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Test Prep Season

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013. 

Welcome to AP® prep-mode season. It's kind of like baseball's spring training, only without the betting pools and balmy Florida weather, and with lots of panicked multiple-choice drills. Either way, the Big Show is just around the corner, and new AP® English teachers are trying to figure out how to enter the home stretch with their students in a way that won't panic either them or their classes. Heck, I'm still working on that myself, having taught the course for a few years. The advice I give to my students is that it's a skills-based test; we have been working on these skills all year, and there will not be anything new that they can't handle if they apply those skills.

A new AP® teacher emailed me this weekend to ask: I wonder if my best strategy is now for the next 3 weeks to show them previous exams and go over the sample essays, and discuss why they were given high marks... and we will continue to do in-class writing exercises, and go over poems and stories... but all the kids want to do is 'study how to do well on the exam.'

There are really a couple of different issues at stake here: the students' expectations and understanding of the exam; and the teacher's best approaches in these last few classes before they get there.

All the kids want to do is 'study how to do well on the exam.'

You need to emphasize to your students that this is an exam that is focused not on content, but on skills. So they cannot study "things" in order to prepare; they have to study "ways."

I like analogies, so I'd put it to them this way: Imagine that as part of an audition for a master class, you are going to take a piano exam that demonstrates you are able to play anything put in front of you. You can't just bring in something that you've memorized and show that off; you truly have to show that you are a master-level musician. (Or, if classical piano doesn't float your boat, imagine you were auditioning for a jam band.)

You could, indeed, practice certain pieces in order to strengthen your fingers, create the pathways in your brain that hear and execute rhythm and harmony, etc. But in that exam or audition, you need to be able to read notes, figure out time signatures, feel beats, conceive of harmonies, know when to watch the other members of the band, and understand what makes the piece of music work, so that it comes out as it should, even if you've never played that piece before. You need to have skill you can apply to any situation, not simply memorized knowledge of a certain set of pieces.

Also, you can't expect to sit down at such a piano audition without having practiced along the way. One doesn't become a pianist (or the touring bassist for that jam band) two weeks before the audition. Over time, one gradually gets better and better through practice and conscious attention to fixing mistakes.

Similarly, you can't sit down two weeks before an exam like this and expect to cram for it. You can certainly review strategies worked on throughout the year. But if you haven't been paying attention throughout the year, you're missing the practice that would have made you better at what you want to do. That's what the teacher is trying to accomplish by continuing to do reading and writing exercises.

For some reason, kids seem to understand the concept of practicing for almost anything except schoolwork.

I wonder if my best strategy is now for the next 3 weeks to show them previous exams and go over the sample essays, and discuss why they were given high marks...

For the purposes of review, yes, it's worthwhile going to AP® Central to find previous Lit or Lang exam questions and to examine student samples and commentaries. Hopefully, you have been doing some form of this exercise throughout the year, and just want to consolidate that work with a couple of other review strategies:

  • Try what some English teachers call "speed-dating" with prompts: spending the 5-minute planning time with different prompts over the course of one class, sharing with one another how they would approach them: annotating, brainstorming, planning, coming up with a working thesis. A Lit variant for Q3 involves brainstorming what works could be used to respond to different Q3 prompts, and why.
  • Some Lit teachers like to have their students prepare Major Works Data Sheets for books that could potentially serve to respond to Q3
  • Game-show-style team competitions to get the correct MC answers is one way to work on MC speed. Make sure to allow for some debriefing about applying good strategies.
  • Share with your class Martin Beller's "Ten Commandments of AP®" just before the exam and share a laugh while giving them some last-minute words of wisdom

And always remind them that, as I've said above, you've been practicing all year, and now it's on with the show.

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