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How Short Should a Short Answer Be?

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In my previous blogs, I have focused on essay writing, which undoubtedly takes up a great deal of our planning, teaching, and grading time as AP® history teachers.  But, we should not forget the importance of the Short Answer Question to the writing portion of the AP® exam.  The basics of the Short Answer Question often lead us and students to underestimate their importance… I mean, they are not thesis based, they must be answered in just one page… how hard can it be, right? I have found that sometimes I need to refocus my student’s attention on the key points in effectively addressing the “easiest” part of the AP® exam.  After all, the Short Answer portion of the exam accounts for 20% of the exam score (that’s 5% more than the LEQ).

Here is a reminder of the College Board’s explanation of the Short Answer Questions:


So, if we break down this description, students will likely face Short Answer Questions that require them to:

  1. Analyze a primary source AND then answer questions related to it with evidence
  2. Analyze historian’s arguments then explain the argument with evidence
  3. Analyze two historian’s arguments then explain the difference between the arguments with supporting evidence
  4. Analyze sources such as a political cartoon, graph, chart, map and then use related evidence
  5. Consider arguments related to US history and use evidence to address the argument

When we look at this list, it becomes clear that the first two things that are critical to success on the Short Answer Question portion of the exam are analyzing and using evidence.  Students can be taught the acronym A.P.E. to insure they completely answer each question using their analysis and evidence:

A - Answer the question

P - Provide SFI (specific factual information) that supports the answer

E - Explain how the evidence supports the answer to the question

Each SAQ has 3 parts.  APE should be used to answer each part of each SAQ.  I teach students that each letter of APE should be at least one sentence.  In the limited amount of space for answering Short Answer Questions, one to two sentences for each part of APE should be sufficient.  This means that each answer to a Short Answer Question will likely be between 9 - 12 sentences.  Using this acronym helps students avoid the two basic problems I most commonly see in SAQ answers - failing to provide enough explanation for an answer OR writing an answer that summarizes or rambles rather than directly answering each part of the question.

A key element to success on the Short Answer Questions is the use of evidence.  I use the acronym SFI, Specific Factual Information, (yes, I love acronyms) to teach students the importance of evidence.  Students come to understand that SFI is usually something that is capitalized - a name, event, law, battle, policy, document, etc.  To teach students to actively evaluate their use of evidence, you can grab those trusty highlighters (remember, they are magic wands [insert link to highlighter blog here]) and have students use them to specifically highlight the SFI in each part of their SAQ answer.  Here it is important to keep the highlighting to a minimum… not full sentences, just the actual piece of evidence in the answer.  If students can not find something to highlight in each part, they have likely failed to effectively address that part.  If you practice this strategy, students will begin thinking of the highlighting as they write and remember the importance of having something to highlight in each part of each Short Answer Question.

Some of the  Short Answer Questions will require students to analyze sources.  Even though the source will come first in the SAQ, teach students to read the three parts of the SAQ first.  Reading the parts of the question first will help give students a purpose for their reading and analysis of the source.  They can briefly annotate the source, but the emphasis of their writing time should be on getting their answer on the answer sheet.  Sometimes students will spend so much time annotating on the prompt itself, that they end up running out of time to get their answers to all four SAQs on the answer sheet.  An important thing to emphasize to students about the SAQs that have historian’s arguments is that if the question has excerpts from two historians, they will be required to explain the difference in the arguments.  This can not be done by simply restating ideas from the excerpts. Students must explain the difference.  They can typically do this by focusing on whether or not each historian views the event, topic, era or individuals in the question as having a positive or negative impact on the development of the US.  Or, they may want to focus on the difference in evidence the historian’s focus on about the same time period, event, topic, etc.  Or they may want to think how the historian’s differ due to their emphasis on particular views of history - social, political, cultural, intellectual, or economic.  However they choose to go about this type of SAQ, they must focus on the difference between the arguments… not just what each argument is. 

One final consideration for successfully navigating the SAQ portion of the AP® exam.  The description above does not state the additional requirement that kids must keep in mind- they have 50 minutes to write four Short Answer Questions each of which has three parts… that means they are writing 12 answers in 50 minutes.  Therefore, one of the first skills students must practice to be successful on the SAQ portion of the exam is speed.  They must be able to read the question and the source (on probably at least two sources), determine what the question is asking them to do, think of the evidence that addresses the question AND get it written down in a very limited amount of time.  The “element of choice” that at least two of the questions will include is good for allowing students to show what they know, but it is also another decision they have to think about and make in the 50 minute time period.  So, the first strategy to prepare students for the SAQ portion of the exam is to require them to write timed SAQs on a regular basis.  These work well as “bell ringers” or “warm ups” at the beginning of class. 

By implementing these techniques with students, they can master the skills and strategies necessary to make the Short Answer Question portion of the exam both a short and a simple path to success on the AP® exam.