Even top students struggle with the trickiest concepts in Advanced Placement physics, calculus and economics, and even the best educators find those topics tough to teach.
The College Board knows this from seeing students stumble over the same questions on AP exams year after year. Now Davidson College professors, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers and an online education company are creating digital lessons to help high school students across the country master the toughest college-level work.
The lessons will be designed to support high school teachers, not replace them. Starting next school year, CMS students will have access to video clips, animated illustrations and game-like activities that let them see how abstract concepts play out in real life. They and their teachers will get instant reports on how theyre doing, with more options for working on concepts that stump them.
If all goes as planned, the lessons will go national in 2015-16.
The immediate goal is to help students make the kind of scores that impress admission officers and earn college credit. Universities and employers are missing out on bright students who get discouraged when theyre stymied by AP material, said Davidson College President Carol Quillen.
If we can figure out what it is you dont get and help you learn that, you could be a genius, she said. Were preparing kids to be successful throughout college and beyond.
The partnership between Davidson and CMS illustrates two trends in education: Breaking down barriers between K-12 and higher education, and finding new ways to meld technology and personal teaching.
A taste of college
Advanced Placement classes have long offered high school students a taste of university-level work. CMS, like many districts, pushes students to participate in hopes it will build confidence and skills for college.
Students take national AP exams, which are scored on a scale of 1-5. A score of 3 or higher is generally considered passing and may qualify a student for college credit, though the more competitive universities demand a four or five for credit.
CMS students took just over 9,000 AP exams last year, with some students taking multiple courses and exams. Overall, about 65 percent earned passing scores. Pass rates tend to be much lower at high-poverty schools.
Davidson professors have long advised CMS faculty who teach AP classes. They also work with the nonprofit College Board on creating and scoring exams. Clark Ross, an economics professor who became dean of students, says he watched high school teachers who didnt study economics in college trying to master the material.
They are somewhat self-taught and very courageous, said Ross, who is currently on sabbatical.
To create online support modules, Davidson partnered with edX, a nonprofit site that offers free online classes from such universities as Harvard, the University of California-Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Not another MOOC
Massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, are booming across the country. But thats not what Davidson and the College Board wanted. Even if such courses were tailored to the AP curriculum, they wouldnt meet the needs of the students who most need the help, Quillen says.
You have to be really motivated and driven to learn online by yourself, she said.
Instead, the Davidson-CMS group is designing material that students can use to supplement what they learn in class, an approach thats known as blended learning. Teachers will also have access to online material that will help them create better lessons.
The group has identified about a dozen of the toughest topics in three AP courses: Calculus, physics and macroeconomics.
For instance, North Mecklenburg High physics teacher Kevin Patterson is working on material about electric forces and fields.
Its very abstract by nature, he said.
Computer animation can illustrate invisible forces in a far more vivid way than a teacher drawing arrows on a whiteboard. After watching a video, students will be able to take a quiz to see if theyve nailed the concept. If not, theyll have a menu of options to try again with a different approach. The teacher will be able to monitor how much time students are spending and where theyre struggling.
In macroeconomics, students consistently have trouble with the Phillips curve, a mathematical representation of the relationship between unemployment and inflation.
Kids have to touch the topic six, seven times before it resonates with them and they can master it, said Bob Wieckowski, who teaches economics at Myers Park High and is working with the Davidson group.
For the online lessons, the group is working on interactive graphs that let students see how changing one variable, such as unemployment, affects the other. Its presented like a game, with more activities for those who succeed.
Wieckowskis lessons ask students to model how the mathematical concepts play out in real life for instance, how raising the minimum wage affects a teen seeking a part-time job. Eventually theyre given data about a country and asked to create a plan to improve its economy.
Hes training economists, not just training kids to get a 5 on the AP test, Quillen says.
The Davidson group faces its own economics challenge: Finding money to support development of the online lessons.
Quillen says the group got foundation money for the initial work and hopes to get additional support to keep expanding. The goal is to make the lessons accessible to students across the country, from traditional high school students to those learning at home or attending private and charter schools.
The professors and teachers plan to spend the rest of this school year designing the lessons. Next year AP students in CMS will use them, and the students and teachers will report on what works. The district is big enough to give a good field test; last year about 1,120 CMS students took calculus, physics and macroeconomics exams.
We want to learn more about how kids learn, Quillen said. High school teachers (and students) will decide whether or not this is effective teachers and students.