Sunday, September 28, 2008

Teaching the Free Response Question

Free Response Question Tips

Having graded the AP Government Exam for seven years, I have a handle on what it takes to score maximum points. As I said last week, after becoming a first year "reader," and realizing what it took to score high on the free response portion of the exam, my students' grades took a significant jump. I would like to pass on to you what I learned.

Here, however, is a caveat for this week's blog: I am only speaking for myself and not for College Board, Educational Testing Services, or even the hundreds of other AP Government readers. Yet I feel confident the following tips will help your students as much as they have helped mine. Here goes!

Tip 1: Look at each free response question very carefully. Each question begins with a factual root statement. Then several (usually three) sub-questions are posed. Starting with the first and working to the last, each question requires a higher level of response on Bloom's hierarchy, and in turn each will have a higher threshold for the grader to award the points. Thus, the first question may only need to identify (knowledge level), the second question may require application, and the third may request analysis.

Tip 2: Be sure to do what the questions ask. Questions typically ask to define, describe, or explain. If a question asks to select from a list, no points are awarded for that.
is asking the student to give a thorough explanation of the term, case, or item listed. Students should try to use the proper vocabulary in their explanations. Examples are helpful and can often help clarify poor writing. Define is usually worth one point.
Describe is connected to a particular activity (such as lobbying, or writing a friend of the court brief) and is asking for an in-depth discusion. Students should try to give examples and draw connections. Again, to describe is usually one point.
is asking for detailed analysis. Often the question will juxtapose two concepts, and ask for a comparison or Venn diagram type of a discussion. I tell my kids to take the time and make a t-chart or Venn diagram on the test booklet and answer the question from that source. Explain can be one or two points. Thus a typical free response question is worth 5 or 6 points.

Having the students underline or circle the action words in the question also helps ensure they do what the question ask of them. Nothing disappoints a reader more than to give an essay a low score because the student, who appears to understand the topic, does not follow the directions exactly!

Tip 3: Write a short introduction demonstrating you understand the subject . This introduction should not be long, but should demonstrate the student understands the purpose of the question. I also advise my students to write a summary conclusion. While a conclusion is technically not necessary, readers often "discover" points in the conclusion that were not in the essay. In an attempt to summarize and clarify, students can "back into a point" by giving additional necessary information in their summaries. The process of summarizing forces the writer to reflect on his/her attempt to answer the question and allows a few additional lines to "beef up" an answer.

Tip 4: It is OK to bullet the answer to match the sub-questions. As a matter of fact, as a reader on my 91st essay of the 5th day of reading, I loved bullet format answers. I did not have to hunt around for the answer in a long essay. Remember, these are free response questions and a free response answer if perfectly fine. I realize that AP hardly ever shows a bullet format answer in their samples online, but that does not mean they are not acceptable. In a day and age when young people are used to writing in short, clipped responses, the bullet format can meet the student's writing style and the reader's desire to minimize reading time per essay.

Tip 5: As an instructor, study the AP rubrics and start grading your kids in the fashion of the AP test NOW. We are all tempted to grade essays with a heavy dose of red ink. Save it! Grade on a rubric system (give old AP questions to your students and use the online rubric) and then give the rubrics to the kids and have them try to defend their answers. It will force the students to write in the style that will maximize points on the test in May.

Tip 6: The essay does not have to be long; the essay must be thorough! On a five or six point question, a one to two page essay is usually adequate. Succinct writing trumps long, flowery, wordy essays. There is no your way through an AP free response!

I was at a one day seminar in Kansas City a few years ago where a teacher was complaining that her students all wrote four to five page answers to each question and still received poor grades. Don't equate length with depth...they are often different beasts.

I hope this helps. If you have specific questions about how a free response question is rated, a comment about my tips, or just want to say hello, drop us a comment. We will love to hear from you. Until then...

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