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More on AP from Harvard’s Eric Mazur

January 27, 2012

In case you aren’t reading it, Education Guru Grant Wiggins has started blogging in a big way. His posts on transfer and his six part series on the student voice in education, are outstanding.

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2012 9:11 am

    I wouldn’t be surprised if students who made 5’s on the AP C Mechanics exam also did poorly in freshman physics. In the case of the C curriculum, it is not the amount of material covered (in fact, many high schools cover ONLY the mechanics semester during the year), but it is the way in which some courses are taught. I’ve seen AP Physics classes that are nothing more than “let’s do every type of problem we think might be on the exam, and do it over and over.” No deep conceptual understanding is built, and a very shaky foundation is created upon which fancy calculations are piled willy-nilly. The result is AP teachers crying about how unfair certain questions on this years exam are. Point in case: there are dozens of old tests out there to be used for prep that include a sphere/ring/disk rolling down an inclined plane (translational and rotation kinetic energy problem). Inevitably, the trip down the ramp ends on a horizontal table and the object rolls off the end of the horizontal table (projectile motion problem). A couple of years ago, the exam problem had the ramp right at the END of the table, so that the object starts its projectile motion with a non-zero vertical velocity. Oh, the wails of unfairness that ensued! And most of the complaints I heard couldn’t really pin down why this problem was “so much harder” than previous versions of the problem that students had (mindlessly?) cranked through in “preparation.” Students who had trouble with that slight twist need to take physics over in college and they need to acknowledge that their year-long exercise in “problem type memorization” was futile.

  2. January 29, 2012 1:39 pm

    Hello John Burke, I will be following your posts for the next two weeks for Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class. I do not know much about physics, or science at that matter, but testing can stressful and difficult to students for admission into a graduate school or as basic as being accepting into college. “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.” I agree, in my understanding, taking a tremendous exam like the ACT or AP can have its’ misinterpretations. For some personal experience, when I took my ACT, consisting of the basic subjects Math, English, Science, Reading, and History, I struggled because A) too much information to remember from high school and B) not enough time to take the exam at-hand. It becomes a race against the clock instead of reading the questions and taking your time to answer them the best way as possible if the question is difficult. When a student takes an entrance exam or something similar, the problems they guess on are inaccurate because they do not know that material, they got a lucky guess. Preparation classes take a major effect in exceeding most problems and in my opinion, if a student studies enough and knows the key points in each subject matter, they should do fine in any course or exam. Once again agreeing to you John Burke, Relating other AP testers to Harvard students taking the AP is long stretch and very sobering indeed, but like you stated, “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.” True, they are Harvard students and can be overconfident, but everyone needs assistance, but that’s personal matter. Students just have to suck-up and be responsible to know the material and if such material they did not cover is on an exam made my someone other than the teacher/professor themselves, then the teacher/professor did their job to prepare students the best they can.

  3. February 1, 2012 3:09 pm

    As long as we offer AP classes at elite private schools, we will have the problem of students loading up as many as they can handle in order to build their resumes for college. It doesn’t matter how many cool classes the teachers design as alternatives, the pressure to take APs is going to be there – from the parents, the schools, peers, and especially the colleges. You wrote in another post that you recently advised your Honors Physics students whether or not to take AP Chem next year, explaining that one reason they might consider it is if they had an interest in a career in science but that doing so to look good for college should not be a consideration. I wonder how many of the students internalized this advice, or more importantly how their parents would react. (I haven’t asked my daughter yet!) I loved your 3 part series about abolishing APs and replacing them with other rigorous courses in which students can dig much deeper into the material and focus on learning rather than taking a course with the sole goal of making a 5 on a test. I agree that we should be discussing this idea that the only way to move beyond the stranglehold that APs have on our ability to innovate in the classroom is to get rid of them.

    My perspective on this issue is from someone who took 10 APs during the ’80s at Westminster. My goal in slaving through all of these class was never to learn and expand my horizons but to boost my GPA by as much as possible from the extra points these classes added and to look as good as possible to the Ivy League schools I wanted to attend. Looking back, I wish that I had more freedom to explore learning (as I ended up doing in college) in different ways that would have engaged me beyond the pure competition of vying for class rank.

    Ironically, the two education experiences in high school I look back on as being the most meaningful were AP Physics C (which you discuss above) and debate (which you discussed in a previous post). I enjoyed Physics because it was by far the most challenging course from a thinking perspective I had ever taken. It was the concepts rather than the quantity of the coverage of material (like we see in AP Biology and the Histories) that was challenging. But also, I had the good fortune to have a great teacher, Roy Lovell, who recognized a passion I had for physics. When I started peppering him with questions about modern physics, Roy brought in a number of books on relativity that I devoured. Yes, I was that much of a geek – I read Einstein on the side for fun! How great could it have been if I could have explored those interests more without the set curriculum of having to take a national standardized test? Although at one point I toyed with the idea of becoming a theoretical physicist, I ended up never taking another hard core science class at my Ivy League schools. I was so burnt out from APs and the race to cover as much material as possible, that I went in a totally different direction.

    On the other hand, I think that debate (and the more recent extracurricular Robotics Program) is a fascinating model of learning. It also provides a counter argument to those who worry about whether 21st Century Education can be rigorous enough and actually teach content. I was part of the very first generation of debate at Westminster (the team was started my freshman year). Debate teaches so many skills (research, collaboration, presentation, writing, speaking, critical thinking, logic) as well as deep content knowledge. It does this with few lectures and with the students teaching themselves. I could rattle off leaders of every influential country and had a much deeper knowledge of politics, military strategy, and economics than I ever learned from my AP History classes. Also, while the knowledge I had to memorize for a history test would leave my brain soon after the test, the understanding I came to through debate was imprinted much more deeply. Years after I graduated, I wrote my third-year thesis at Harvard Law School on a topic that I had debated as a Junior in high school!

    • February 2, 2012 12:32 pm

      As a parent I have mixed feelings about AP courses. Some, like AP bio and AP history classes, are so loaded with factoid memorization as to be awful courses, despite the best intents of the teachers teaching them. (AP Bio is trying to change, but I’m not expecting much improvement.) Others, like AP calculus BC and AP Physics C, have a clear curriculum that concentrates on learning how to use a fairly small number of facts—an emphasis on problem solving, rather than factoid memorization that does a good job of helping students learn to think (at least in restricted domains).

      One problem with creating more inspiring courses on random topics is that neither parents nor colleges can tell which are deep thinking courses and which are mere fluff. At least the AP exams provide some external quality control and measurement, even if the AP curricula are badly flawed in some subjects.

      We started home-schooling our son in 10th grade, so that he could spend the time he needed on subjects he wanted to pursue (theater, computer science, physics, calculus, robotics), while doing enough to get by in subjects he cared less for (Spanish, English, history, PE). At local high schools, he would not have gotten credit for half his learning (no calculus-based physics, no robotics, no computer science, only weak theater classes), and would have been doing hours of busywork that would have kept him from learning what he really wanted. (At least, that was his experience in 9th grade.)

      We do plan for him to take as many AP exams as he is prepared for (Physics C: Mechanics and Calculus BC this year, Spanish Language and Physics C: E&M next year, maybe Computer Science, Chem, and Statistics sometime). As home schoolers, the AP exams provide a way for us to show that he hasn’t just been doing fluff. (The SAT and SAT subject exams are too low a level to show that, I believe.)

      • February 2, 2012 11:21 pm

        These are good points. I think AP does have some value in homeschool to validate the quality of student work. But, at the same time, if students are focused on creating something of value as part of any course, I think it will be much easier for colleges to judge the value of that product for themselves. A while ago, it took only a few nanosecods of me looking at your son’s science project on the bouncing ball to see that he has real potential as a science student. And of course, there really isn’t an AP music performance exam, yet colleges are easily able to tell which musicians have truly distinguished themselves by asking students to submit a recording, and sending that recording off to the music department to evaluate. Similarly, coaches somehow manage to find great students to recruit every year without any need for APs or the College Board. It’s idealistic, I know, but I envision that we aren’t far from world where a student could create some online portfolio of learning (say a blog) and with enough time and effort, that blog could grow into an artifact of learning that carries significant weight in the admissions process, far more than the AP.

        • February 5, 2012 12:58 am

          Currently home school students do have to put together a portfolio of their work and get colleges to review it. As I understand it, this makes college application a lot more work for home school students than for those with an accredited transcript. A lot of colleges do *not* want to evaluate a portfolio, at least, not until they’ve shrunk their pool by a factor of 2 or 3.

          My university used to give only narrative evaluations, not grades, but after many complaints from students trying to get into med schools and other grad programs with far more applicants than slots, the faculty finally voted to give grades, and later to make the narratives optional. I see the same pressure from college admissions—they don’t really want every student folder to be a unique collection of information, as it would be too hard (and expensive) to choose reasonably among them. Having some prefilters (like SAT scores and number of AP or college courses) lets them concentrate on the students that are more likely to be of interest to them.

          Your example of athletics is a bit misleading, as the athletic departments often have huge budgets to scout for candidates—far more than all the academic departments combined. (I’m pleased to be teaching at a school that has no football team and no athletic scholarships.)

          I’m all in favor of students doing independent projects and being inspired by what they do, but I can understand the rush to load up on AP classes also, particularly when colleges give explicit advice like “Encourage your student to take as challenging courses as possible and to achieve excellent grades.”

          We did deliberately choose to home school with substantial independent projects rather than go to an AP-intensive charter school, but it was not an easy decision to come to.

    • February 2, 2012 11:14 pm

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. My obsession with maximizing my GPA in high school was very similar to yours. But in our defense, I think AP was one of the few ways for us to stand out as students. At that time, only a few students took AP classes, and doing college level work as a high school student was a signifier of real achievement. And while I went to high school a few years after school, if I wanted to learn something, school really was my only option; there weren’t all that many options beyond school to distinguish myself as an applicant. Contrast that with today, where students can take entire courses on Artificial Intelligence or any of a myriad of other options on iTunesU, where students have the resources and expertise on the internet to learn to program or even start a business, complete with startup incubators willing to fund teen projects. It seems like students today have vastly more options to find their own path than we did. And this, more than anything is what I think colleges want—they want students who are going chart their own course in college and take advantage of the many resources colleges provide. It seems to me with options like these before our students, APs hardly stand a chance either in terms of engagement for the student, or impressiveness on the resume for colleges. Now the only challenge is to remind our students that they really do have this many options before them.

  4. physics_mom permalink
    June 30, 2014 1:21 pm

    >> 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.

    It is not a problem of AP B or C. I want to say 1 year is not enough for high school student to learn basic physics no matter if it has more conceptual focus as AP B or it has more deep conceptual understanding focus on special topics like AP C. College Board recommend new 2 year courses: AP 1 and AP2. So ideally student needs 3 years to cover AP1, AP2 and AP C ME&EM. If it is doable, you can get different conclusion.

    • July 1, 2014 1:23 am

      @physics_mom, is there any evidence that going slower produces better outcomes? Other than that attrition is larger so only the dedicated stay with it for that long?

      • Physics_mom permalink
        July 1, 2014 8:59 pm

        Most Asian students took 2 years middle school conceptual physics + 3 years high school physics (algebra based). 2-3hours/week.It is the reason why Asian students are good prep for STEM. Colleges need students have solid physics knowledge and sense. Not just remember formula to prep tests. They need to know how to solve issues based on knowledge. At the same time, the “depth” based on Calculus is not necessary for this training. We can leave it to college stage.

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