Earning a "5": Successful Test-Taking Strategies for the AP* Biology Exam
Updated February 2016
Many students experience anxiety before taking a test—particularly before taking a standardized test such as the AP® exam. You can help reduce that anxiety by familiarizing your students with the exam and having them practice basic, proven test-taking strategies.
- Familiarize yourself and your students with the format of the exam. The biology exam is 3 hours long and consists of the following sections:
- Multiple choice (90 minutes)
- Part A: 63 multiple-choice questions derived from the Curriculum Framework
- Part B: 6 grid-in, quantitative questions
- Free-response questions (90 minutes)
- Two long free-response questions
- Six short free-response questions
- The College Board® divided the new biology curriculum into 4 Big Ideas. Make sure you teach students the information covered in the Essential Knowledge points listed under each Big Idea. The Course and Exam Description delineates the topics the test includes (and those excluded as well).
Assign your students practice questions like those asked on the exam. Carolina Investigations® for AP® Biology labs include Big Idea assessment questions that help students improve their writing strategies and prepare for free-response questions (FRQs) on test day. Consider administering these questions in a format that mimics the exam. To help students become comfortable answering questions under time constraints, structure the time for the practice test. Use Scantron® sheets to increase student familiarity with multiple-choice and grid-in questions.
The multiple-choice and free-response sections have equal weight, each accounting for 50% of the total exam score. Access more information about the exam at the AP® Biology Course and Exam Description.
- To strengthen your students’ writing skills and prepare them to answer FRQs, provide FRQs from past exams as practice. Require students to take 1 to 2 minutes to read each question and plan a response by drafting a quick outline or jotting down notes. The exam includes a 10-minute mandatory reading period, which students should use to organize their thoughts before answering the questions. Have students peer-review answers to practice FRQs so they can learn from each other's writing strengths and weaknesses. Provide students with examples of high-scoring answers, and explain what sets apart a high-scoring answer from one with a lower score.
The Question = Claim + Evidence + Reasoning model of scientific argumentation is a powerful strategy students can use to answer FRQs. Using the model, students must read and understand a posed question. They directly begin answering the question with a claim statement, then back up their claim with specific examples of evidence, and finally, use reasoning to show how the evidence justifies the claim. There are many resources available online that provide additional information about this model of scientific argumentation.
- Teach your students basic standardized test-taking strategies. Encourage those who have difficulty finishing a timed test to skip difficult questions, answer the questions they find easiest, and then return to the more difficult questions during any time remaining.
Make sure students know they can write on the test booklets. Have them circle key words (such as "explain," "compare," and "which of the following do not"), draw figures where appropriate (for example, to help visualize food webs), and outline answers to FRQ essays, then write their answers.
Help students tackle multiple-choice questions by having them try to answer each question—without looking at the given choices—before selecting the option that best matches their answer. If they don't know the answer to a multiple-choice question, they should eliminate the choices they know are wrong. The test gives a choice of 4 answers to multiple-choice questions; test takers who can eliminate 2 choices have a 50% chance of getting the correct answer. It is crucial to note that points aren't deducted for incorrect answers, so students should attempt to eliminate incorrect choices and answer as many questions as possible.
Partial credit can be awarded for answers to FRQs. Encourage students to show their work in a clear and organized manner and provide as much information as they know; they may be awarded a few points even if they can't completely answer a question. For FRQs with multiple parts, have students attempt to answer each part of the question separately. If they do not know the answer to part (a), they should attempt to answer parts (b) and (c), as points are awarded independently to each part of the answer. Test takers must answer FRQs in pen, so teach them to simply draw a line to cross out errors and continue writing. Answers are not graded for spelling and grammar, but readers must be able to understand students’ answers, so encourage neat writing as well as good spelling and grammar.
- Inform your students about the exam location, date, and time. (Exam dates are available online.) Consider posting this information on your classroom board at least 1 month before the exam to make students aware of it. Verify the testing site, and if it’s off-campus, encourage students to drive by before test day to help facilitate a trouble-free arrival.
- Be sure your students know what materials to take to the test and what will be provided. Students can take a 4-function calculator (including square root) for use during the entire exam. They will be provided a list of formulas. Students should take several #2 pencils (with erasers) to answer the multiple-choice portion of the exam and several black pens to answer the FRQs. Each student should also take a watch for tracking time and an ID acceptable for checking into the testing location. Since social security numbers are required on testing forms, they will need to know that information as well.
Remind your students to relax, get a good night’s sleep, eat a nutritious breakfast, and take a jacket in case the testing location is cold. Best of luck to you and your students!
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