Advice for completing the AP audit and “syllabus”

College Board requires that every high school that labels a course “AP Chemistry” demonstrate that they are following the new curriculum framework (see my previous post).  College Board enforces this by making teachers submit a course “syllabus”.  Once your “syllabus” is read and approved by an “expert” (usually a college professor) your school is added to the AP Course Ledger and you are allowed to hold your course out as AP.  (I will note that the Ledger is a gold mine of data if someone could find a good way to mine it.)

More to the point, last fall I applied to become one of the people who reads and approves these “syllabi”. After training and scoring some syllabi, I have come to one conclusion.  The “syllabus” is not really a syllabus.  It is evidence of compliance with the new curriculum.  As soon as everyone comes to grips with this, the syllabus submission process will become much easier. This is why I have gone to pains to use quotes around syllabus up until now.

As an exercise I wrote my own (hypothetical) AP Chemistry syllabus (second document in the list).  And let me say it’s a bit of work.  You have to know the rules, you have to make sure you follow the rules, and you have to key every lab you do to the AP Chemistry Science Practices.

I’m now going to go through my sample syllabus in more detail.  It may help if you compare back and forth between my syllabus and the AP Syllabus Development guide.

Requirement 1: Textbook.  Many have complained that it is difficult to suddenly obtain new textbooks (published in the last 10 years), which says much more about funding for public schools than anything else. However, it appears to be acceptable if the teacher is using a more recent text to guide the course than the students are using at home.

Requirement 2: Big Ideas. Next I outline the Big Ideas and Science Practices.  This nails down the 2nd requirement that your course is centered on the Big Ideas.  I added the Science Practices because I like them.  Aside: this is meant to show that you have some idea that there are Big Ideas and that you are going to use them to structure your class.  If it were me, I would put these on Big Posters and put them around my classroom.

Requirement 3a—3f.  Samples of student activities: Now you have to show that not only do you plan to follow the AP Chemistry curriculum, but that you’ve even thought of a few activities that relate to the learning objectives.  I have planned activities (mostly based on POGIL activities, my preferred mode of instruction), and I have keyed them to Learning Objectives.  Notice that the activities all have students doing something.  What they do can vary.  They could watch a demonstration then discuss their observations, or discuss observations from a simulation, or work on practice problems of increasing difficulty within a group.  Regardless of the specific activity you choose, explain what the students will do, not just what they will learn.

Requirement 4: Societal relevance.  Here you have to demonstrate that you have given thought to how to relate AP Chemistry to the greater challenges of society.  Most of the sample syllabi have the students doing projects.  I have listed a sort of half-lab in which students briefly make some observations then analyze in terms of the effect of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels and with LeChatelier’s principle.  I wrote this because LeChatelier’s principle has been used to argue that climate change won’t happen, which is total B.S., but I digress.

Requirement 5: The 25% of time rule.  You have to say that hands-on lab activities will take at least 25% of your course.  You have to actually say this.  You can’t leave it up in the air or say that “on average” you will spend 4 out of every 10 in the lab.  Just say you will be in the lab 25% of the time and you’re good.  Notice that the phrase “hands-on” here is to prevent teachers from substituting real labs for virtual labs.  Save yourself the trouble and don’t use the phrase “virtual lab”, it just gets people riled up.

Requirement 6:  Lab activities.   Here I have listed my lab activities.  I have pointed out that all of my activities are guided inquiry (you’re only required to label 6 of them GI, but I like inquiry).  I have also keyed the labs to associated science practices.  Notice that I have a variety of sources.  I’m concerned that some teachers will feel they have to follow exactly the College Board’s lab manual, which is not true.  Use your best labs, no matter where they come from.  I also included a plug for an upcoming manual from PASCO, which I helped write.

Requirement 7: Lab notebook/portfolio.  Students have to have a permanent repository of their lab work, either a notebook or a portfolio.  Here I use a notebook because typed lab reports are too easy to copy from the web (I figure if a student has to hand write something they might be less inclined to copy someone else. I may be naïve here).  You also have to give the format of the lab report.  I’ve used the Science Writing Heuristic because I like it and to point out that you just have to have a format, it doesn’t have to be the usual introduction, methods, results….

This is going to take you some time.  If you want (even in the interim) to adopt one of the sample syllabi, you are allowed to submit that instead of your own customized syllabus. Finally, there is plenty more information here directly from the College Board. Good luck!

Disclaimers:  I am a consultant, not an employee of the College Board, and I am compensated for my consultant services.  This both means that I am free to voice my opinions and that my opinions are my own and that I don’t speak for the College Board.


The new (not even slightly controversial) AP Chemistry Curriculum

Changes to AP Chemistry is a big deal, even if you aren’t a teacher or student. Many future chemists get their first taste of chemistry in an AP class or an introductory class influenced by AP Chemistry.  Many high school teachers attend AP Chemistry workshops even if they don’t teach AP.  And many AP Chemistry students will find themselves in college chemistry courses (Organic for those who pass, General for those who do not).  The AP students I get in General Chemistry always set the curve in my class.

So when the College Board (which runs AP) re-writes the curriculum, it’s a big deal for the entire chemistry community.

The new curriculum is a response to a 2002 report from the National Academies called Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High School.  You can read it for yourself (it’s free if you sign up for an account, but it is 300 pages..), but the gist is: AP science (1) covers too much content while skimming the practice of science and (2) spends too much time on rote methods for problem solving, what I call “calculator monkey” work.  College Board took the critique seriously and began writing a curriculum that was more oriented toward science practices and less toward calculator monkey sorts of chemistry problems.

The new curriculum (you can read the whole 109 pages here) is rooted in the chemical education literature, namely, it stresses inquiry-based approaches to teaching and stresses that students should be able to shift back and forth between different representations of a problem (particulate, mathematical and macroscopic/lab observations).  I will explore this aspect more deeply in a future post.

So what’s different about this new curriculum?  The first difference is in style.  The course is built around 6 “Big Ideas” and 7 “Science Practices”.  For example:

Big Idea 2: Chemical and physical properties of materials can be explained by the structure and the arrangement of atoms, ions, or molecules and the forces between them.


Science Practice 1: The student can use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems.

Each of the Big Ideas and Science practices are subdivided into more specific statements, but I’ll gloss over the details for now.  The idea is that Big Ideas and Science Practices riff off each other to produce a set of learning objectives – things that a student in AP Chemistry should be able to do.  Take an example:

Learning Objective 4.6 The student is able to use representations of the energy profile for an elementary reaction (from the reactants, through the transition state, to the products) to make qualitative predictions regarding the relative temperature dependence of the reaction rate. [See Science Practice 1.4, 6.4]

Welcome to curriculum-speak.  In average chemist terms, that means a student should be able to use a graph like the following to explain why a reaction is fast or slow.


The fact that Reaction 1 has a greater difference in energy between the reactants and the transition state (i.e., activation energy) means that it will be slower than Reaction 2.

Incidentally, Science Practices 1.4 and 6.4 are:

Science Practice 1.4 The student can use representations and models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively and quantitatively.

Science Practice 6.4 The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.

So the student should be able to go back and forth between using the graph (which is the model) and a macroscopic observations (the speed of the reaction).  Thus, on the AP test a student might be asked to first analyze a set of kinetics data, then draw an energy diagram that matches the data.  Or the student could be given an energy diagram and asked to correctly associate the graph with concentration versus time data.

Probably the biggest difference is the emphasis on concepts rather than mathematics.  The rationale, coming the National Academies report, is that students often memorize mathematical routines without understanding the underlying concept.  My favorite example of this is that questions regarding the Nernst equation will no longer be included on the AP exam.  Instead, students will be asked to use LeChatlier’s principle to reason about whether the potential of an electrochemical cell will increase or decrease based on the concentration of reactants and products (Learning Objective 3.12).

Personally I think this is a great change.  My undergraduate mentor Vicki Colvin always made the point that we would forget the math but remember the concepts.  And she was write.  I can’t solve the Schrödinger equation from memory anymore, but I really understand wave-particle duality (well, as much as anyone understands it).  However, many people are pretty upset about this.  I’ve been in more than one presentation where people started yelling.  The feeling (which is reasonable) is that we are dumbing down AP Chemistry.  I think that is not fair.  Take for example Learning Objective 6.17.

LO 6.17 The student can, given an arbitrary mixture of weak and strong acids and bases (including polyprotic systems), determine which species will react strongly with one another (i.e., with K >1) and what species will be present in large concentrations at equilibrium.

No where do the Learning objectives say that students should be able to calculate the pH at an arbitrary point on a titration curve.  But frankly, the above is just as hard (notice the word “arbitrary”!), requires more understanding than memorization, and is more useful to a student going on to Organic Chemistry anyway!

The new curriculum is going to take a while to digest, and a few years of difficult adjustment, as in painful-to-watch-butterfly-struggling-out-of-a-chrysalis kind of difficult adjustment.  It is my goal to write a series of posts on this blog that help explain the curriculum in more depth, both for AP teachers and chemists in general.  It is my hope that these posts help alleviate just a bit of that adjustment.

Thoughts and Comments?  Either comment below or find me on Twitter @SGPrilliman.

Disclosure:  I am an AP Chemistry consultant and a reviewer of AP Audit syllabi.