More on AP from Harvard’s Eric Mazur
Today, Grant wrote a post writing up a recent trip he made to Harvard to visit Eric Mazur, father of Peer Instruction, who told Grant this:
Mazur also noted in our conversation that his years of experience on the Physics AP design committee made him less than enthusiastic about AP’s. He has data showing that student who got 5s on the Physics AP do worse than other Harvard Physics students who did not take the AP’s – a sobering thought.
I’m not surprised, and I’ve also heard similar stories about AP physics having no bearing in physics performance in other colleges. My guess is that the majority of those 5’s come from AP physics B, a inch-deep, light-speed marathon through all of introductory physics: mechanics, fluids, thermodynamics, waves, light and optics, electricity and magnetism, and modern physics. In fact, this course covers more material (at a much shallower depth) than your standard first year physics course in college. Also, while AP B has developed more of a conceptual focus, students still tend to see it as mostly a sea of equations. So it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of students coming out of it, even with 5’s struggle in Mazur’s physics class which really stresses a deep conceptual understanding. I could even imagine that students coming into Harvard with 5 on the AP physics might have a bit of overconfidence (they are Harvard students after all), and work less hard in the course or and so be less likely to seek out help when they start to struggle. Another interesting takeaway from this tidbit is that there are students at Harvard who didn’t take AP physics, and if Mazur is able to make statistically significant comparisons, there must be a lot of them. While this should be obvious, it’s a common misconception some students have that they need to take “every AP” their school offers in order to have a shot admission at a school like Harvard. Not true.
As Grant Wiggins suggests, the fact that earning a 5 on AP physics shows some negative correlation with performance in a college physics course among Harvard students should be very sobering indeed. It’s one more bit of information that tells me the value of taking an AP course that is so focused on content and earning a particular score on the AP test is meaningless, and possibly even harmful to your understanding and future progress in the subject.
Nuclear weapons : Cold War :: APs : college admissions
I wrote recently that students seemed locked in an AP arms race, and them more I think about it it’s a very good analogy. Some very competitive high school students feel like they are locked in some life or death struggle with nameless competitors for precious few places at the “good” colleges (I plan to blog more on what a bogus notion it is that there are “good” colleges). And this plays out much like the drama of the Cold War. Just like the US during the height of the Cold War, we didn’t understand the struggle we were in, or the enemy we were competing with, yet we still felt the need to stockpile ever more powerful and useless nuclear weapons in the hopes of deterrence. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was doing exactly the same thing, but this pursuit of military might was also hollowing out their economy and leading to an economic and political collapse. I suppose it’s over-stating things to compare AP’s to useless nuclear weapons and burned out students to the the Soviet Union’s economic collapse brought about by a singular focus on military might (I’m also aware that it’s abusing history as well). But the there may be a lesson from history for helping to lower the head of the college admissions frenzy—many times in the history of the Cold War, tensions were lowered by changing the rules of the game and open communication between the two superpowers. Could we do the same today, by changing the rules of the college admissions process and encouraging more open communication? We could encourage students to forsake the AP courses they aren’t interested in for things that do interest them, encourage gap years, and help students to develop a life of meaning, something that more often than not, requires cooperation and teamwork with ones’ peers rather than dogged competition. It seems to me that might be just the recipe for avoiding the Mutually Assured Destruction of the AP arms race.