Fundamental Misconceptions About AP Courses

Patrick Mattimore, a former Advanced Placement (AP) teacher and now a Fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he debunks 5 Fundamental Misconceptions About AP Courses (note: registration required)

Actually, it’s only four misconceptions. But nevermind. Technicality. Kind of funny, though.  Anyway…

Here are the four misconceptions:

1.  AP is about memorization and does not require students to think critically. Mattimore points out that critical thinking is predicated on a certain amount of domain knowledge, and that some memorization is necessary to get to higher order levels of thinking.  But the AP program is not purely about memorization.

2.  High-school teachers lack the expertise to teach college-level classes. Mattimore says this is sometimes true, but the College Board does try to ensure only qualified teachers deliver the curriculum through training and monitoring of syllabi.  I think the College Board could do a heck of a lot more, but the costs would be prohibitive, adn the quality of American teachers is not their problem, frankly.

3.  Awarding college credit reduces students’ chances for wider intellectual exploration in college. Mattimore debunks this by saying that you have to start somewhere, and the AP is a good foundation.  “When we become proficient in a subject,” he writes, “our tendency is to delve further into it.” .

4.  Colleges courses provide greater intellectual breadth and depth than AP courses. Having hung out in the halls of academe for a good part of my life, I can tell you that many college courses are stultifying, taught by horrid professors who may themselves be smart, but who cannot teach their way out of a paper bag.  Mattimore also points out that students in AP classes get a heck of a lot more instruction in the material than in any college course.

As I have written elsewhere with regard to AP courses and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, both can be fantastic preparation for college when taught by highly trained, capable instructors.  (See more on Advanced Placement and PSEO here).

Mattimore defends the program, but also reminds us that the quality of the AP program is not consistent from state to state, school to school, or classroom to classroom.

Parents should be very cognizant that they play an important role in monitoring the quality of the AP program in their schools.  Just because the label says “Advanced Placement” is no guarantee of quality.

Mark Montgomery
College Consultant

Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. Mark,
    The first of the five misconceptions was published before the four in boldface, but admittedly it was a confusing way to do it.

  2. Dear JMM:

    I don’t know that there is a recommended teacher-to-student ratio for a HS AP course. I guess I would be more concerned about the quality of the teacher than the precise number. I do know that AP teachers (the good ones, anyway) provide a ton of individual feeback to students. So the larger the class, generally the less feedback per student. But again, it depends a lot on the teacher. What’s the issue, from your end? Are you seeing large classes?

    Thanks again for visiting!

  3. Our school has a student teacher leading the AP-English class. The classroom teacher often leaves the room for the hour and the student teacher is in charge. What are your thoughts on this? Does the AP board have rules / guidelines about who should be teaching the class? Thanks!

  4. Hi, Karen, and thanks for your question. Thought-provoking.

    At first blush, I’d be horrified if the student teacher was leading the class.

    But then, I start to think: which of the two is the better teacher, the “normal” teacher or the student teacher? Frankly, some younger, fresher teachers with stronger content knowledge (or just the willingness to learn it) can be MUCH better at teaching AP than the older, jaded, and less-interested (or interesting!) teachers. Remember that most departments end up giving AP courses to those with seniority–not necessarily the best teachers.

    College Board doesn’t have a police force. It has some rules that are routinely flaunted. I don’t think CB says much of anything about the use (or abuse) of student teachers.

    But again, the question is not so much about age or experience: it’s about skill and knowledge.

    I’d have to know a lot more about the particular circumstances before I could pass judgment, but you are quite right to ask the question and I think it’s worth investigating a bit more. Start by talking directly to the classroom teacher in charge, expressing your concerns, but also your support for training new teachers to help new generations of kids pass the AP English exams.

    What does your student have to say about this? Should he or she approach the classroom teacher instead? I always like to find ways for students to advocate for their own learning, wherever and whenever possible…it’s great preparation for college life and beyond.

    I hope this helps!

  5. Hello, Everyone
    I’m freshman here.I Will highly appreciate your help.
    Many thanks

  6. Hi, Cliff. How can we help ? Give us a call or send us an email through our “contact” section, and we can talk about how we work with our clients. Looking forward to hearing from you!

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