AP Classroom: Leveraging the PPCs

desktop computer monitor with AP website on screen

It is back-to-school time! I started school on September 3rd so I am just getting back into my school “groove.”  On August 1st, College Board released its new AP Classroom platform (see figure 1). While exploring this new online resource, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I teach AP Chemistry and what changes I will make in light of AP Classroom to ensure this year will be a great one!

If you have not checked out the new AP Classroom, you are missing out! While there are many great features, the most impressive one, in my opinion, is the search feature. I can click on a topic or learning objective and see all of the related released AP questions. This is powerful! I have spent hours combing through old AP tests searching for example problems. Now I can search with a click of a button! Whew! According to the FAQ section on the AP Classroom website, the ability to edit existing questions will be coming soon. I can’t wait to make different versions of the same AP question to test growth. AP Classroom also contains new questions in the Personal Progress Checks (PPCs). There is one PPC for every unit. The PPCs contain current and review content based on the new nine-unit sequence laid out in the updated AP Chemistry Course and Exam Description

Figure 1: Accessing the new AP Classroom platform

The PPCs are designed to be formative. Formative assessments are often defined as assessments “FOR learning” and not “OF learning.” Formative assessments help teachers monitor student learning so they can make educated decisions about what to do next in the classroom. Formative assessment has been an ace up my sleeve in terms of test scores for all levels of chemistry. The book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning helped me make my formative assessments more powerful by incorporating strategies backed by cognitive science research.1 According to research, common study habits like simple repetition, re-reading, and highlighting give students the illusion of mastery. Strategies like self-testing, interleaving topics, spaced-out review, and embracing difficulty help students shake the “illusion of mastery” and become productive learners. According to the authors of Make it Stick, deep understanding can be fostered by frequent, low-stakes formative assessment quizzes followed by a reflective metacognitive activity like a student reflection. It helps everyone, teacher and student, identify and target weak areas. I am hoping the PPCs will produce a treasure trove of data, pinpointing my student’s strengths and weaknesses so I can decide what to do next to ensure student growth. Currently, I am wrapping my head around how to best leverage the PPCs in my AP Chemistry class to maximize student growth. Right now I plan to explore their use as a pre-test and as a formative check at the end of the unit to help me differentiate.

The PPCs will make a great pre-test. The first few units of the new AP Chemistry CED nine-unit sequence contains many review topics for my students. To help me maximize my time in class, I could see myself using those unit PPCs as a pre-test to see which topics in the unit I can skim over (because my students remember and understand the topic) and which ones I need to spend more time on or approach from a different direction. When previewing the PPC questions, I found them to be less complex than the secure AP exam questions, making them perfect to pinpoint areas of weakness and great for a pre-test.

I also plan to use the PPCs as a formative assessment near the end of the unit. After students reflect on their formative PPC score (see handout at end of the post), they will choose an assignment to complete to help them perform better on the next assessment. Each student will do something different based on their formative PPC score. Normally, if students score low on a formative assessment, I assign them additional practice problems to complete. However, after some reflection, I realized students might score low on formative assessments not because they do not understand the concept, but because they get thrown off by the wording or structure of the AP problem. I am an AP Reader. This past June I was in Salt Lake City, Utah grading question number 7. The answers I read for 7c made a lasting impression on me as a teacher. Question 7c asked students to find moles by multiplying the molarity and their volume reading from the buret. Many students with a solid understanding of chemistry were not able to answer this simple question. Students answered with complex ICE tables and calculations instead of simply multiplying two numbers. I witness this with my own students as well. Students are not understanding what the question is asking and therefore are unable to select the correct problem-solving strategy. 

This year I will give my students who score low on a formative assessment assignment options. They can either complete additional practice problems or answer a new Free Response question utilizing the Free Response Analysis worksheet. They will make their selection based upon their specific learning needs. The Free Response Analysis option will help students decide which problem-solving strategy to use. The handout I plan to use is attached to this post. Students will restate the problem asked to ensure they did not miss it. Too many times students overlook the question and answer “Yes” to a question asking “Would this be greater or less than 1?” Next, I ask students to identify and define key vocabulary words from the problem. I hope this gets students to slow down and think about the concepts the question is assessing.  I also ask students to list all the data used in the problem, previous parts, or the introduction of the free-response problem to help them identify possible equations to use. Often students struggle because they overlook how their answer to part (a) can be used to help answer part (b). When all the numbers are in a list, often it becomes clear which equation should be used. Then I ask them to draw a diagram of the problem. Summarizing the problem visually will help boost reading comprehension. I ask them to identify the unit this problem fits. This will help students make problem-solving connections. The problem-solving strategies we use in the Kinetics unit are different than the IMF unit. After they solve the problem, I ask them to double-check to make sure they answered the question asked and decide if their answer is reasonable. This will help students catch any simple mistakes.

I also need to do a better job differentiating for another type of student after the PPC - the “rockstar” student. The “rockstar” student scores very high on formative PPCs and will not benefit from additional review problems. I will give this type of student the option to create a video of a modified AP problem using Flipgrid while the rest of the class is completing remediation by practicing additional practice. These students will play the “What If?” game by asking themselves “What if I change this (number, compound, tool, condition, etc.)? How will it change the answer?” Students will change and modify an existing free-response problem. Creating a modified AP question takes a higher level of understanding and it will be a good challenge for my top students not needing the busy work of extra practice. I will also be able to download the videos created on Flipgrid to use for extra practice for students who need it. It should be a win-win scenario! The handout for this assignment can be found in the Supporting Information below.

Formative assessment is a powerful tool that I use in my classroom.  I hope the AP Classroom test bank and PPCs help me identify the needs of my students so I can differentiate better.  How are you planning to use the new PPCs and AP Classroom? Have you been in school long enough to try out anything new? I am curious to hear what others are planning to do. Comment below! 


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1. Brown, Peter C., Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.


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Comments 2

Kristin Gregory's picture
Kristin Gregory | Wed, 09/11/2019 - 08:12

Hi Melissa,

I too see the biggest benefit of PPC's as an intro to the various units. I had my students do the Unit 1 PPC and found that they could figure out the PES Qs  pretty easily without ever having seen a PES before. Perhaps the way the Qs were presented led them to an obvious answer. 

I greatly appreciate your posted resources since I often have students who struggle with answering the question that is being asked. I can't wait to try them! 

Melissa Hemling's picture
Melissa Hemling | Wed, 09/11/2019 - 15:33

Thanks for the comment Kristin! I am glad the pre-test idea worked for your students. You make a great point about using the PPCs as pre-test questions - Did the students already understand the topic (ie. PES) or guessed correctly or applied great scientific reasoning?  Following up the pre-test with a student reflection might help clarify the level of student understanding. I will have to try that out!