Confusion Meets Learning

Over the last two weekends, I’ve been designing the first of my AP U.S. unit plans for next school year.  Before you throw anything at me or call me an overachiever, know that the exam is undergoing an overhaul and next year the exam will be fairly different from previous ones.  For this reason, and because I’m starting at a new school with a new text, and because I’m getting married and moving to a new town this summer and may be a wee bit busy, I decided to spend the last few weekends getting a jump start on the year.

When you overhaul something like an AP history exam that affects thousands of individuals, not everyone is going to be on board with the changes.  I’d been monitoring the discussion about the changes from afar, but I chose to remain undecided in terms of whether or not I believed the changes were for the good or ill of students and teachers.  As I waded through the College Board’s materials on the new exam over the last few weeks, I became pleasantly surprised by how much I really like and appreciate the new format.

Despite liking the exam, I can see the challenges ahead.  As I flipped back and forth from the historical thinking skills to the learning objectives to the concept outline, there were times when I felt overwhelmed.  There were times when I didn’t feel like it was much different than the old version, and there were times when I thought it was completely new.  I struggled to figure out if I should work primarily from the objectives or from the concept outline.  Sometimes I thought I’d be able to teach much the same way as I always had, while other times I thought I’d need to reinvent my entire system.

The good news is that the research is right.  Confusion leads to deeper learning.  Researchers have been studying in depth the effects of confusion on understanding over the last few years, and they consistently have found that a little bit of confusion on the part of the learner leads to great gains in overall understanding and learning in the long run.  As uncomfortable and frustrating as the last two weeks have been, I feel like I have a greater handle on all the changes and what I have to do to make sure I’m doing right by my students.

If you are an AP U.S. history teacher, here’s a few things I’ve learned over the last few weeks.  Perhaps this will help dispel some of the fear or frustration about the coming changes.  Of course, as you design next year’s course for yourself, you may end up disagreeing with me.

  • Fear not, my history-loving friends.  Students still need to know the history.  I’d heard some talk that students no longer needed to know the facts of history in order to do well on the multiple choice section of the exam; according to some, students simply needed to have good reading comprehension.  As I examined the multiple choice questions in more depth, I found that in order for students to do well on this section they will need a firm grasp of the content in order to put things in context.  And of course, on the short answer questions, long essay question, and DBQ, they definitely need content knowledge at their fingertips.
  • You do not need to throw all your old test questions out the window.  Since students still need to have a firm grasp of the content, you can reuse some of your old tried and true questions, either ones you’ve made up yourself or ones you’ve gathered from previously released AP exams, cherry-picking the best of the best.  Having said that, you can’t only use your old assignments and assessments.  Some change is absolutely necessary.  My new standard assessments will likely consist of 3 parts: 1) standard multiple choice/objective questions that test basic historical content knowledge, 2) new style of multiple choice questions that focus on applying and contextualizing historical content knowledge as it relates to primary and secondary source material, 3) short answer questions that ask students to compare, contextualize, analyze, and synthesize.
  • The new multiple choice style of questions will take longer to craft.  The new style revolves around primary and secondary source material, with sets of questions for each source.  Finding the sources and crafting multiple choice questions about those sources takes time…quite a bit of time.  Be prepared for that aspect.  (FYI – I am going to put together series of multiple choice questions in the new style and sell them for a small fee on Teachers Pay Teachers if you are interested.  The first set should be up within the next couple of weeks and will deal with the first time period, 1491-1607.)
  • Elvis was partly right when he sang, “a little less conversation, a lot more action.”  Under the new exam style, students need to have practiced doing history, practiced the skills of an historian.  This means they need to be more active than passive, and so if you have relied primarily on lecture in the past, you will need to change more than others who have relied on more interactive methods of instruction.  Personally, I think that makes for much more interesting school days, but perhaps that’s just me.  Don’t get me wrong, some lecture will always remain, but I think it’s more of an “active” or “participatory” style of lecture in which teachers and students are working together to gather, decipher, and disseminate information.

I hope this post was useful.  Check back often for more about my adventures with the new AP U.S. exam and resources.




  1. Two great points stand out to me among many in your post:
    1. Confusion leads to greater learning. I love that point and I think it ties in nicely with a Growth Mindset, ala Dweck.
    2. Never hurts to add in a little Elvis. The point there is well taken. It is the packing and unpacking of the curriculum where a teacher really learns where they need to spend time and effort. There is no circumventing that process if one wants to do a great job for the students especially in an AP class.

  2. I loved reading your blog confusion meets learning- I daily try to stretch my students making sure they understand content and yet reminding them that I am not here to spoon feed anyone- I share knowledge and throw stuff out there that causes one to think- I remind then that they have to learn think! I appreciate your sentiment about learning. I had a student tell me that I irritated her soul and made her head hurt. I smiled and said then I am doing my job.

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