Giving Students the Choice to Succeed at AP History​

A teacher explains how allowing students to make their own choices as much as possible led to success in his AP History classes

By James Simmons

Over the last school year, adapting to distance learning and then hybrid environments with both online and in-person students has been a challenge for me just as it has been for teachers and students across the country. While it has certainly been challenging, I think my AP History students have fared pretty well. They have yet to take their AP Exams, but comparing this year’s scores on unit tests to last year’s shows an improvement of about 40%, on average.

Certainly, there are many factors into that improvement, but I believe at least some of it is attributable to a willingness to experiment and a commitment to empowering student choice. I’m as eager to return to some form of normalcy as any other teacher, but as districts and local governments respond to conditions in their communities, I think that we are likely to remain in or temporarily return to distance or hybrid learning environments for varying periods of time across the country, at least in the near future.

Whether I am teaching entirely online, entirely in person, or some blend of the two, there are a few lessons I’ve picked up over the last year that I believe will improve my practice long after the pandemic is just a memory.

1.     Don’t be afraid to experiment.

One of the biggest takeaways for me from the last year has been that we should not be afraid to try something new. We never want to limit ourselves to what we are given because there is so much out there that can be beneficial for our students. Some things don’t work, but that’s just an opportunity to model a growth mindset for students, take in that failure, and learn to make the next attempt more likely to succeed.

Of course, the pandemic brought this into crisp focus. We suddenly found ourselves teaching in a drastically different environment, where many of the rules and techniques we’d learned didn’t necessarily apply. Teachers—and everyone else in education, from students to administrators to vendors—were forced to innovate by circumstances.

One of the areas where I found the pandemic shaping my thoughts was in regard to my students’ homes and personal lives. “What is going on in that kid’s home? What is it like to learn from his or her home? How can I best meet their needs with limited resources and limited time?”

For a couple of decades now, there has been a movement in education toward student-centered or student-driven work. As students joined my class, each from a different environment that may have been easier or harder to learn in, it just reinforced for me how important it is to acknowledge that students are individuals with unique circumstances, and that allowing them to make decisions about their own learning is central to their success.

2.     Embrace student choice.

As I thought of the diverse environments my students logged into class from, it was clear that one choice they should be able to make was whether to turn on their cameras. I rarely knew what their home environment was like, and I certainly didn’t know how they felt about their peers looking into their homes through a computer screen.

Another challenge was the lack of nonverbal communication. In a classroom, I can look at a student’s posture and facial expressions to gauge if they’re struggling, tuned-out, or deeply focused on learning. When they aren’t in class face-to-face, it’s difficult to establish a connection with them.

I noticed that students turned their cameras on more often in smaller groups. If it was a one-on-one meeting, the camera was almost always on. That told me that they weren’t trying to avoid accountability, but just needed to feel more comfortable socially. For me, then, the solution was to double down on student choice and to be ready to communicate with them through whatever channel they felt most comfortable using. If that was just a text chat, that was fine, as long as they were able to describe their learning and respond to me.

3.     Prioritize alignment over varied resources.

In the past I’ve written my own unit exams or used questions from various textbooks or that other AP teachers have shared online. In another class, this might be an opportunity to bring in a variety of resources for students to study from. That can trip students up, however, if the stimulus-based questions are not exactly matched to the material they’re covering. 

Recently I’ve been using UWorld’s Learning Tools for AP® Courses to create assessments for my students. The questions are tightly aligned to both the material and the AP World History Exam. There’s enough variety to put a teacher in the driver’s seat as far as being able to craft assessments tailored to the instruction they’re offering. Students also get detailed explanations for every question, so unit exams become an opportunity to learn instead of just a means of measuring their learning. 

4. Assess to promote mastery.

Part of the reason my students’ unit test scores are up is because I give them multiple attempts on their tests. I’m not just trying to hand out A’s. I want them to see what they’re missing, study that a little more, and give it another shot. Grades are good, and I hope all my students pass their AP exams, but most of all I want them to learn history, and assessment and reassessment with a tool that offers detailed explanations for wrong answers is a great tool for that.

5.     Give grace.

I’m very fortunate because I happened to finish my master’s degree in education and technology leadership two years ago. I had a lot of theory on how to set up the kinds of classrooms we were all thrust into as a result of the pandemic. Before that, I worked on my bachelor’s degree, which was earned entirely online, for about 10 years. I understand that sometimes the WiFi doesn’t work or a student turns their computer on and it wants to update. Things like that happen in the world we live in now, and I think it’s okay to give students a little extra grace in working around them.

James Simmons, an instructional design consultant and former AP History teacher, lives in Texas. He can be reached at [email protected].

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