|Rubrics and Writing: Demystifying Essays in AP Psychology
by Amy Fineburg
Spain Park High School
Things to Remember
As teachers, we know that it is not enough for students only to know psychology -- they should also be able to communicate their knowledge effectively and efficiently. Being able to answer 100 multiple-choice questions is an honorable accomplishment, but writing successful essays on the AP Psychology Exam can confirm that a student has sufficient knowledge of introductory psychology. A full one-third of the score for the AP Psychology Exam is comprised of just two essay questions. But writing an essay for a psychology exam is a different exercise than writing an essay for an English exam. The basic fundamentals of writing still persist -- good paragraph form and sentence structure are important to demonstrating competency in psychology. But a five-paragraph essay format with sophisticated introductions, conclusions, and transitions is not necessary to answering the AP Psychology Exam essay successfully.
This lesson will help you teach students how to write a successful essay for the AP Psychology Exam. We will simulate the procedures used at the AP Reading for training Readers to grade the AP Psychology Exam essays using rubrics. As students apply rubrics to their own essays and to sample essays, they will become proficient in breaking down essay questions and answering them effectively and efficiently.
NOTE: The procedure for breaking down essay prompts and applying rubrics can be used at any time during the course. This lesson uses essay prompts from actual AP Psychology Exams. These prompts are designed for students who have taken a full course in AP Psychology. Essay writing instruction, however, should be emphasized throughout the course. Feel free to use only parts of the rubrics and samples from released essay questions to teach students about essay writing. You may also wish to develop your own essay prompts and rubrics. The procedure in this lesson should be applicable to any essay-writing lesson.
To simulate actual testing conditions for the AP Psychology Exam, assign two essay prompts for students to complete during a 50-minute period of time. You may choose any of the released essay prompts available in the Exam Questions section of AP Central.
The Psychology Exam
Remind the students of the following helpful hints for essay writing:
NOTE: You may want to obtain empty test booklets similar to those used for the exam administration to further simulate exam conditions, although this is not necessary.
- Identify the verbs in the question. These will give students an idea of how to answer the question.
- Words like "identify," "describe," and "define" require straightforward definitions or examples that define the concepts.
- Words like "explain," "analyze," and "discuss" require extended application of the information to the situations or contexts within the question.
- Students should use different terms than those found in the question prompt to answer the question. Simply parroting the question's language is usually not a sufficient demonstration of a student's knowledge.
- Use a separate paragraph for each concept addressed in the question. That will help readers find answers more efficiently.
- Avoid lengthy introductions. It is not necessary to repeat the stem of the question.
- Outlines cannot be graded. Stress that students should write in complete sentences and in paragraph form.
Train yourself to grade your students' essays with a rubric. (For example purposes, see the 2002 rubrics -- called Scoring Guidelines -- on AP Central.
Scoring Guidelines Psychology 2002
Training should follow this procedure:
- Read over the rubric, familiarizing yourself with which phrasing will score a point and which will not.
- Using the rubric, grade the sample essays for each question. For example, you may want to use the sample essays from the 2002 exam:
- Check your accuracy in using the rubric for the sample essays by reviewing the Scoring Commentary for the sample essays, which gives a point-by-point explanation of how the essay was graded by actual AP Readers. Refer to the Scoring Commentary for the 2002 exam.
Psychology Scoring Commentary 2002
Grade your own students' essays using the rubric. You may use either of the following procedures:
- Mark the points you awarded on the essays, highlighting the phrasing they used to earn the points. You may also want to cross out any superfluous phrasing you found distracting. Also, point out any misinformation the students may have included. While they should not lose points for wrong information once points have been awarded (unless they are contradicting the right information), use their misconceptions as teachable moments to correct these errors.
- Do not mark the essays, but rather make a grading sheet that shows which points were awarded. You can be as detailed as you wish on such a grading sheet, pointing out which phrasing earned points and which was wrong or superfluous. This way, you can have students grade their own essays later to see if they are applying the rubric correctly.
During class, train your students to grade with the rubric, using a similar procedure as described above. This time, you are the leader, reviewing the rubric and answering questions from students about phrasing they may feel would score a point. Students can train in the following manner:
Things to Remember
- Help students notice that these sample essays meet the minimum requirements for using complete sentences and paragraphs, which are prerequisites for an essay being scored.
- After reviewing the rubric, have students grade a sample essay individually. Once graded, they should discuss with a partner how they assigned points.
- Once they have discussed their grading, bring students together as a class and read the sample essay aloud, having students call out "point" when they hear phrasing that earns a point. If there is disagreement, discuss why or why not to award a point. Use the Scoring Commentary to help them keep to both the letter and spirit of the rubric.
- Help students understand that the rubric for the AP Psychology Exam must be tight enough to discriminate between qualified and unqualified students yet flexible enough to allow for the diversity of psychology students who take
the AP Exam. At times, giving credit to students who understand the concepts
in a question may be more important than penalizing them for not knowing
minute details. (For more information, see "How Much Detail is Enough: An
Example from the 2002 AP Psychology Exam" in "See also," below.) If you
develop your own essay prompts and rubrics, you may require more precise
answers than what would be acceptable on the national level. If you are
stricter about what details you will accept for your exams, then students
will be better prepared for the national exam.
- Grade as many sample essays as you feel are necessary to achieve accuracy and reliability among your student readers.
- Once the class feels comfortable with the rubric, distribute the students' own essays.
- If you marked on the essays, have students review your grading to see how it corresponds to the rubric they are now familiar with. Point out crossed-out sections to help students be more concise in the future.
- If you did not mark on the essays, have students grade their own essays according to the rubric. Once they've graded their essays, distribute the grading sheets you used to score the essays, discussing any discrepancies and highlighting any superfluous or erroneous information.
Often, students will want to argue that their own particular phrasing is acceptable when the rubric does not allow it. Here is advice we are given during the Reading for these types of situations:
- Readers should not infer answers. That is, if a student seems to know an answer but does not use the proper phrasing or give a complete answer, we cannot award a point. Help students be as clear and precise as possible without sacrificing efficiency.
- The Reading is a collaborative process. If a reader is unsure of whether to award a point, he or she can consult with fellow readers and with qualified Reading leaders who can give their opinion on a student's particular answer. But just as students shouldn't dwell too long on a single multiple-choice question, so readers shouldn't dwell too long on a single point on a single essay. Sometimes a judgment call must be made.
Amy C. Fineburg has taught psychology, AP Psychology, and English for 8 years. She is currently psychology and AP Psychology teacher at Spain Park High School in Hoover, Alabama. She is the teacher's edition and resource binder author/compiler for Thinking About Psychology, a non-AP high school psychology textbook written by Charlie Blair-Broeker and Randy Ernst. She has also written the 2003 edition of the Teacher's Guide for AP Psychology for the College Board and a curriculum unit plan on positive psychology published by Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS). She has been a reader for the AP Psychology Exam since 2000.