Observations from the 2014 AP Human Geography Reading

Once again the AP Human Geography reading was a success. I still firmly believe that this group pf 500+ teachers and professors have GOT to be the most extraordinary and interesting people than any other group of readers. The stories that we all overhear while riding up the escalator for lunch are unbelievable and  inspires me to keep pushing to be a better teacher than I was yesterday. Never mind the 1125 free response questions that I graded- this is by far the best professional development that I can ever get. I am very thankful for a productive professional development night, and all of the other “professional development” nights outside of the convention center.

After pondering the rubric that we used for grading and discussing it with my table, I decided to do some further research into the previous years and see what types of verbs that the FRQ test requests the students to answer.

Some of my findings were interesting and provoked more thought while others were not very interesting at all. Regardless, I wanted to teach myself how to create an infographic, a new medium that is hot in the web-world right now. I used Piktochart.com as my platform and created a free educational account. The results turned out pretty well I think, and I was able to display the information that I wanted cleanly and with impressive ease.

Click the image to view the interactive: When you mouse-hover over charts, it will display more information.

I don’t think that the website is easy to use with an iPad yet, but I am hopeful since my classes are all 1:1.

My observations about the FRQ’s and verb prompts:

1)   By far, the most requested verb prompts are Discuss, Explain, and Identify & Explain- all high-order questions.

2)   The years with the highest scores had the most low-order thinking questions, and the opposite was true for the lowest scoring years.

3)   All three of the lowest scoring years asked students to recall geographic models.

Questions that I now have:

1)   I wonder when they will decide to write an FRQ for the Nature & Perspectives unit, which to date – there is zero.

2)   We are one of the lowest scoring AP exams and yet schools want to push this towards freshman with the belief that FRQ exams MUST be easier than DBQ exams. What are people missing?

3)   Why isn’t a multiple choice test or practice test released since 2006?

Based upon student reactions to their multiple choice exams, I can tell that the types of questions are NOT, “choose the correct definition for the vocabulary term.” Instead, the types of questions are leading towards giving an example of a real world phenomenon and then requesting students to tell which term best applies. And though I have not seen an actual test, it sounds like the kids were saying that the questions require more reading than the answers (I would actually prefer that to the alternative).

As far as the FRQ verb prompts are concerned, I would like to see a writing protocol used that all students can turn to when writing their responses. I have seen the PDF that was produced many years ago at an AP institute, but that one still leaves a lot of questions and ambiguity for students how to answer. I am looking for the Holy Grail here people! I want a formula that I can present to my kids so that they know EXACTLY what to do when given a certain verb.

A good example that I saw was a from one FRQ that I read that was answering an EXPLAIN question. The student wrote her identification first – getting the point, then moved on by writing, “to explain why this is happening…” – then earning herself the next point.

I thought this was marvelous! And I know that the college professors might roll their eyes at this, but getting a high school freshman and sophomore to explain what their initial mental splat was is very difficult to do. I always find myself asking, “How can I get them to elaborate on what they just wrote?” This young writer seemed to have been taught a formula by some writing guru out there and I want to thank you because I am going to start implementing my own “rules of the FRQ road.”


Here are my observations about the verb prompts used by the AP Human Geography writing team:

Explain: This one is tricky because if you take a look at the AP rubrics, sometimes they will require students to get both points by simply writing two explanations, and yet sometimes, they will give one point to a “basic” response, and another point if it is a “complex” response. I find that EXPLAIN prompt is extremely similar to what is required for an IDENTIFY AND EXPLAIN prompt and I think I will start having my students write this way to cover both bases since my kids will hopefully go into a complex explanation to back up their ID point. When answering EXPLAIN questions, I want students to focus on explaining “who, what, where, when, why, how” are people/places effected. So to sum it up – Give brief reason, then write “to explain why/how/where/what/when this is happening is…”

Explain using examples: Though on the 2014 rubric, a real world example was not required, I will still request my students use the EXPLAIN protocol and provide a real world example.

Identify: Simply put, provide a brief reason. I have seen kids get these points with 2-4 words. “Increased production.” you write? Point you get. Ugh. No teacher likes this, but c’est la vie.

Identify & Explain: I will have my students write their 2-4 word splat answer, then follow the protocol for EXPLAIN as seen above.

Identify using a map: This one can be tricky. Basically, the one time that AP used this prompt in 2008, it asked students to IDENTIFY a location on the U.S. map where net out and in migration was occurring. The rubric accepted answers for proper names of locations and vernacular regions. To me, I wish that this is where AP can tighten up their usage of verb prompts and stick with either IDENTIFY or NAME, because they seem to be the same thing according to the rubric. Since IDENTIFY has also been used for “brief” explanations that come in the form of 2-6 words on a rubric, I think they should use NAME.

Identify and Discuss: Provide a 2-6 written splat of answer and then go on to elaborate. How you ask? See my protocol for the DISCUSS prompt.

Identify and Compare: Student receives points only when comparing two phenomenon and mentioning what is happening on each side. Students do NOT receive points when only stating one phenomenon that occurs on one topic.

Discuss: To give information about a topic. This one requires more factual information instead of explanation. My reasoning comes from the 2004 question on Maquiladoras that ask students to DISCUSS four factors that EXPLAIN why Mexico is emerging on the global economic scene. This is a tricky one, especially since TWO verbs were used. However, students were given points for what seemingly could have been an IDENTIFY question since most of the bullet points were no longer than five words. Regardless, students were also asked to explain so I would have them follow my protocol for EXPLAIN after they write their factual splat. Facts, facts, facts. Make students answer, “What is the reason for this?” In 2005, I think that the rubric did NOT reflect the question, as it required students to answer a DISCUSS question about the changes in the U.S. economic structure, yet the rubric then provided points for IDENTIFY, EXPLAIN, and DESCRIBE. I know some of you are shaking your head out there, but this is what trips 9th graders up. Did I also mention that the economic FRQ’s LOVE the word DISCUSS? It is the most used verb prompt for that unit. How many? 12 times in the 7 economic questions that were asked.

Define: The easiest type of low-order question that there is. The kids either know it or they don’t.

Describe: Have students write the characteristics of what is being asked. Usually when prompted this question, the AP questions are asking for them to DESCRIBE a place or region. The 2009 question on squatter settlements asked kids to DESCRIBE twice; describe a location, and describe two factors that contribute to maquialdoras. In the latter case, I would have the students provide characteristics of the population, economy, and political structures of the place/region. However, looking at the rubric, the AP writers could have gotten away with DISCUSS, only adding to the ambiguity of the verbs. Nevertheless, the kids need to know how to dodge all flying monkey-wrenches directed towards their faces.

Name: Provide proper names of a phenomenon. One word answers are acceptable.

Name using the Map: Simply put, students must name the location or phenomenon on a provided map. Proper names are required. Examples come from the 2002 question about naming states, nations, and nation-states; and the 2009 question that asked students to name the religious groups in the United States.

List: Though many English teachers and DBQ aficionados would cringe, a simple bullet point list is all that AP requires of the kids. It’s not used very often, and on the 2004 poultry question, 2-4 words will suffice. Can you believe that the rubric allows the single word, “everydayness” as an acceptable answer?

Provide an Example (not real world): Interesting enough on the 2014 FRQ about subnational examples of core-periphery, students were not required to give real-world examples. Instead, it was OK to write “state-city” level. As a caveat however, I do find that making my students provide a real world example when answering “EXPLAIN” questions can get them out of hot-water if they are having a tough time explaining themselves.

Apply and Explain: This prompt has only been used once in 2007 by having the students APPLY the principles of the von Thunen model to the even that is happening in the picture provided. This is the ultimate high-order thinking question that asks students to recall a geographical concept and use it with a statement/drawing/map/chart that is provided to the students.

Apply and Predict: Once again, this was only used once, and wouldn’t you know it, on the same question as APPLY AND EXPLAIN. This is very similar to APPLY AND EXPLAIN except this asked students to hypothesize where a certain von Thunen activity would occur based upon the statement/drawing/map/chart that is provided.


General notes:

–       I heard a few other readers chat about how they have their kids provide positive and negative examples when they are prompted with high-order questions such as DISCUSS and EXPLAIN. I thought this was a great idea and a strategy that I will definitely implement.

–       Whether you are using one of the famous acronyms to help your students cover all of the topics (S.P.R.I.T.E, E.S.P.eN, S.P.I.C.E.S), make sure that they are providing multiple geographical viewpoints to a topic, especially if they are thrown an EXPLAIN or DISCUSS question. This is especially helpful when the questions does NOT specify… “Provide one cultural and one environmental of…”  and then expect kids to have done it anyway. Eh hem……..2014 question 1.

–       Have your kids leave spaces in between each question, to have it all in one block on text makes it more difficult for the grader to find points for your kids.

–       No you cannot draw a turkey-hand and get points. Yes, you can draw a turkey-hand and write correct responses in the fingers and earn points.

I know that many of you can’t believe that I just spent a day doing this, but this has been 7 years coming for me. I am always asking myself how I can make writing these free response questions easier for my students. By taking a look at 13 years worth of samples, we can hopefully give our students better guidance on how to tackle the FRQ’s. Hopefully this can help you out too.

Have any suggestions or see a misspelling? Help a sister out and email me.

Muchas Gracias.

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3 Comments on Observations from the 2014 AP Human Geography Reading

  1. Debbie Williams // June 24, 2014 at 2:25 pm // Reply

    Unbelievable. This was so great. I have spent 5 years now trying to find a definitive method to teach my 9-12 grade students how to prepare for FRQs. Thank you so very much. You touched on all of the problems and gave wonderful ideas for solutions. I will be incorporating your observations. Thank you also for all the time you spend on your site. I can’t teach without it now. It’s just incredible. This is a great resource and I thank you for the time you spend to make it great. Seth Dixon’s scoop-it site is where I find my very interesting resources of which you are now at the top.

  2. Awesome site!

  3. This is great. I have been wondering how to get my students to be able to figure out what exactly the question is asking and then begin to write.

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