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A word of warning to inexperienced #apchem teachers

December 15, 2015

So, you’re new #apchem teacher, or perhaps you’re a grizzled, old veteran who is coming back to teaching the new AP chemistry course after some time away from the AP classroom. Either way you’re probably looking for some guidance about the changes to the AP exam, and how you might tailor the content that you deliver in order to have your students perform well in May. Good idea, you should be able to find some help in a few places like here, here and here, and perhaps another place you might look toward is to some of the official resources that The College Board provides. Not so fast, you might be getting yourself some very poor advice! Before I get to that specifically, a little background.

I recent encountered a question from a returning AP chemistry teacher that asked a very common question which I paraphrase here;

“How much organic chemistry is on the new exam?”

It’s a good question, one that has been asked over and over again by many teachers, and has a pretty simple answer, namely;

Despair Q mark

“The simple answer to your question is that there is no organic chemistry tested on the AP exam but note the following. Outside of the old Q4 (that VERY, VERY occasionally asked about acid/base, addition, esterification etc.), there was never any organic chemistry on the legacy exam either, HOWEVER just like the legacy exam, organic molecules will continue to be used in questions that ask about other aspects of the AP curriculum such as bonding/IMF’s and perhaps thermochemistry in the shape of things like Hess’ law/enthalpies of combustion/formation etc. As such, a basic familiarity with organic molecules is potentially a useful thing. Because of LO 2.21 and EK 2.C.4 you should mention pi bonds and non-rotation leading to cis-trans isomers, but this can easily be incorporated into ‘bonding’ rather than ‘organic’.”

That (or versions of it) has been my stock answer to the original question for years, and I believe it to be really sound, accurate advice.

Normally the conversation ends there, but this particular teacher came back with a follow-up question, once more paraphrased, here;

“OK, but why then does CB sample syllabus #4 contain SO much organic chemistry?”

What? Wait. What? Investigation follows.

One of the resources that the College Board touts is a set of four syllabi that they recommend as being good ones to follow for the new AP exam. Great (you would think), this will give me guidance about how to prepare kids for the exam. Hold on. When I took a look a syllabus #4 I found it had EXTENSIVE references to organic chemistry that almost ANY teacher familiar with the new AP exam and its content would immediately categorize as completely inappropriate in terms of their depth and volume. As such, it is misleading and unhelpful IMO.

Now, you might argue that some folk teaching AP chemistry would want to include such depth in their course since they are not solely teaching to the test, and that they want their kids to have background in such matters. Well, that’s a philosophical position that I disagree with, but more importantly is absolutely not the point here. The point is that if an inexperienced teacher were to be looking for guidance about what to teach in a the new AP chemistry course, it would seem reasonable that they would look for at a resource like ‘syllabus #4’ and think that it would be useful. In my opinion syllabus #4 is wholly misleading when it comes to the importance and relevance of organic chemistry in the new (or for that matter the old) AP exam, and for that reason should not be touted by the College Board. But it doesn’t end there…

…the same syllabus also includes references to teaching Lewis acids and bases, phase diagrams, types of crystal structure, colligative properties and  the Nernst Equation ALL OF WHICH have been removed* from the new AP exam!

In short, if you were to use that syllabus as a guide as to what to teach in an AP course, you’d be delivering a TON of material to your students that would be irrelevant to the new AP course and the new AP exam – so just be careful!

*Here’s a related article that I wrote for Carolina Biological about exclusions, and a blog post for students about a similar topic!


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