Winning The Free Response Questions

(by Matt Ortloff, Greenfield High School

It is just about the time in the school year that students should be starting to practice FRQs. This school year I based my PPG and SLO on FRQs. I researched and networked to find the best of the best advice on helping students do well on this challenging aspect of the AP Human Geography Exam. Part of this research involves participating in the AP Reading in Cincinnati, OH, and getting first hand knowledge on how FRQs are scored (I highly recommend becoming an APHG Reader – I have learned so much as a part of that process).  In my first edition of the APHG blog, I will share some of that advice and explain how I prepare students for FRQs early in the school year. I plan to revisit this topic with a blog at the end of the school year to reflect on my results. Here are some highlights of what I do.

Introducing The Idea of FRQs

This year I introduced FRQs by going over a document that I made compiling great advice and ideas from wherever I could find it. You can take a look here. One of the most important aspects of doing well on an FRQ is to simply answer the question that is asked. It turns out that this isn’t as simple as it sounds for students. Early in the year we reinforce the meaning of the verbs that will appear in the prompt. (Read the handout above for more details). A wonderful AP teacher and Reader from Utah, Chris Hall, came up with this great analogy to decoding the direction verbs with a Wisconsin connection: ice cream. (or at least good ice cream anyhow). I explained to students how the verbs change what the prompt asks them to do.

Define Ice Cream.

Describe Ice Cream.

Discuss Ice Cream.

Compare (and Contrast) Ice Cream.

List/Identify types of Ice Cream.

Analyze Ice Cream.

Explain Ice Cream.

The answers to these prompts will obviously be very different and kids find this analogy very easy to understand. We actually have an ice cream party and then write out the answers to these questions. It’s a great way to start building relationships early in the school year when it is still warm outside!

Attempting A Mock FRQ

The next thing we do is attempt to answer a mock FRQ to learn that an “easy” question is never as easy as it appears. APHG Test Development Committee Member Allison Martin Hunt developed a great practice question related to summer vacation. It is great for getting to know students as you can learn a lot about them from what they did over the summer. (Relationships!) Summer vacation is also content that seems “easy” and students are familiar with. You can check it out here. I love this question because it asks students to Define, Identify, Discuss, and Explain. These are some of the most common prompts on the exam, each of which can be difficult for students to address. I like that it uses an Alice Cooper song in the introduction that might possibly throw students off track. They do not need to know or use anything about Alice Cooper or his song to score well on this question, which is a good learning experience. Often times the exam may use a specific example in the prompt but may be getting at a larger concept. Students that understand this aren’t stumped or confused and will score more points. The question also uses images. Students will encounter visual stimulus on at least one question and this can be problematic as well.

Pre-planning is important; I have students underline the direction verbs, number the parts, and create an outline to plan their response. I give advice on their response and then I display student work anonymously. I show good and poor answers to each part of the question and explain why some responses seemed great as the student wrote it, but would not be guaranteed points on the exam.

Most students feel that they “nailed” this question until I give them feedback. Here are some common mistakes to look for when evaluating this question:

Part A  (Define the term “Summer Vacation.”)

“Define” to students, especially freshmen, does not mean what students think it means. All too often students give a one line definition, usually what would appear in the same sentence as a bolded term in the textbook. This is usually not enough to earn points. Often “define” prompts are “all or nothing” propositions, meaning that if the definition is not completely developed, students earn zero points even if they understand the concept. Students should write a complete definition, which often takes several sentences. Examples never hurt and sometimes lead students to completely define a concept. For example, the 2015 Lingua Franca question required students to demonstrate a barrier to communication in order to complete a definition. “A common language often used for trade” seems like a great definition to students, but it scored 0 points on the exam. An example language would help. “Swahili is a lingua franca used by people that spoke different languages, allowing them to communicate with others that did not speak their native language in eastern Africa” would score points. Sooo…. when it comes to summer vacation, students should name the months of summer vacation, the purpose of summer vacation (historical or modern), and possibly what people do during summer vacation in order to fully define what summer vacation actually is. I tell students to explain it to an alien from outer space that has no idea what summer vacation is. Students often miss several parts of a well-developed definition.

Part B (Identify and discuss TWO things you did over summer vacation.)

Most students get points for identifying what they did over summer vacation, but would miss points for the discussion part of this question. Students need to not only show a clear understanding of what they did and fully discuss their examples, they must also connect it back to the general concept of summer vacation. The examples need to clearly support the student’s understanding of the concept of “summer vacation.”  Students often do not write enough to truly answer this prompt.

Part C  (Choose either activity X or activity Y and explain how this relates to what you like to do over summer vacation and your plans for next summer vacation.)

The first pitfall in part C is not actually naming one of the two photos. Students need to get in the habit of saying “photo X” or “photo y” explicitly instead of referring to the content of the photo. Next, students do need to briefly show that they understand the concept of the photo. What is going on in the picture? Students will skip one or both of these important steps. Last, the prompt “explain” always requires an example. Did the student give a SPECIFIC example of what they did and compare it to what their selected photo is showing? At the end of this process students should directly tie their example back to the photo. The word “because” is an important tool to teach to students. The more often students use the word “because” in a response, the more often they will explain in more detail or make connections. For example, end a response to this prompt with: “My summer vacation of hiking in Yellowstone Park is similar to photo Y, BECAUSE the photo is demonstrating going camping. This is an activity, as opposed to sleeping in photo X.”

The First “Real” FRQ

I train students to become an AP Reader with the very first released FRQ that we practice. This year we attempted 2010 Question 3, which combines knowledge of the Demographic Transition Model with knowledge of population pyramids and development. Here are the steps we take in “training” –

  1. I explain the rubric and how to award points.
  2. We go over the released sample responses and score them.
  3. By showing fingers, students reveal how many points they awarded for the first response.
  4. I go over how many points were awarded at the reading and why.
  5. We repeat steps 3 & 4 two more times looking at the other released sample responses.  
  6. Students score a “live” response from one of their peers.
  7. I score the responses. (Later in the year students become so good at scoring responses that I do not score formative practice FRQs – which is a big time saver!).
  8. Students receive feedback on their response as well as feedback on how they scored a classmate’s response.

Back To The SLO/PPG

This year I am tracking student performance on each practice FRQ. I make a form for each FRQ so that students self-score, peer score, and receive a score from the teacher. You can see an example of that form here and my SLO tracking form here. I will be saving FRQs this year as evidence for my SLO. My goal is to improve student scores so that 80% of my students are scoring above the national mean score for that year. As the school year goes on, I may raise or lower that bar based on the data and student progress, but I hope that this will lead to even better scores for my students on the 2017 exam. When the school year winds down I will blog about what happened and reflect on the process.

I hope this helped and always feel free to email me with questions or ideas that you have. Good luck to all this school year and stay tuned for my final reflection in May/June!