Earning a “5”: Successful Test-Taking Strategies for the New AP* Biology Exam
Many students experience anxiety in the days and weeks leading up to test day and particularly before standardized tests, such as the SAT, ACT, and AP exams. Teachers can help reduce that anxiety by familiarizing their 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 new AP Biology exam is 3 hours long and consists of the following sections:
- Multiple choice (90 min)
- Part A: 63 multiple-choice questions derived from the Curriculum Framework
- Part B: 6 grid-in, quantitative questions
- Free-response questions (90 min)
- Two long free-response questions
- Six short free-response questions
- The College Board divided the new AP 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 College Board's AP Biology 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. See new sample exam questions posted on the College Board’s AP Central Web site. 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 AP 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 ½ the total exam score. Access more information about the 2013 exam at the AP Biology Course and Exam Description.
- To further strengthen your students’ writing skills and better prepare them to answer FRQs, provide them FRQs from past exams. 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 AP exam includes a 10-minute mandatory reading period before students can begin answering FRQs. Students are more likely to provide complete, organized responses if they 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 examples of high-scoring answers and explain what sets apart a high-scoring answer.
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 2013 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 to FRQs are not graded for spelling and grammar, but readers must be able to understand students’ answers, so encourage neat writing and good spelling and grammar.
- Inform your students about the AP Biology exam location, date, and time, which is 8 a.m. (in each respective time zone) on Monday, May 13, 2013. Click here for details about the exam. Consider writing this information on your classroom board at least 1 month before the exam so students see it repeatedly before test day. Verify the testing site and be sure your students know that information at least 1 week in advance. If the site is off-campus, encourage students to drive by before test day to help facilitate a trouble-free arrival on May 13.
- Be sure your students know what materials to take to the test, and what will be provided. Beginning on the 2013 exam, 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 plenty of #2 pencils, with erasers, to answer the multiple-choice portion of the exam and plenty of black ballpoint 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 need that information in hand as well.
Remind your students to relax, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a nutritious breakfast before the exam—and take a jacket in case the testing location is cold. Best of luck to you and your students on the 2013 AP Biology exam!
*AP is a registered trademark of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, these products.