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Are AP Physics 1 FRQ's appropriate for First Year Student

  1. May 28, 2016 #1
    This post is directed at the college professors and graduate TA's on the forum.
    You may or maynot be aware that the College Board recently redesigned the algebra/trig based AP physics course and split it into two - 1 year courses. The first year effectively covering mechanics through waves and the second year covering everything else. Alongside this change is a new emphasis on written explanation and a de-emphasis on math based problem solving and the outright removal of numerical problem solving. This year's exam free response questions have just been released and the questions I have are:
    1) How do you think your first year algebra/trig based physics students would perform on these questions?
    2) Would you construct a final where this was the representation of a course in Mechanics, in other words is this an appropriate representation of what is to be expected from first year students?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 28, 2016 #2
    Physics graduate student at the University of Michigan here. I happened to do my undergrad here as well, and I took a quick look at the free response questions.

    First of all, if you go to any decent size university the intro physics classes are all humongous. This means no free response, and only multiple choice on exams to make grading easier. The questions on the AP exam don't seem to be a very good representation of intro physics classes - the main thing that stood out to me was the emphasis on "experimental data" and "designing experiments". Don't expect any of that in exams. The flavor of the other problems were about right, although they'd probably be the easier questions on an exam that most people should get correct. Basically, take out the experimental questions and make the rest a little harder and you'd have a good idea of what exams in an intro class are like.

    That being said, if you go to a smaller school the professors might actually have the patience to grade free response so my experience is probably not universal.
  4. May 29, 2016 #3
    I should have probably indicated that there are certain things that are not permissible. For instance, for the last question students simply could not use T/μ = v2 they can only use v = λƒ and what is shown on the diagram.
  5. May 31, 2016 #4
    I examined the FRQ's you submitted. I think these questions are terrible. For example, give me a question any day. Do not give me instructions to "design an experiment".

    I taught freshman physics for about 6 classes over 3 decades. I never say any questions like these. I say traditional prblems such as those in Resnick and Halliday or Serway, etc.

    I thought the question regarding what physical principles are violated, (with the abscissa on the graph switched from time to mass) was tricky and bordering on unfair.
  6. Jun 1, 2016 #5
    I think its a reasonable question except for the part saying

    First its a great way to test the students understanding of how to use the scientific method.
    Second it allows to test how well the student understands the physics.

    It's different enough from standard problems to motivate students as well I would think.
    Like "Hey, I can actually perform the experiment of this problem after I've designed it."

    In a class environment it would be beneficial to do the experiment. (the following is a very rough idea)
    E.g. divide the class in groups and have them prepare a proposition as homework, ask them to hand it in a day or two before the next class.
    Use next class to discuss the experiment with the students and if there's enough time perform it.
    If there isn't enough time let them explain their set up to the rest and shift the experiment to the next scheduled period.

    This takes a lot of time so it might need some willingness of the students to schedule a meeting during a free period/after hours.
    But it can be graded for a significant portion of their final grade.
  7. Jun 2, 2016 #6


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    The FRQs don't seem unreasonable to me, but a course needs to be designed to prepare students properly for the exam. The typical course that focuses mainly on problem solving probably wouldn't be adequate preparation for most students. These students learn how to calculate how long a projectile remains in the air, but most don't really get a good understanding of basic physical concepts.

    Grading exams for a intro physics course can be quite discouraging at times. Perhaps the situation has improved since I last had to do that, but based on what I've heard, I doubt it. A lot of it has to do with professors teaching courses the way they do because "that's how it's always been done!" and many students don't realize the level of understanding that's expected of them in college.
  8. Jun 3, 2016 #7
    One problem with "design an experiment" is that it is open-ended. If a student wants a stopwatch, and a meter stick to measure the velocity of the falling superball, is that worse than using just a meter stick and dropping it from a selected height and calculating the speed of impact(s). If the student requests a high-speed camera to measure the heights along a meter stick, is that valid. It seems different graders can grade the student solutions more arbitrarily than questions with clearly computable answers/
    Does one give full credit for any combination of equipment that could conceivably give the correct critical experiment, or only full credit for the "most inexpensive" combination of equipment. Years ago, I taught a class that used spark timers for timing, later we used photocells. Is one better than the other.

    In theory, I see some value in these questions, but these are not the questions that will prepare them for college physics and engineering classes. They will not be designing experiments for many years. When they go to college, the equipment in the introductory labs, and procedures will be given to them, like it or not.

    On the other hand, if this physics is the last physics they will ever take, maybe this is OK, if as Vela points out, the students are given adequate preparation.
  9. Jun 3, 2016 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    From my perspective (physics faculty), there are some things about the FRQs that I like and some things I don't. There seems to be tension between intentionally not providing sufficient information for 'plug-n-chug' approaches (to motivate problem-solving skills), and (perhaps intentional) confusing wording of the problem to be solved, leaving open the possibility that a student doesn't understand the question.

    For example. see question 3. The velocity of the cart must be time-dependent even though the time-averaged velocity is stated to be constant, but it is not clear what the averaging time is, or what it should be. Similarly, question 2c leaves the student able to fantasize about whatever complication they could think of, because they are allowed to contemplate violation of physical laws.

    That said, I agree with the overall approach of the exam, and I try to write similar questions for my intro physics exams (algebra based and calculus based). My guess, based on how students do on my exams, is that the students generally will do poorly on this, precisely because these types of questions are targeted at students' typical weaknesses- the inability to know what to ignore or how to estimate, for example. Or a general inability to perform what is known as 'ratio reasoning'. But yes, these types of questions (open ended, not multiple choice) are what I expect my students to be able to handle.
  10. Jun 4, 2016 #9
    First and foremost, go blue!

    Ok, so just to add in a student's perspective, I only have one criticism; these are way too open ended. I can infer a lot of different things from one set of instructions. For example, the student performing the experiment has materials ordinarily found in a physics classroom. I honestly have no idea what this means. I can see a high-end physics classroom having some very state-of-the-art equipment while some classrooms may not have any sophisticated measurement tools. Also, for 3 (b) and (c), we were given an experimental fact with no reasoning, and then we are asked to say if this fact still holds when a variable changes. I can see a reason why the answer would be greater than for both, but I can also see somebody saying "we were given a piece of experimental fact, so that fact holds."

    Also, problem 3 is a bit easy for a recommendation of 25 minutes (except for those things on (b) and (c)).
  11. Jun 5, 2016 #10
    Careful with that, in general the average students need double the time you think they might need. (at least)
    Its one of the hardest parts of designing a test or getting an appropriate timing for problems. (on the practical side that is)
  12. Jun 5, 2016 #11
    I think another thing to consider is that this is a course that is generally targeted to bio, pre-med and liberal arts majors. This is not a course that is targeted toward engineering and physics majors.
  13. Jun 5, 2016 #12
    Very true. I would say, in that case, it is reasonably timed. Someone who is interested in physics or engineering as a career should, I would think, be able to answer that question in about half of the recommended time.
  14. Jun 5, 2016 #13
    You would think that. But I have students that intend on majoring in physics at University of Chicago, Cornell, University of Penn who said that it took them the entire time to answer these questions mostly because of the completeness required in answering them in written form. In general the way I trained the students is if possible, to answer the question mathematically first, and then translate the mathematics into language because students tend to give incomplete answers when answering questions verbally. This is one of the reasons why the average scores nationally was so low for the 2015 Frq's. Try to answer the questions and then score yourself according to the scoring guidelines, I think you will be a bit surprised and those were easier questions than the 2016 FRQ's.
    Not to mention questions that are a bit tricky, like 2016 3di: if you answered yes, because v avg is a linear function of Mass, it is not clear that you will get any credit for it, because the actual answer is No - because v avg has a definite non-zero intercept therefore is not a proportion which is what the equation indicates.

    Questions 1aii and 5b on the 2016 FRQ's are also a bit tricky.
  15. Jun 8, 2016 #14
    I am a high school AP Physics teacher and i think the intention of these questions are way off based. You make the assumption that university professors know the best way to instruct their students. Research has shown us quite the opposite.
  16. Jun 8, 2016 #15


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  17. Jun 8, 2016 #16
    Can you provide references?
    I read one study that looked at the usefulness of demonstrations for a HS physics course, Why may students fail to learn from demonstrations? A social practice perspective on learning in physics.

    It all depends on the training the teachers received. I've had amazing teachers in college and terrible ones. Same in high school.
    In high school the teachers had to be at least working towards a certificate. In college it can happen that they have very little requirements (over here at least).
    What was noticeable was that bad teachers in college were often really bad. One of the reasons could be that they were forced to teach another that they underestimate the amount of work involved.
  18. Jun 9, 2016 #17
    I question the validity of the education research and intentions of the education researchers that you extol. I have nothing to gain monetarily or in furthering my career by asking these questions, can the same thing be said of those that publish the "research"?
  19. Jun 9, 2016 #18
    I would say the reflections of Eric Mazur are the best at this. He would ask his students the traditional numerical problems and then ask them to explain the physics. He found a huge discrepancy in that students were not understanding the basic physics principles, but were able to solve for the right number.

    Well, yes. Physics Education Research as a field generally started because professors wanted more students to understand physics. As a teacher, i want my students to better understand physics. Is this poor motivation? Absolutely not!

    What you are asking is if the AP course better prepares them for the course in college. But, what does the course in college prepare them for? Look at the majority of these intro. physics classes, and you need very little physics to pass. If you can recognize what symbols mean(v means velocity!), and can do algebra and maybe some calculus, you will end up with some of the highest grades. Perhaps a professor will ask you to memorize a certain fact, but that's the gist of the physics on these tests.

    The old adage is "physics is just math." But this wrong line of thinking leads to low enrollment, definitely low enjoyment, in physics courses.
  20. Jun 10, 2016 #19
    I see what you meant now, I think.
    How I understand Mazurs and by extension McDermotts work, it tells us that physics education has to change.
    To do this the tests have to introduce more conceptual questions.

    A shock for me were the misconceptions regarding position-velocity-acceleration.
    As an example, some students think that when a car overtakes another car on the highway, they must have the same velocity at the moment they are side by side.
    The problem with conceptual tests is designing them, you need to be very comfortable with the subject to design a good conceptual question.

    The AP questions are reasonably good in this fashion which probably hints at why it is perceived to be hard, education is often stuck in "the old ways".
  21. Jun 11, 2016 #20
    Is this before or after he started selling his product on the lecture circuit? Now don't get me wrong, Mazur did have a positive effect on the way I teach, I incorporate polling into my lessons. At the same time, I don't teach Harvard undergraduates, I teach at a suburban high school. My students are not going to devour the textbook before coming to class so that they can discuss and teach themselves the nuances physical theory in class. If he were to implement his teaching methodology wholesale in my classroom, my students would learn very little and he would not have a job at the end of the year. At the same time I think you are creating a strawman argument with regards to a supposed dichotomy between traditional numerical problems and what is being asked of students in some of the FRQ's that exist on the AP 1 exam. There is a lot in between, and outside of that whole framework of questioning in terms of physics.

    Well that certainly sounds noble. I have heard that people become doctors because they genuinely want to help people. I have also heard individuals become politicians because they want 'to serve the people'. I have even heard that "the College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity". The reality of academia is quite different. I think Gregori Perleman summed it up pretty well when reflecting on the careerism in academia that spurred the blatant attempt to steal credit for his discovery he said, “I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse. Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.” In fact, books have been written on the subject. It is important to realize that this is not a criticism of the people involved, people have to eek out a living. It really is a direct result of the political economy of academia and if the system was different this probably would not happen.

    No this is not what I am asking them. What I have asked is whether professors would give these type of questions to college first year physics students that have no plans on being scientists or engineers given their relative difficulty, especially FRQ 3. The reason I am asking this question is that if it is inappropriate for college first year physics students than it is definitely inappropriate for high school first year physics students. I have direct evidence that at least one of the professors that "works very closely" with a professor who was on the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee for the AP Physics Redesign will not give questions remotely as difficult to their engineering students. Rather, they give those students precisely the types of questions that you decry and also happen to be orders of magnitude easier. It is completely unethical. Just like it is unethical for someone to take part in a committee to radically redesign a national curriculum whose release coincides with the release of their https://www.amazon.com/College-Phys...321715357/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8 which so happens to match that radically redesigned curriculum. Just like it is unethical for current and former graduate students to blatantly organize an effort (from March 15, 2015 - March 22, 2015) to boost the rating of this very same textbook when it was getting panned by the public who actually had to use it.

    I disagree, good physics is precisely like good mathematics. What you are describing is not a good mathematics, but rather just algebraic churning. That said, this is probably the level of physics that is politically acceptable for teaching to the majority of high school level first year physics students who are not planning on going into physics or engineering. That said, I am not of the opinion that the College Board needs to transform the questions to this type. Rather that they need to redact their suggestion that high schools convert their first year honors course into an AP Physics 1 Course and return to the longstanding policy of advising it as a second year physics course. Thus if students decide to take it as a first year course, they and their parents know what they are getting into. Otherwise, many teachers will continue to lose their jobs through no fault of their own but rather because they are being asked to square the circle, and will be told by their bosses that the College Board advised them that it can be done.
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