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How to teach AP physics

It’s easy to teach physics in a wordy and complicated way – but taking a concept and breaking it down into simple steps, and presenting ideas in a way that are easily comprehensible to the eager student, is more challenging.

Yet that is what Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman excelled at.  The same skills that made one a good teacher also caused one to more fully understand the topic him/herself. This was Feynman’s basic method of learning.

Feynman How to teach physics

1) Develop an array of hands-on labs that allow one to study basic phenomenon.

You can also use many wonderful online simulations, such as PhET or Physics Aviary.

2) Each day go over several problems in class. They need to see a master teacher take what appears to be a complex word problem, and turn it into equations.

3.) Insure that students take good notes.  One way of doing this is having the occasional surprise graded notebook check (say, twice per month.)

4) Each week assign homework. Each day randomly call a few students to put one of their solutions on the board. Recall that the goal is not to get the correct numerical answer. (That sometime can come by luck or cheating.) Focus on the derivation. Does the student understand which basic principles are involved?

5) Keep track of strengths and weaknesses: Is there a weakness in algebra, trigonometry, or geometry?  When you see a pattern emerge, assign problem sets that require mastering the weak area – not to punish them, but to build skills. Start with a few very easy problems, and slowly build in complexity. Let them work in groups if you like.

6) Don’t drown yourself in paperwork: Don’t grade every problem, from every student, every day. You could easily work 24 hours a day and still have more work to do. Only collect & grade some percent of the homework.

7) Focus on simple drawings – or for classes that uses programming to simulate physics phenomenon – simple animations. Are the students capable of sketching free-body diagrams that strip away extraneous info? Can they diagram out all the forces on an object?

8) Give frequent assessments that are easy to grade.

9) Get books such as TIPERS for Physics, or Ranking Task Exercises in Physics. They are diagnostic tools to check for misconceptions.. Call publishers for free sample textbooks and resources. For a textbook I happen to like Giancoli Physics; their teacher solution manual is very well thought out.


Prof Devel log NGSS Science discussion group

Sample prof development log for teachers in a NGSS Science Facebook discussion group.

Prof Development Log for FB Science teachers group (MS Doc format)

Prof Development Log for FB Science teachers group, PDF format


Concept Maps

We’re teaching our students how to translate articles into concept maps: these are graphical tool that depict relationships between concepts. They are used by students, engineers, and technical writers, to organize and structure knowledge.

Here’s an example of how one could take ideas related to energy and electricity, and show how they are related:

Electricity Concept Map
A concept map typically represents ideas and information as boxes or circles.


They are connected with labeled arrows.

The relationship between concepts often shows us cause-and-effect, with terms like: causes, requires, or “contributes to.”


How to create a concept map

Read the article

Identify the main concepts

How are the concepts related to each other?

Draw a rough map: draw each concept inside a square or circle

Draw arrows showing how one action or event affects another

You can use symbols “+” for increase, and ” – ” for decrease.

Here’s an example of an astronomy concept map

Astronomy concept map

Learning Standards

Why should teachers use concept maps? According to the National Research Council, experts differ from novices in that experts notice features and patterns of information, have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect deep understanding. Their knowledge cannot be reduced to a set of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). More important, experts have efficiently coded and organized this information into well-connected schemas that help experts interpret new information and notice features and meaningful patterns of information that might be overlooked by less competent learners (Pellegrino, Chudowshy, and Glaser 2001).

As students gain mastery of concept maps, they develop an understanding of relationships among elements of a concept, ultimately making incremental gains in moving from novice to expert-level learners. Furthermore, by constructing concept maps, students enhance a metacognitive approach to learning by negotiating their ideas, taking control of their own learning, and monitoring their progress. As the learner physically draws the connection between two subtopics, he/she reinforces that same connection mentally.

From “Making the Most of Concept Maps”, Douglas Llewellyn, National Science Teachers Association

Articles by cognitive scientists Daniel Willingham

Articles by cognitive scientists Daniel Willingham

Cognitive Processes

Evaluation of Theories

Close Reading Strategies

Intro – what are close reading strategies all about?


Close Reading Strategies: www.sausd.us


The Art of Close Reading (Part One) Foundation for Critical Thinking

Slow Reading Makes You Smarter, James Kennedy


Examples of close reading strategies in physics

Literacy in Physics: Reading a Primary Source


Close Reading Selections with Text-Dependent Questions: Boston Public Schools Science Dept

Close Reading and Text Dependent Questions in Science Hot Technology (Physics– HS)



Model close reading for the students: annotating, making notes in the margins, and explain the thought process (think-aloud)


But first understand why you are reading the passage. Are we looking for information? Are we trying to understand how different lines of evidence come together to support a claim? Are we learning how some process works? Are we trying to discover the author’s beliefs, opinions or values? Annotation options:

  • highlight in different colors
  • circle words/phrases
  • put question marks by things you don’t understand.

Write in the margins

James Kennedy Annotated notebook

An annotated textbook, by James Kennedy . https://jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/how-to-use-a-textbook-6-rules-to-follow/

notes about what the author is saying, text connections they make, and questions they have.

  • What is the author telling me here?
  • Are there any hard or important words?
  • What does the author want me to understand?
  • How does the author play with language to add to meaning?
Close Reading Technique 1

from Educational Leadership, Dec. 2012, Vol 70 #4. Common Core: Now What? Closing in on Close Reading, Nancy Boyles


Common Core ELA Skills addressed

Common Core English Language Arts and Literacy: Anchor Standards for Reading http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/R/


Reading Informational Text: Grade 8, Grade 9-10

Language: Grade 8, Grade 9-10

Standard 10: Range, Quality and Complexity – check various topics within


Expeditionary Learning: Trip to a classic bookstore

Seaport Academy Logo 2

Addressing standards from the American Association of School Librarians:

MBTA Water Shuttle from Flagship Wharf to Long Wharf

Walk to Commonwealth Books, Downtown Crossing, 9 Spring Lane

40,000+ titles. Medieval manuscript, modern fiction, non-fiction, history, science, philosophy, art monographs, poetry, literature.

Walk to The Brattle Book Shop, Downtown Crossing, 9 West Street

250,000+ titles. Founded 1825. Outdoor section plus 3 stories indoors. Americana, Boston, History, politics, religion, philosophy, fiction, non-fiction, rare books and collectibles.

Walk to Faneuil Hall & Quincy Market.

Marketplace and a meeting hall since 1743. Site of speeches by Samuel Adams, James Otis, and others encouraging independence from Great Britain. Part of Boston National Historical Park and the Freedom Trail.

Visitor Center 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.  The Great Hall is open 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Learning Goals

American Association of School Librarians: Standards for the 21st-Century Learner


4.1.1 Read, view, and listen for pleasure and personal growth.
4.1.2 Read widely and fluently to make connections with self, the world, and previous reading.
4.1.4 Seek information for personal learning in a variety of formats and genres.
4.1.5 Connect ideas to own interests and previous knowledge and experience.
4.2.1 Display curiosity by pursuing interests through multiple resources. 4.2.2 Demonstrate motivation by seeking information to answer personal questions and interests, trying a variety of formats and genres, and displaying a willingness to go beyond academic requirements.
4.2.4 Show an appreciation for literature by electing to read for pleasure and expressing an interest in various literary genres.
4.3.3 Seek opportunities for pursuing personal and aesthetic growth.

Tier I, II and III vocabulary

Tier Vocabulary

Tier One – everyday words usually learned in the early grades.

Tier Two – High frequency words, used across content areas, key to understanding directions, relationships, and for making inferences.

Tier II Words list

Academic language from resources.successforall.org

Tier Three – Domain-specific words

Tier III Words list