use Zipgrade with paper. I also use Edpuzzle  to verify that kids watched an assigned video for homework. All these programs grade for you which is an enormous time saver for large classes.  I sometimes use Turnitin for long lab reports or written work. Kids do a better job when its submitted to turnitin (and it checks for plagiarism) and I can often just skim an assignment.
    This is an example of an online quiz question to check if students actually did their assigned reading.
    Most quizzing sites give instant feedback. Here’s a graphing showing the questions that a lot of students got right or wrong so I can address them.

    This is an example of an Edpuzzle where kids answer questions from a video. This site is EASY and user-friendly.
  2. Discuss and remind kids that they have personal responsibility in an AP® class. I know this sounds obvious, but a lot of kids have breezed through regular classes where the teachers covered everything during class time and they needed to do very little outside work to get a good grade. On the first day, on my syllabus, I lay out the expectations they can have of me (I will get them through the curriculum, give feedback, know the material,etc) and then the expectations I have of them (do all readings when assigned, study how I instruct them to etc). They write down which expectation will be challenging and how they plan to overcome that challenge.  Teach them how to read and study the book-scaffold if needed. Ween them off of you as the weeks go on. Teach them how to self-learn –this is a skill needed for college and the only way you can manage large classes and high numbers of kids in an AP® class.

    Gentle reminders with humor help guide kids to make better study choices.
  3. You cannot give personal attention to all the kids in large classes–this is sad, but true. Don’t lament about it either as its not good for your mental health to do this. Spin it to the positive as an opportunity to coach the kids to learn ways to self-advocate and self-study which are essential tools in college.  Spend time addressing the kids who are not doing well and focus on how to help them.
  4. Don’t grade everything. I collect and grade the first few video worksheets so kids think that’s my modus operandi. Then, every once in a while, I collect and toss (after school, of course). I have NEVER had a kid ask for that paper back or what grade they got.
  5. Grade some items for completion–its a waste of your time to grade every single worksheet to find the random wrong answer. Skim through the batch and if they all look to have 99% of the correct answers, then give points for completion.
  6. Rotate around the room and stamp work–like math or activity worksheets. Then, tell them to keep. This is especially good if the kids are collaborating and you know they’re getting the right answers. You can mark with a dot on your seating chart and give credit…or not..
  7. Peer grade FRQs (Free Response Questions). The kids learn A LOT from this process and you save personal time, but usually takes about 30-40 minutes of classtime to do.  We peer grade about every other exam, because I also like to grade and give more specific feedback.  Having large classes means I can only assign one FRQ per exam as each class of 36 kids takes me over an hour to grade (and I’m an AP® reader). There are many good methods of peer grading. I outlined my method here. 

    Example of peer-graded AP® FRQs. Students highlight the exact words that gave the student the awarded points.
  8. Teach a student service/ lab assistant how to do time-consuming lab chores. For example, I train a student each year to calibrate my pH probes.  This takes about 45 minutes every couple of weeks. The students enjoy doing real science and I enjoy not doing it.

    My lab assistant/student service go around the school collecting boxes needed for solar cookers.
  9. Explore the idea of flipping your class.  This can be a partial or total flip. The benefits include not having to do a marathon AP® lecture from bell-to-bell several times a day with multiple periods of AP® and also having a video resource for the kids at home to self-pace their notes and learning.  Read about best practices and research and also how I flipped last year.
  10. Over time, develop really detailed lab or activity instructions. During class, I make hand notes on a copy of the lab or activity with common questions from the students. Then, after school, I immediately modify the instructions so its ready for next year. Over the years, my instructions have become so clear that I have fewer and fewer questions from students which means I’m not rushing around the lab trying to help every group. Sometimes, I can sit and grade papers in the lab while they’re working, because they don’t need me to help.  Its pretty awesome. 🙂

    Solar cooker directions have been modified dozens of times to make clearer. Even though its an inquiry lab, students still ask clarifying questions.





To AP® or Not to AP®…What does the Research Say?

What does the research really say about taking an AP® class?

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of “rumors”, “here-say”, “anecdotal info”, &”verbal discussion” of the benefits of AP® based on information or studies from years ago. I’ve heard that just taking an AP® course helps in college and/or taking the exam (no matter if you pass) and I’ve wondered “Is that true or still true?” What does the AP® research say?

Some more questions: Aren’t the kids who take and/or pass AP® already the kids who would succeed in college no matter if they took AP? So, is it AP® that makes a difference or just being a smart kid? Where’s the controlled study? (by the way, this is a hard one to get an answer to).  What about dual enrollment?

I searched databases and the internet and found these resources. You can click on the underlined title to get to the actual study or resource. Below each title, I pulled out some quotes and added my thoughts.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and any other studies you’ve come across.

Here’s my take away from these articles:

1.  AP® is a good thing for students and give them an edge in college.
2.  Students must do well on the AP® Exam (some studies show a 2 or better, some show a 3 or better) to get this edge
3.  Students must ready for AP, not just enrolled, because its “good for them” or “good for the school”, but truly ready for the rigor. (This being said, this is not an excuse for gatekeeping–there are lots of kids who are not typical honors kids, but who are ready for AP® as they get to be upperclassmen)
4. AP® saves kids money.  My own son will save thousands as he enters college
5.  AP® is better than dual enrollment for completing college

Here’s the research about AP

Are AP® Students More Likely to Graduate from College on Time?

This study shows that a score of 2 or better leads to higher success rates in college. A score of 1 does not help. (page 7 Table 1)

“We cannot be sure whether this positive relationship is linked to the notion that an AP® student would be more likely to enter college with more college credits and is therefore more likely to graduate in four years or whether the positive relationship could be linked to the notion that AP® students have been exposed to college-level work and are therefore more comfortable with managing this work; perhaps it is a combination of the two or another alternate explanation.” (page 22)

“The current study found a positive relationship between both AP® Exam participation and performance and graduation within four years. This relationship held, even after controlling for relevant student and institutional factors associated with graduation rates. Given the financial burden associated with extending the time to graduate, this study provides support for the AP® Program as an educational opportunity that may aid in timely completion of college. In particular, it may be worthwhile to explore the policy implications of these findings to work toward decreasing the time to college graduation and decrease student debt in a meaningful and large-scale way” (page 24)

Basically, we don’t have a controlled study to show that these kids who take AP® would already be successful in college, but at least they’re saving a lot of money on tuition.

Should AP® Be Plan A?

“Studies that simply establish that students who are involved with the AP® program in high school perform better in college do not necessarily provide proof that the AP® program caused the students to be successful in college.” Students who have the motivation and study habits to take AP® classes in the first place have those same attributes upon reaching college, argues the report, “[s]o how can we know if it was the program that caused these students to do better in college?”

Advanced Placement® Exam-Taking and Performance: Relationships with First-Year Subject Area College Grades

This study finds that students need a 3 or better to be statistically better in college.

Assessment of Advanced Placement Participation and University Academic success in the First semester: Controlling for Selected High School Academic Abilities

Here’s one that accounts for accounts for similar academic ability (SAT and class rank) and found that kids who earn AP® credit (passing with a 3,4,5) do better in college than kids who do not take AP.  It does not measure just taking the course (AP® participation or earning a 1 or 2)

Harvard FICSS  

This group at Harvard measures the factors that influence college success in science.

“Students with passing AP® exam scores (3 or above) do not earn high enough grades after retaking introductory college science courses to assume prior mastery. AP® students who do not earn passing scores (2 or less) appear to have gained no advantage from their year of AP® study. While students who take AP® science, on average, do better in college than those who take less rigorous courses, half of this performance difference is accounted for by demographic variables and prior coursework in high school.”  (from website)

AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program

Same authors as the Harvard FICSS study

Passing an AP® exam does increase college success rates (honors Physics and honors Chem also).

But, it is not a way to close the achievement gap for poor and ethnic students.  It is a waste of resources to just drop students into AP® classes which they are not ready for. Students who are not ready to succeed are more likely to fail.

A Comparison of the College Outcomes of AP® and Dual Enrollment Students | In Progress

Both AP® and Dual Enrollment (DE) increase college enrollment with DE being higher. As time goes on, however, college persistence and graduation rates are much higher with AP.



15 Things a new AP® teacher should know

Being a new AP® teacher is exciting and daunting! It will be a tough year to not only learn the material yourself, but also teach it to your kids.  Hang in there! It can be a very rewarding journey. Make sure to join a community of fellow teachers for help and encouragement. Here are some tips I often tell to new AP® teachers .  Most of these suggestions work for many AP® subjects, not just science.

15 tips I’ve learned along the way

  1. Make a year-long pacing plan and STICK TO IT!  Its hard to cover everything that you think you should. Give the test on the day you planned. Be disciplined. Tell the kids you have a deadline that you and they must meet or they won’t be ready for the exam in May. Lay out the pacing plan to the students-they will respect it.  Cut out a movie, assign content at home, but stick to your pacing plan. Plan for your supplies ahead of time. 
  2. You can’t do everything that you find.  Shared material online or from other APES teachers can be overwhelming. You have to carefully pick and chose–we all do. Make sure all labs and activities that you choose give you a lot of “bang for the buck” and cover multiple topics.
    This is a list of my current labs for each unit, but there are a lot of other great labs shared by many teachers. 
  3. You can’t cover everything in class time.  You need to assign content at home. You can do this in a few different ways. Reading assignments with quizzes, partial flip or full flip, sticky notes are examples. Tell the kids they they cannot rely on you to give them everything they need during class time and some of the easy stuff will be homework.  

    Content can be assigned through reading the book, watching videos on a site such as Edpuzzle, or on other websites.
  4. Start out the year hard, but don’t go overboard. My course, AP® Environmental Science, is sometimes called the “easy AP” by students. That is the common misconception. We do fun labs in this class and the content is interesting, but fun does not equal easy. While the course is easier than AP® Chem or AP® Physics,  it has a low national pass rate (usually less than 50%). Kids will need to work to get a good grade and to pass the AP® Exam. If you start out too easy, the kids will turn on you when you try to make it harder.  On the flip side, sometimes new AP® teachers assign unnecessary work just because we think we “should” in an AP® class or that it will prepare them for college.  This includes reading a novel, research papers etc. I did this and over time stopped when I learned more about my students. They have so much to balance in their lives–other AP® classes, sports, a job, clubs etc. When you give them work that’s not needed to pass the exam, you lose their trust and can overwhelm them. I tell my students that I don’t give them extra things to do and that everything is strategic–so don’t slack off. They appreciate it so much and will respect you for it.

    This meme is from an APES “cult classic” film called Cane Toads. Its weird and kids love it (but not as much as their teachers love it).
  5. Talk about your competence.  In other words, brag on your self. Now, I know this sounds weird, but in a lot of schools (especially in high achieving schools), the AP® kids can be really difficult to new AP® teachers.  A couple of ways to combat this is to subtlety drop in things about your expertise in science or reference other experienced AP® teachers from your online communities. They will look at you in amazement that you have other AP® friends, or a hive and are drawing on their expertise. Don’t worry, this attitude usually subsides after the first year.

    Often mention conferences, workshops, “AP® friends” and an online community.
  6. Keep it positive!  . Yes, they need to know the problems, but also focus on the solutions and where we have made improvements in our country. We’ve cleaned up our air (here’s a great example in CA), our water (Cuyahoga river), saved a bunch of species, and have increased in organic foods. These are just a few examples. Avoid depressing videos-they get the urgency just from the content. Tell kids that they can work on solutions as their career-give them hope. 
  7. Realize that your class is not the most important thing in a kid’s life or at your school .  Our students juggle a lot of things. They take multiple AP® classes, ASB, band, sports, jobs, etc. We need to be sensitive to our students and while expecting them to work hard, realize that they are juggling a lot. Try not to assign unnecessary work.
  8. Ignore current events (mostly).  Don’t get me wrong, learning to read current news articles is important to create an informed and literate generation. News articles that cover part of the curriculum are also important as primary or secondary sources. But, remember, you can’t do everything and you need to not only make sure you complete the content, but also work on higher level skills and science practices. Your kids may need all that time for this in class-as the professional, you can decide what’s best.

    Kids will start to send you pics of their vacations or talk about seeing the concepts they’ve learned in class out in the real world and will be very excited to see personal application in a course.
  9. I choose not to assign projects to cover curriculum. Here’s my reasoning:  Students have to memorize some lists of items along with their characteristics. These include biomes, biogeochemical cycles, air pollutants, energy sources, toxins and diseases. One problem with assigning different kids or groups of kids topics to research and present, is that the kids really only become an expert in one of them and then half-way learn the others.  The kids need to know ALL OF THEM!  These topics are frequently asked on multiple choice questions and on FRQs and the kids have to know details on all of them so they can answer the specific questions asked. Spend your time instead on having kids make charts, graphic organizers, etc to make sure they know all of the information. If you would like some more research and data about this philosophy about projects, go to this Harvard site.  You can do projects, however, on topics in which a kid needs to only know a couple of examples of. These include endangered species or invasive species and are usually asked as open-ended FRQ questions. I have my students make endangered species trading cards.
  10. Review vocab,  graphing, math etc. in context to save days and precious time.  Spend time on graphing review as part of the first lab by helping them set up their axes and discussing the appropriate type of graph. Review math concepts when they have math in labs. Or do a math diagnostic and differentiation if needed. . Kids in a college-level class should be able to memorize vocab as part of the chapter and exam-not as a separate assignment. This is ideal if kids are placed appropriately in an AP® course. If the majority of your class is low, you may have to spend more time on these topics separately, but realize that you will lose days on them. On that note, work with your school to appropriately place students. You can refer to AP® research for help.
  11. Don’t fret about the order of the curriculum. Go in the order of the Course and Exam Description (CED) or your textbook. There are pros and cons to each. No matter what you chose, cover it all and there are many teachers who can help support you with whatever order you go in.
  12. Don’t post anything that is copyrighted online–especially released AP® Exams.  And don’t put test banks or keys  to worksheets online.  Even if you think your website is secure and password protected or only your students would possibly get on your site, Google finds a way. The same goes for test banks. These items are “cached” by google so even if you remove when you are caught, it can stay for months on the internet.  The College Board may also take legal action if you post their copyrighted items.        
  13.  Copying and Cheating can be a big problem. I love my AP® kids. They’re some of the nicest, well-behaved kids in the school, but many are also grade-mongers and are highly vested in their GPAs. With smart phones, some (but not all) kids take pics of homework and group text them to others in the class. Anything you want authentic needs to be done in class time. This is one of the benefits of flipping-kids are supposed to copy notes so homework is notes.  Utilize if your school subscribes. I use turnitin for lab reports and other writing assignments. A lot of “secure” info is online. This includes test banks so be aware of this. Secure cell-phones during exams.
  14. Work with your guidance office or administration to help them correctly place kids.  I’m NOT talking about gatekeeping. All kids who are ready should be allowed to take an AP® course and this is not just gifted or honors kids. I teach 150+ AP® kids a year and over 2/3 are taking an AP® for the first time as a junior or senior.   But, a lot of schools will increase their AP® enrollment, because it “looks good” or meets some parameter for scoring the school. I’ve seen too many kids disheartened and miserable, because they can’t keep up with their classmates. You can see what the research says about it here.  A great tool is provided by College Board called AP® Potential.   It took me a few years of nice discussions with our guidance counselors to explain what type of kid would do best in my course and they do a great job so I am grateful.

    This meme was made by a student last year.
  15. Be nice to yourself and cut yourself some slack as a new AP® teacher. It takes a few years to really understand an AP® course and its nuances.  Your value as a person is not dependent on your AP® scores. I spent several years really fretting over this and I have a good pass rate.  This is no way to live. Don’t fret over perfect lessons, take time to relax.  Be good to yourself and ask for help when you need it.

* AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.

Sticky Note Methodology

I developed this method over a decade ago and  it one of the main things that students report back as being so helpful in prepping them for the AP® Exam and all other unit exams.  As any good teacher would do, feel free to copy what might work in your class and tweak things to match your own personality, teaching style, and the type of community and kids you have.

Why Sticky Notes?

  • It is the “happy medium” for my wide range of students. The high level kids can just read the book and understand most of it so why make them write down all content via powerpoint? But, some of my students struggle and need me to explain more of the content which I do via sticky notes.
  • It has a “kinesthetic” effect. The act of writing down info, then pulling it off and placing it on a page helps kids develop brain synapses for learning. 
  • Provides a great study tool for the AP® Exam. It had pictures, graphs and vocab all there with sticky notes to help guide them as to what’s important on each page. 
  • Kids like it. Its different and novel and kids need variety from their other classes. 
  • And, they really learn from it. 
    Post-AP exam survey results. Sticky-notes has consistently rated high among my students for many years on the surveys.

How do you do sticky notes?

This is a page from the Withgott textbook on Acid Deposition.
  • Prepare the sticky-notes ahead of time for your book. Compare to the Course and Exam Description “Essential Knowledge” standards that students must know. 
  • Write down what they need to know on each page without repeating what’s written. This could be vocab, a capture, figure, graph, picture or basic information on the page.
  • Write down information to the appropriate page you textbook doesn’t cover it well. An example above  is BOD-Biological Oxygen Demand. My book doesn’t cover it, so I added it on the page about water pollution on  a sticky notes.
  •  Point out some important facts such as “#1 Culprit of groundwater pollution is underground storage tanks”.

What do students do?

I now flip so my sticky note lectures are on video, but when I lectured in class, I used a document camera and LCD to project. The kids brought in their books to class to copy the sticky-notes down.  I explained the harder concepts and gave examples as we went through each page in the book.  

Pages from Chapter 15 Withgott-water quality

During sticky-notes, I point out what figures and captions are important.  

I expect kids to be able to read the book to obtain  information. On this page, I point out the two items they are expected to know: Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and Plastic Pollution.

Students can read about these topics in the book and learn.

This page has an important chart and I point out that the kids need to know that Europe is shrinking in population and Subsaharan Africa is growing.

Charts, graphs, figures and pictures along with their captions are super important.

I also added some extra  information about Humus on this page.  

A teacher can easily add information to the appropriate page.

Students now sticky note at home watching the videos on Edpuzzle. I embed questions about what I say in the Edpuzzle so kids have to listen to me explain the information. I also do a physical note-check the day before an exam. You can watch a sample lecture video on Youtube:  Sample Sticky note lecture.

I also now give the option of doing sticky notes on lined paper. Students make a box and write the page number of the sticky note in the box along with the same information. A few students prefer this method, but the majority of my students purchase and use actual sticky notes. 

Some advantages with Sticky-Notes that I’ve found through the years

  • Less writing for students as they don’t have to re-copy the same things that the book says. The sticky-notes tell them what’s important to study on each page.
  • Saves a lot of time as you are not recopying term definitions or diagrams. A sticky note tells them which terms and diagrams are important on each page to memorize.
  • Pinpoints what is important for passing the AP® exam so kids don’t have to study everything in the book. I narrowed it down for them.

Some disadvantages of sticky-notes

  • Kids cannot use “super sticky” or they leave residue in the book which makes the pages stick together for the next student. 
    • Update from May 2017: I discovered this year that rubbing each page with felt or some rough cloth removes the sticky residue. I made all my students do that this year.
  • The books get thick so the bindings can become compromised. I tell kids to use small writing and the least amount of sticky-notes per page. If this is a problem with your school admin., then have the kids copy on notebook paper with page numbers so they can study with their books open and the info written on notebook paper. 
Example of book “thick” from sticky notes.
  • Kids cannot use bright neon-colored notes as they will bleed onto the page in a hot car.
Not allowed
  • Kids have to bring their book to school on days we sticky-note which makes for heavy backpacks and more wear and tear on the books.  Ideally, we should sticky-note every day after reading the section, but I don’t have them do that. Before flipping my class, I had them bring in books about 2-3 days per week only. I told them ahead of time and used Remind texting to help.
  • It’s not the best method for a struggling kid who needs a lot of help and everything explained to them. Fortunately, in my classes, the counselors don’t put many of those students in my course–they really do a great job at placing kids who are “AP® Ready”

(The College Board has something called “AP® Potential”). This doesn’t mean all high-achievers or honors kids. About ⅔ of my kids are average kids who are trying an AP® for the first time.

I recommend really talking with your textbook clerk and/or administration about why this method is so good so they understand why the books might get more wear and tear than normal. I tell them at least the kids are really reading and using my book compared to some other classes. When I started this method of note-taking, my pass rate increased by 10% and has not fallen as I’ve increased in students so I know it works.  

Sticky Note Check while students are doing computer work. I check sticky notes the day before an exam.

* AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.