How to Improve Your Students' FRQ Writing

After another APES exam cycle with a near 50% pass rate, I continue to share the same thoughts that so many of you have this time of year: “what can I do to help this year’s students have a better chance of passing the exam and earning college credit?”

And as my FRQ grading experience and data from AP instructional reports continues to indicate, the answer to that question seems to be: we’ve got to help them improve their ability to interpret and answer FRQs. The reason I’ve differentiated between interpreting and answering FRQs is because students continue to provide FRQ responses that are predominantly factual and accurate statements about environmental science. However, they struggle to provide answers that appropriately respond to each prompt with the depth and precision required to earn a point.

In order to help students get better at answering FRQs, there’s just no getting around the fact that they need as much practice as possible interpreting, responding to, and receiving feedback on them. So here are my top 2 pieces of advice for helping this year’s APES scholars be as prepared as possible for the FRQ portion of the exam:


1. Practice, practice, practice

I often hear from teachers who are leery of starting FRQ practice too early in the year because they don’t feel students are ready, or they don’t have the time to grade them all, or they are crunched for time and need to spend it on labs and other engaging activities. These are all valid concerns. 

But in my experience, having students write full-length, 23 minute, 10 point FRQs right from week 1 is the best way to get them ready for May. While we don’t write an FRQ every single week, my goal is to have students write at least 14 FRQs in the first semester and at least 10 in the second semester. Then when April rolls around, I want them to have written 3 FRQs in 70 minutes at least twice. This is so important for them to get a feel for the exam pacing so that they don’t exhaust themselves on FRQ #1 and leave nothing in the tank for #2 and #3. 

If this seems really daunting, consider the following adaptations to the standard “you’re writing this FRQ, for a test grade, and I’m grading it outside of class time” approach.

Group/Table Write: Give a group of 4 students a practice FRQ and have them answer it together, only the paper and pencil/pen has to rotate around the group with each question (a, b, c, etc.) This can be an open or closed note activity, for a grade or not. When students are finished, they pass their FRQ to another group/table who uses the scoring guide to grade their peer’s work. Then collect the FRQs and score them yourself. Consider adding in a bonus point for any table/group who gives their peers’ FRQ the same score that you do.

Scoring Guide Supported Writing: Give the students the scoring guide ahead of time, or give them 3 scoring guides and tell them the FRQ they’ll have later in the week will be one of those 3. This may seem way too easy, but remind them that they can’t quote the scoring guide verbatim, and must put the ideas from the scoring guide into their own words. To clarify, they can’t actually use the scoring guide while writing, just to formulate answers ahead of time. Just make sure you don’t continue this scaffold too far into the school year. I usually stop by unit 4. This can be counted as a homework grade or a test grade, depending on your preference/school policy.

Grading the grader: Have students write a full-length FRQ and then grade their own or switch with a peer who will grade it. The catch is that you’ll grade it later and give whoever graded the FRQ a score based on their accuracy (how closely they scored the FRQ to the score you gave it). You can choose to not even count the actual score the student who wrote the FRQ earned and make this activity focused on correctly interpreting scoring guides or you can count the actual FRQ score, but give out a bonus point or two for accurate student-grading.


2. Grade Together, Early and Often

During week 1 of the school year, I have students write an FRQ that’s less content heavy (such as the 2018 #1 carbon footprint FRQ or 2019 #1 piping plover FRQ) using the group/table write directions outlined above. Instead of writing it on a lined sheet of paper, they write it on their desk or a large whiteboard or large sheet of paper (student directions). I break the FRQ into each subsection and put the scoring guide for that subsection on the board so they can self-score their answers as a group. Then I go around the room and give feedback on their self-scoring as well as hints about how they might revise their answer in order to earn a point. This sets the tone early in the year that self-evaluating our writing together is important. It also gives them practice and feedback on using a rubric to self-evaluate their own writing. 

For the first few full-length FRQs that they write individually, I have them self-score their writing as soon as we finish so they get immediate feedback on how they did. I also encourage them to ask questions about the scoring guide so that they can score accurately and learn how to self-evaluate their own writing. I usually don’t “grade the grader” on their first or second full-length FRQ, but I will write my score next to theirs so they can see how accurate they were in their scoring. We usually introduce self or peer “grading the grader” for actual bonus points in unit 2 or 3.

While writing and self-scoring full-length practice FRQs each week is a great way to improve FRQ scores in May, a mini-FRQ each day also goes a long way toward strengthening students’ writing.

In the first semester, I have students write and self-score the mini-FRQs at the end of each one of my flipped video notes/slides. When I check their notebooks on Fridays, part of their notebook grade comes from accurately self-scoring their mini-FRQs. I always remind them, they don’t get a grade for answering them correctly, but they do receive a grade for accurate scoring and correcting them when they get them wrong.

In the second semester, I like to start every class period with a mini-FRQ that I have students quickly write and self-score (example slides). If I have time during the lesson, I’ll quickly look through student responses and the scores they gave themselves either on paper or on Peardeck and give them 10-15 second feedback on whether or not I agree with their score. If I disagree, I ask them to revise their score and correct their answer. 

For units 7-9, I also add in a released student sample from the College Board for them to self-score. I do this using Peardeck and ask them to discuss as a group and then be ready to share their score and justification to the whole class. This slideshow has all of the correct answers and some scoring annotations I’ve added so that you can show them the correct score and justification after discussing it as a class. 


I hope you’ve found something useful in these tips and resources. Just remember that we’re all teaching in different settings with different student populations, so what works for me may not work perfectly for you and your students. But whoever you’re teaching, I can almost certainly say that they’ll benefit from more FRQ writing and self-scoring. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments about this advice or any of the resources provided!

🏔️ Jordan -

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