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Find Out What’s Stumping Students on the AP® Science Exams

By now you have probably seen the exam scores, and you might be planning to address any student weakness or misconceptions you spotted. We gathered our notes from the AP® Annual Conference, identified students’ general weaknesses and content-specific problems, and matched some of our resources to assist you in addressing your students’ needs.


Areas of difficulty across all disciplines

  • In written responses, students are not doing an adequate job of supporting a claim with evidence. Use a graphic organizer as a pre-writing activity every time students complete a lab or practice document-based questions.
  • Student data analysis and graphing need improvement. Students must be able to calculate and interpret the slope of a line. They must be able to select the appropriate visual representation for given data and communicate that to the grader.
  • Students are not incorporating enough detail when asked to design an investigation.  Graders are looking for a well-formulated question, defined variables, a written  procedure that includes the measurement instruments and units that will be used, and a description and explanation of the data analysis they chose.

Students often forget that math, science, and writing are a compilation of skills. To be proficient in a skill, they must practice the skill. As you select activities for your students, make sure they know which skills they are practicing and that the practice can pay dividends on exam day.

AP® Biology Exam readers identified some broad content areas that presented difficulties for students.

  • Students are still having difficulty with statistics and understanding how to interpret this data.
  • Students struggle with the central dogma of biology—understanding the processes of transcription and translation. They had difficulty merging Mendelian and molecular genetics. Modeling the processes may help students gain a better framework. You may also wish to use transformation to show how changes in DNA can lead to changes in proteins. 
  • Photosynthesis and cellular respiration were also areas in which students need more work. Some students were unable to identify them as metabolic processes.
  • Quantitative ecology was also an area in which students struggled. You may wish to review the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, making sure that students are getting a conceptual understanding in addition to just learning the equation. Students also need help understanding how to deal with populations that are not in the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. You may wish to use a short activity on teaching Hardy-Weinberg to get the conversation started.

AP® Chemistry Exam readers identified some broad content areas that presented difficulties for students.

  • Students had difficulty with the general concept of kinetics and had particular difficulty determining rate order. Consider using the Iodine Clock Reaction Kit  as an introduction to reaction rates. For more practice determining rate order, try our Chemical Kinetics Kit.
  • Equilibrium in general was difficult for students. The use of the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation with an explanation of buffers did not yield very high scores.

AP® Environmental Science Exam readers identified some broad content areas that presented difficulties for students.

  • Students did not correctly describe how ecosystem services provided a benefit to people.
  • Students were often North American-centric in their examples and understandings. It was expressed that students should have experiences with international examples.
  • It was recommended that students be up to date with current events. Some of the events mentioned include ocean acidificationoil spills, tsunamis, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and others.
  • Students had misconceptions about how some alternative energy resources work. For example, some students associated hydroelectric power with steam turbines. The Carolina STEM Challenge®: Emerging Energies series allows students to have hands-on experiences with modeling alternative energy.
  • Students need help in developing an understanding of the general principles of evolution. Students had difficulties with species concepts, speciation mechanisms, and how to increase biodiversity. A better foundation in natural selectionbiodiversity, and loss of biodiversity might help some students. 
  • Some students were unable to differentiate between climate change and ozone depletion.

AP® Physics Exams readers identified some broad content areas that presented difficulties for students taking either the Physics 1 or Physics 2 exam.

  • In Physics 1, students score lowest on energy and kinematics.
  • In Physics 2, students score lowest on electrostatics. They did not present a well-written explanation of the situation presented in the problem.
  • Students need practice sketching accurate free body diagrams for application and justification in problem solving.
  • Momentum with vector analysis proved difficult.
  • While students scored well on the optics question, additional explanation with ray diagrams would have benefited students. “Mirror Mirror” is a quick activity to introduce reflection and ray diagrams. For a cross-curricular activity, take a look at “Optics of the Human Eye.


Tips, activities, investigations, and support

Here are some additional hints for successful test taking:

Carolina is your partner for activities, investigations, and teacher support. We can help you identify and strengthen students’ skills now and as your course progresses. At the end, we’re ready with testing advice for your students. Success is not an accident!


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