Gas station without pumps

2011 June 22

Advice on AP Bio from those who grade

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:35
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Recently on the e-mail list for AP Biology teachers, there has been some feedback from teachers grading the free-response questions about messages that aren’t getting through to enough of the students.  I’ve collected those ideas here, paraphrasing them from the original comments.  (Note: I’ve combined the lists from 3 or 4 people, and so decided not to provide direct citation on this blog post, though I would certainly have done so for more scholarly writing.  If the originators of the messages wish to be listed, I would be delighted to add their names here.)

  • There are magical keywords in the prompts that students have to know “describe” versus “explain”, “list” versus “identify”, “discuss” versus “explain”.  The graders are looking for very specific things, and if the wrong question is answered, little or no credit can be given. They expect students to know the fine distinctions between definitions, descriptions, and explanations, and to be sensitive to what is asked for. Here are some of the important words:
    Name one or more items, list the parts, or give an example (meaning depends on context).
    Give a meaning for a word or phrase.
    Provide details in words that help someone visualize or construct a mental model of the object being discussed.
    Say why or how something happens. The answer should give reasons, not just a description.
    Consider two or more objects or concepts and point out what is similar.
    Consider two or more objects or concepts and point out what is different. “Compare and contrast” is a standard phrase asking for both similarities and differences—it is not asking for explanations or descriptions of the objects separately, but only of their similarities and differences.  Listing “X has A, B, and C, and Y has C, D, E” is not an answer, but the same content expressed as “X and Y both have C. A and B are properties of X but not Y, while D and E are properties of Y but not X” does answer a compare-and-contrast question.  The graders are picky about this sort of trivial presentation change, so be sure to present things in precisely the form the questions asks for.
    Consider different theories or points of view.  This is a more general prompt than the others, often asking for all of the above aspects.

    One teacher suggested using Larry Bell’s 12 Powerful Words posters and flash cards, though those seem to me to be directed more at middle school than AP-level courses.  Larry Bell’s web site is rather annoying, with an automatically starting video and a store for selling posters and books, but no listing of the 12 words themselves.  (Secret knowledge to keep the consultant in business?)  Others have no trouble presenting the 12 words: trace, analyze, infer, evaluate, formulate, describe, support, explain, summarize, compare, contrast, and predict.

  • Be precise in your answers.  If the question asks for four examples of something, give exactly four, not three and not five.  Only the first four count positively, and anything after that can only hurt your score, not help it.  A shotgun approach, scattering pellets of information everywhere, is not going to help, as each incorrect or irrelevant statement lowers your score.
  • When asked to give the effect of something, consider both positive and negative effects.  What happens as a result of the change?  What no longer happens? What increases? What decreases?  Both direct and indirect effects may be needed. “Under pressure, carbon dioxide dissolves in water, forming carbonic acid, and so the pH decreases.”
  • An essay, when requested, needs to be in paragraphs with full sentences.  An outline or a list will not earn many points when an essay has been requested.
  • Write legibly in dark blue or black ink—not pink, purple, green, or other “fun” colors.
  • Use a writing implement that allows you to write neatly on the cheap paper provided. Felt-tip markers and fountain pens soak through and become illegible, so a ballpoint pen is a better option.
  • Write large enough for elderly teachers who need reading glasses to be able to read your writing.  As a general rule, this means letters whose ascenders nearly fill the space between the lines and whose x-height (the distance from the baseline to the tops of lower-case letters like “a” and “x”) is  1/2 the distance between lines.  Packing more in by writing microscopically does nothing but giver your grader a headache, which is not likely to increase your grade.
  • Write just the answers, without repeating the question.  Note that this advice is specific to timed exams like the AP or SAT.  For essay questions in general, it is a good idea for the answers to be stand-alone, so that they make sense to someone who has never seen the questions and does not have a copy of them.
  • On a multi-part question, start a new paragraph for each part, and label the parts the same as the labels in the question.  This greatly speeds the reader’s task of finding whether you’ve done each part and what your answers are for each.
  • Each question has a designated place in the “pink booklet” for the answer.  Put the answer on the right page—don’t run the answers together to “save paper”.
  • Practice writing AP-style short essays frequently before taking the exam.  Writing a short essay under time pressure is a skill that is valuable for test-taking (and not much else), and it does not come naturally to people—even good writers need to learn to present an idea quickly and clearly without time to do rewrites.
  • Label both axes  of any graphs, with the independent variable on the X-axis and the dependent variable on the Y-axis.  Put units on the axis labels, and provide a descriptive title for the graph above the graph.
  • Secret code:  The AP graders interpret “plot” to mean just putting data points on the graph, while “graph” means to draw a line or curve.  This may be the only context where these words have this precise interpretation, but it is useful to know the dialect of English that is specific to AP exams.
  • Don’t extend curves for graphs beyond the provided data (unless asked to predict or extrapolate).
  • If you need to put multiple curves on the same graph, make sure that the different curves are clearly labeled.  An arrow from a label to each curve is probably easier than coming up with different dot or dash styles.


  1. I was reading about assignments the other day (our ECE department currently does not allow graded assignments, although I’m working to change that). In this article:

    Gibbs and Simpson. “Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning”. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 1, 2004-2005.

    I read that students get better marks usually by figuring out which questions are likely to appear on exams; I guess that also figuring out how to answer them is a key part too. It seems that undirected effort isn’t a great way to increase grades. But I guess that the US school system has been all about teaching students to do better on exams in recent years.

    Comment by plam — 2011 June 23 @ 11:16 | Reply

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  5. This is an important aspect of IB exams as well. See this link for the IB version of these words.

    I just did a web search for “AP exam prompts…” and could not find a list of terms posted by the College Board. Do you know of any such list?

    By the way, I got to your site as one of my students was studying for his AP biology exam. Thanks for putting up helpful content! :)

    Jay Reimer

    Comment by jayreimer — 2013 May 1 @ 00:35 | Reply

  6. […] Advice on AP Bio from from AP Graders […]

    Pingback by The Best AP Test Prep Strategies | Chegg Blog — 2015 April 24 @ 11:20 | Reply

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