AP teachers offer tips for success in challenging courses

As many sophomores enroll in different advanced classes for this year, more challenges and difficulties are bound to happen as classes enhance. Instead of dropping the course, two AP teachers offer constructive tips to help stay on top of your difficult classes.

AP human geography teacher Traci Lake recommends handwritten notes during class time. “When it comes to in-class retention, my biggest piece of advice is to take handwritten notes. While typing can be a lot faster, handwriting notes require a deeper mental processing of the notes, so it will actually help you retain information better,” Lake said. “Typing notes is OK, but only if you plan to go back to them later and even hand-write them later. You can get a lot of information down really fast when typing, but because we can do it so quickly, we don’t really have to take the time to process in the moment, and it can be hard to make sense of things if we go back to the typed notes too late.”

Eliminating distractions during class time is also an essential part of learning and understanding the content teachers are teaching during class time. “Eliminating distractions in the classroom, to give your full attention to what is happening around you is also important. Keep Chromebooks closed unless they are necessary. Work in a window with only the tabs open that you need at the time and avoid that cell phone,” Lake said. 

Especially for advanced classes, your school effort outside of class is if not just as important, more important than your in class work. Studying what you learned in each class at home for about five minutes, outside of homework, will help you retain the information you learned for that day. 

Harmful learning strategies are also something to avoid when trying to study for challenging classes. AP psychology teacher Melissa Rogers shared her input on harmful strategies. “One harmful strategy to avoid is the use of learning styles (engaging with material and practice via visual, auditory or kinesthetic senses based on how you learn). Studies supporting learning styles haven’t used the scientific method properly as a number of them are missing control groups. Studies using the scientific method do not demonstrate the evidence of learning styles but instead show learning styles are harmful to students as they can get discouraged if they don’t do well after engaging using their ‘learning style.’ You can, however, engage with material using more than one of these modalities (combining visuals and movement) to make more connections to the material, which also has a scientific basis,” Rogers said. 

“Especially in an AP class, and I think I can speak for most, but at least for mine, vocab is king. While most AP courses are year long, we still have a lot to cover before exams in May, so most teachers won’t use class time to work on vocab definition, but rather application and connection of terms, so I always tell my students if you can get the vocabulary down—at least be able to recall what the word means—outside of class through the reading that is assigned, then I’ll help make sense of these terms in class,” Lake said. 

Below, Rogers shares some of her best techniques to retain information:

  • Spaced practice involves learning and reviewing your content over time as opposed to a cram session the night before an exam. While you might only worry about the test the night before, you likely spend more time cramming than if you looked over content for 10-20 minutes every day or other day two weeks leading up to the assessment. It ends up stressing you out less because the time constraint isn’t adding more pressure to your ability to learn. Spaced practice interrupts our forgetting and helps us retain more information over the long-term. 
  • Retrieval practice is a technique that focuses on getting information out of your brain as opposed to what we normally do of trying to get information into your brain. Some examples of this would be taking a practice test, having someone quiz you, using flashcards (but making sure you identify info BEFORE flipping it over), a brain dump, etc. Retrieval practice has been shown to reduce student anxiety, as it gives students feedback as to how well they know the content prior to an assessment. There are MANY different retrieval practice techniques, giving you ways to mix it up to make it a little different every time so you’re not bored with the process. Retrieval practice has also been shown to increase long-term retention which means less cramming when your comprehensive finals are looming. 
  • Metacognition is the awareness of your own cognitive processes like thinking and knowing. Sometimes we talk about it by saying that it’s “thinking about thinking.” With metacognition, it’s being aware of what you know and what you don’t know, helping students see what they actually know and what they don’t know so you can better focus their time and efforts (which means less stress and anxiety). One way in which you can use this is to indicate on a practice assessment which questions you guessed on and which ones you were sure of in answering, going back to solidify in your mind the right answers on which you guessed. You can also estimate how well you think you’ll do on a practice assessment before taking it and then compare it to your actual score. If you’re too confident, it’s so much better to find out prior to an in-class assessment! Lastly, you can track to see why you answered any questions wrong and see if there ends up being a pattern. Did you read the question too quickly and not process it fully? Were you between two answers and second-guessed yourself? Did you pick an answer you weren’t familiar with because you didn’t have confidence in yourself? Maybe you didn’t even have that in your notes so you couldn’t study it in the first place. Any insight in your wrong answers can help you correct it prior to an in-class assessment and make a plan to be more successful with less effort for the next unit.

Rogers also recommends checking out The Learning Scientists, a site which provides different learning strategies, linked here: https://www.learningscientists.org/posters 

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