Thinking Big: Supporting Struggling Learners in the AP Classroom
By Carrie Kelder
My AP Psychology class represents a diverse group of learners with a variety of skill levels when it comes to reading and writing. What the students have in common is their level of motivation, whether an interest in Psychology or a general desire to achieve in high school and be well prepared for the future. Some students start out the year wanting to challenge themselves, but their desire wanes as the year progresses and the course becomes more demanding. Some students have an excellent work ethic and complete every assignment meticulously but struggle to do well on the exams.
I was surprised when I began teaching the course about how uncomfortable my students were with the free response questions on the AP Psychology exam. These questions pose a scenario and give a list of vocabulary terms that must be applied to a prompt. For example:
Abram recently graduated from high school and began his first year at a four-year university. Explain how experiencing each of the following in the past may affect Abram’s ability to succeed in college.
- Authoritarian parenting style
- Identity versus role confusion
- Unconditional positive regard
This application of vocabulary was a big struggle for my students, not only knowing and understanding a term, but being able to connect it to a scenario and create their own example of the concept. The connection is not always obvious and requires a high level of thought and creativity, often pushing students to take risks and think critically, which are skills necessary for success in college. This was a different kind of writing than my students were accustomed to doing.
I began my inquiry focusing on how I could improve the application of vocabulary in students’ free responses. As the year went on, my understanding shifted about why this particular skill is critical to students’ success, and what that means for my teaching.
An important part of my inquiry process was defining specifically what I wanted students to accomplish in each response. With the support of my inquiry group I was able to concisely and clearly state what I was looking for. I wanted my students to:
- Accurately define each term
- Apply the term to the prompt, giving an example
- Write in complete sentences
I was fortunate this year to secure a Chromebook cart which allowed me to have students write responses in class. To support them in writing successful responses, I tried out a variety of supports:
- I had students read and grade one another’s responses
- They wrote practice free responses using their notes and textbooks
- I gave take-home prompts for them to think about ahead of time and then gave them time to write in class
- I gave out a “term bank” with a narrowed list of vocabulary terms from each unit that might show up in the free response prompts
- I went over each prompt in class and modeled how to complete it
- I showed students and also linked on my class website the previous free response exam questions including the scoring rubrics and sample student responses
All of these attempts were not so much strategic as as stream of efforts to support student performance on these daunting tasks.
An important moment came when we completed a practice prompt in class on the Chromebooks, during which students had access to their notes and textbooks. One of my focal students plagiarized a definition from the Internet. At the time, this frustrated and angered me, but ultimately gave me insight into her thinking and into my role as her teacher in supporting her to succeed.
Alisa was a student with a strong work ethic and organizational skills who meticulously completed every assignment on time and who color coded her notes, yet consistently received low exam scores. She is a Latina student and English Language Learner who will be a first generation college student. I couldn’t understand why she would copy a definition from the Internet when she could have used her textbook and class notes, especially as she chose a definition that wasn’t what we had studied in the course and lacked context. I doubted she even understood what she had copied.
After one of my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry sessions, I was inspired to have a discussion with Alisa about her thinking surrounding her decision to plagiarize. I wanted to know what was happening in that moment for her: was it a lack of understanding of the concept, a desire to “get it right” by relying on an “expert” source, or an instinct brought on by an over-reliance on technology?
Our conversation had an unexpected result. Alisa became very upset, at first trying to distract from the issue, then crying and placing blame on herself for not trying hard enough. I found myself working hard to reassure her that this was not a punitive conversation, but me as her teacher trying to understand her thinking and the factors at play so that I could better support her in the future. I hoped that she would give me some insight, but we both left the conversation feeling upset. She ignored me and refused to participate in class the next day. I was completely surprised by her reaction. I had no idea it would become so emotional and personal for her. We had a second conversation, my goal being to repair our relationship. She left this conversation smiling.
What I learned from these interactions was that Alisa was struggling with the dense AP vocabulary. She lacked confidence in her academic skills to take the risks necessary to do well in writing a free response. She needed even more support, modeling, and scaffolding than I had previously provided to help her be successful, which in turn would develop her confidence.
Alisa’s experience also helped me more deeply understand the importance of my inquiry focus. Alisa is college bound, planning to attend a State university, and this to me became the bigger reason to understand how to support students’ vocabulary application in writing. Alisa will need these skills not only to be successful on the AP exam, but in college. As a first generation college student, Alisa has a statistically higher likelihood of dropping out of college, and public universities often lack the support necessary to help students like her. Feeling underprepared for college and a lack of confidence are common, and I now see a large part of my role as helping her resolve these feelings in order to move forward in her education. Alisa helped me realize that even as an AP teacher, it is okay to give students a lot of support and, for my struggling students, it is a necessity if they are to do well.
Next year, I plan to be more calculated in my use of the strategies and supports I tried throughout the year, starting with the most supportive and gradually working toward students attacking prompts independently. Through all of my different attempts, I learned that what is most important is my students having many opportunities to practice, with plenty of differentiated support, to develop both their skills and confidence.
This inquiry process also helped me realize that providing ample support for all students in my AP classroom makes it an accessible and more equitable place for all learners. Instead of focusing on making the course challenging, I shifted my focus to making it approachable and attainable for my students. When I began my inquiry work, I was focused on raising my motivated, yet struggling learners’ AP scores. Through the inquiry process, I moved beyond a focus on passing a test, and into deeper thinking about what students need in an AP classroom to be able to successfully transition into college. While I can’t say that I have a concrete and definitive answer to that puzzle, it has energized and motivated me to continue to reflect on my practice and to be open to trying new things as I strive to meet the diverse needs of all of my students.
Carrie Kelder is in her fourteenth year teaching social studies at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo. She currently teaches AP Psychology and Women’s Studies, both of which are electives for 11th and 12th grade students. She loves exposing students to subject areas outside of required courses and encouraging students to think and discuss issues that affect them and others. Outside of the classroom, she spends most of her time with her two young children, and enjoys swimming, running, and reading.