Reflections on a Year of AP

AP Chem

As I write this, it is the day before the national AP Chemistry exam. We’ve been working toward this day since August. We’ve endured late hours, broken crucibles, anxiety, and tears.  I’ve run weekend and evening review sessions, we’ve taken practice tests, I’ve fielded panicked text messages and emails, but after tomorrow we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

This morning I’m taking some time to reflect.  To reflect on the year - what worked, what didn’t work, and what failed miserably. I’m also thinking about this exam and all the exams I administered this year.

This is the first year I’ve taught the AP curriculum since the redesign. I am actually very pleased with the direction College Board has taken in their science course redesigns.  I like the increased focus on the science practices – the analysis of data and the interpretation of different models. As it was my first shot with the new approach I decided to try several new strategies. 

First, I adopted the new Brown Lemay textbook. I’ve always used a Zumdahl book. I LOVE the Zumdahl book, but the Brown Lemay had something the others didn’t. This edition has a new author – Matt Stoltzfus. Dr. Fus is a nationally recognized leader in digital learning and has helped to improve the digital textbook.  Adopting this book also gave me access to MasteringChemistry, Pearson’s online curriculum repository and homework program.  Many of my graduates have told me their colleges are using this program, so I thought I’d give it a shot – maybe get my students prepared for what they will see once they leave my classroom.  I was relatively pleased with the textbook.  While I still prefer Zumdahl when it comes to how the information is presented and explained, Brown Lemay does a fine job.  I liked the number of particle level diagrams and how these diagrams were integrated throughout the book.  There are also more questions focused on building and assessing conceptual understanding throughout the chapters.  I actually really liked the digital textbook.  I could highlight, add notes, make bookmarks – all on my iPad. I didn’t have to lug around a heavy book because I had access to my text anywhere I had an internet connection.  I did prefer the iPad app over the browser version, probably because if felt more like a book and my brain is used to reading physical books.  My students made the same comments – they prefer something that looks and feels like a book.  I believe we will start see a shift in this way of thinking as students are introduced to digital content early in their education and the digital interface becomes the norm. 

Then there was Mastering Chemistry…  I’ve used online programs before, I was a student of CALM at Indiana University and I used it with my own students once I became a teacher.  CALM did what I needed it to do, but on a basic level.  I could assign problems from a repository of questions or I could write my own.  Students would have immediate feedback, but if they got stuck, there were no "helps" built in.  I was intrigued by all the bells and whistles Mastering promised, and was excited to use their analytics to track my student’s learning.  What I found was that all those bells and whistles – they intimidated the heck out of me.  I tried to find someone to walk me through the program.  I called my textbook rep.  I called Pearson.  I left messages.  This went on all of last summer and I never found anyone that could answer any of my questions.  Finally, the week before school started I found a Pearson rep who lived near me and agreed to drive to my school and give me enough instruction to allow me to set up my class.  I used the program all year, but I know I’m not using it to it’s full potential, simply because I don’t know how.  Once school began I didn’t have the time to devote to learning all the ins and outs of the software.  I do think there is value in this program, and I plan on reading and training on it this summer.  I liked being able to assign end of chapter questions from my students’ textbook, as well as tutorials, interactive activities, and videos for them to watch.  I thought the immediate feedback and the way the program provided “hints” would be beneficial for my kids.  What I learned was that many of my students viewed these assignments as “things they had to do to earn points”.  They rushed through them, didn’t write anything down, and were solely focused on completing the problems.  They didn’t view these assignments the same as they did written problem sets.  On the paper assignments they spent time writing out their work neatly, discussing the question with classmates, and making sure they understood what they were doing.   Next year, I will need to do a better job of showing my class how they should approach a digital assignment, how to take notes on the problems and emphasize the importance of working toward understanding, not just working toward completing the assignment. 

In addition to a new textbook I also tried new lab activities, I purchased the AP Chemistry Advanced Inquiry Lab Kit Bundle from Flinn Scientific.  We are supposed to incorporate more guided inquiry into the lab component of our AP courses and Flinn designed these labs to meet the new requirement.  As students of the Modeling method, my kids jumped into these activities seamlessly.  To adequately review each of these kits would take several separate blog entries, but what I will say is this:  some were good, some were great, some just didn’t seem to work as inquiry activities for me.  The one thing I can say about every activity - THEY TAKE A LONG TIME.  I’m not surprised, it’s the biggest complaint the Modeling community gets – inquiry takes more time than verification labs.  As I plan for next year, this will be my biggest challenge.  How can I effectively integrate as much inquiry as necessary in an already crunched for time course?  I’m hoping to get the chance to collaborate and share ideas with other teachers at the ChemEd conference in July to help with this endeavor.

The last big change I made this year was the result of a change in my approach to assessment.  Over the past several years I’ve been reading about standards based learning and reflecting on my philosophy of assessment.  What I’ve found is that I would like my assessments to provide feedback to my students (and me) on what they have mastered and what they haven’t fully understood yet.  This isn’t a novel idea by any means, it’s what all of us use assessment for – what is new is that I recognized that I don’t care when they master the objective.  In my first year course (not AP) I can allow students to reassess on skills they didn’t master.  I can have them do this as many times or in as many different ways as necessary to ensure they reach their learning goals.  In AP it’s more challenging due to the crazy pace we have to keep.  I’m working on how to address this.  This year I started small.  I allowed corrections on tests.  Students could work on questions they had missed on the exam, demonstrate they understood why they missed the question and what the correct answer was in order to recover credit on the test.  I think this was the most powerful change I made this year.  It built an environment in my classroom where my students knew we were in this together.  I would grade every test twice (no small task) if they would put in the extra effort to go back over their mistakes and learn from them.  Several students commented that this was the only class where they used their exams as a mechanism for feedback.  They looked at what they missed, took the time to evaluate their misconception and reviewed the material until they understood the content.  If you are interested in learning more about assessment philosophy I highly recommend Jane Pollock’s book, Feedback.

Well, these are just some of the things kicking around in my brain today as I’m thinking about the year that is almost over.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve shared.  Good luck to all the AP students and teachers – we made it!