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.





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