AP Physics 1 Essentials — The Mystery Third Edition

A few years ago I put together a review/guide book for the AP Physics 1 course the College Board recently released.  AP Physics 1 EssentialsThe project was started around 2009, but took several years to complete as the scope and direction of the College Board’s AP Physics 1 course continued to evolve, as more and more information about the course was released, modified, re-released, etc.  It has done fairly well, and after the release of the first exam, a second edition was released, which included minor edits, modifications, and rephrasings in the main text, but also incorporated a significant number of more challenging questions in the appendix, though many of them remain numerically focused.

The Goal

The goal of this book was never to be a “sole source to success in AP Physics 1.”  The AP Physics 1 course is a VERY challenging introductory physics course, which requires a strong foundation in fundamental physics principles, logical problem solving, and transfer of basic concepts to new and unique situations.  In my humble opinion, building skills of this sort requires more than a review book.  It requires more than videos.  It requires extensive hands-on work with applications utilizing the concepts, individual and group problem solving, debate, discussion, and research.  It’s a very high level of expectation for what has been largely touted as an introductory physics course.  For many, AP Physics 1 will be the only physics course they take.  I am concerned that the course offers only a subset of what I would like to see in a general survey course of physics.  Though it covers basic circuits, it is light on electrostatics.  Though it covers mechanical waves, it doesn’t touch electromagnetic waves, optics, or modern physics.  If these were the only topics my students were introduced to in their only physics course, I feel I would be doing them a disservice, and not providing them an opportunity to see more of the breadth and beauty of the field I so love and enjoy.

The AP1 Essentials book, as written, was designed as the book I’d want to use with my students.  The book which I’d ask them to read outside of class (coupled with video mini-lessons) so that when they arrived in class, they’d have some level of exposure to the basic material allowing us to use our class time more efficiently for those deeper explorations into the topics under study.

Public Response

Public response to the book has been strongly bimodal.  Overall reviews are very positive (4.5/5 stars on Amazon.com), with the primary criticisms and 1-star reviews focusing on the book utilizing too much numerical problem solving, and focusing on basic problems that are “too easy” compared to the actual AP 1 test questions.  These are VERY valid criticisms, and I agree with them.  However, in the context in which the book is intended to be used, these criticisms are inconsistent with the book’s purpose.

AP Physics 1 Concerns

A grader of this year’s AP Physics 1 exam recently stated that he was surprised to learn that “not including the date, birth date and school code, a student could have made a perfect score on the whole exam without writing down a single number.”  calculatorI find this extremely troubling.  I am in favor of questions that test understanding, but I also believe that many physics students who go on to successful careers in STEM fields learn by first mastering the calculations, mathematics, and numeracy of problems, and over time build deeper conceptual understandings as they recognize patterns in their answers.  There is a place for these conceptual and symbolic problem solving exercises in AP Physics 1 and on the AP Physics 1 exam, but there is also a significant place for what I’ll call physics numeracy for lack of a better term — traditional problem solving that involves recognizing appropriate relationships, manipulation equations, finding a numerical answer, and verifying that numerical answer makes some sort of physical sense.

Further, I strongly believe that the College Board’s vision for the AP program should focus on providing opportunities for high school students to earn college credit consistent with the courses offered by most colleges.  More simply, the AP courses should strive to mimic what colleges are offering and testing in their corresponding courses.  In the case of AP Physics 1, the College Board is attempting to lead the way in physics education reform.  Regardless of personal opinions on the direction of the AP Physics 1 curriculum and exam, which may very well be valid, a change of this sort shouldn’t be led by the AP program, but rather mirrored by the AP program as it becomes the norm at colleges and universities.

The Third Edition

Back in December, I started work on a third edition of the AP Physics 1 Essentials book, with the goal of migrating the book closer to style of the AP Physics 1 exam.  It’s now late June, and the third edition is well over half done.  I have no doubt if I continued on this course, I could have the third edition completed in time for the book to hit the shelves in late August.

The third edition, as currently being drafted, however, won’t see the light of day.  garbageSince I started this revision effort, I haven’t felt good about the work I’ve been doing.  Though I do believe I am making a book that is more closely aligned to the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m moving further and further away from the book I’d want to use with my AP Physics 1 students.  Regardless of what the College Board is asking for on the AP Physics 1 exam, I want my students to be best prepared for their future endeavors, which may include AP Physics 2, AP Physics C, and their ongoing academic courses in the sciences.  That will, most assuredly, require strong physics numeracy skills. And it will require students to learn how to learn independently.


There is a place for physics modeling, for building understanding and for MANY of the ideals inherent in the AP Physics 1 curriculum.  But there’s also a place for the traditional course and problem solving skills.  This debate doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.  There’s definitely room for a happy medium including aspects of both viewpoints.  Personally, however, I can’t continue work on a third edition of the AP Physics 1 book when in my heart I strongly feel I’m doing my students a disservice in their overall physics education and creating a lower-quality product, even if it means more one-star reviews and critiques that the book doesn’t match the AP 1 exam.  Maybe someday I’ll change my mind, but Friday afternoon I took all the changes to the third edition, zipped them up, copied them somewhere safe, and removed them from my computer.

I strongly believe there will be a 3rd edition of the AP Physics 1 book.  I see TONS of opportunities for improvement.  But the work I’ve been doing for the past six months to make the book more consistent with the AP 1 exam isn’t really an improvement, it’s an attempt to improve student scores on a test I believe has significant flaws, at the expense of other important skills.  If I’m honest with myself and focus on doing what is truly best for my kids, I want to see them continue to use the book as an introduction to the essential concepts of AP Physics 1, including significant algebraic manipulation and problem solving, and leaving more time in the classroom for application and hands-on activities.  I still feel the book is a great tool for students preparing for the AP 1 exam, and I’m going to keep significant numeric problem solving with basic concept application, and leave the deeper-dive and conceptual understanding questions for class time when the instructor is available to direct, guide, and differentiate as needed.


This is not meant as an attack on the AP Physics 1 Curriculum, the design committee, the test writers, or any others.  I am honored to work in a profession where so many are so passionate about trying to do what’s best for their students and the field itself.  Sometimes we disagree on the path forward, and that’s OK.  And I could be wrong.  I often am.  I admire the effort and the vision so many have put into this work, and the feedback and support I’ve received and continue to receive for this book, both in praise and in criticism.

Just a Little AP-1 Essentials Venting

Still having folks attempting to use the AP Physics 1 Essentials book as a primary text instead of the “read this at home as an intro so you’re prepared to go deeper in class” tool it was intended as. I wish I could put a disclaimer on the Amazon.com “Buy” button so folks would read the description before purchasing.

I hate seeing disappointed readers and reading negative reviews, especially when I realize that these are students and teachers counting on support in their studies. And of course I realize you can’t please everyone. But I also don’t want to create the “standard”-type review book.

These are the books I’d want to use (and do use) with my students, where the book is designed to provide the “essential” background knowledge so that students can walk into class having read and understood enough to begin exploring the concepts in a much deeper fashion through activities, discourse, debate, and deeper thinking questions. AP Physics 1 Essentials is supposed to be the “flipped classroom” version of a review book, and in the same style as the flipped class videos available on the APlusPhysics site. It’s not supposed to compete with Greg Jacobs’ amazing work with his 5 Steps to a 5 series (which I HIGHLY recommend), where he does a great job with a book that is part “here’s what you need to know” and part “here’s how to ace the test.” And it’s certainly not designed to take on the Barron’s Review Series. They already do a great job with a deep overview of the entire course — it would be ludicrous to try to outdo such excellent work.

Instead, AP Physics 1 Essentials is supposed to be an alternate path, a different kind of resource. The kind of book you give a student who is struggling to help them ferret out the simple basic relationships, and begin to take them further. But it’s not meant to be used in isolation, and it certainly isn’t meant to be a “do it yourself at home” guide to the entire AP Physics 1 exam.

As the AP-2 book nears completion, I’m worried I’ve taken some of the negative reviews to heart and made portions of it too complex. I need to keep in mind what this book is designed for, and what it isn’t. It isn’t meant to be all things to all people, and despite the occasional negative review, I think it’s important to stay true to its aim. I want it to cover the essential concepts of the course in as straightforward a manner as I can manage, keep it light and fun, and provide some very basic sample problems (with solutions RIGHT THERE in the text) so students can test their understanding as they go. The goal again is to provide a resource that will allow the instructor more in-class time to develop the deeper understanding and problem solving skills necessary for success in AP-2, NOT try to accomplish this all in a little review book. I’ll again look into including an appendix of more AP-2 style problems, but I don’t want that to become the focus (one of the reasons why all the appendix problems are placed in the public domain and freely available outside the context of the book).

I guess I just needed to vent a little in a friendly place and give myself some “writing” therapy. I can’t say enough about the tremendous support I receive from so much of the physics teaching community, and I need to continue to focus on the positives. It was students who got me started on flipping the classroom and creating the videos, teachers in the community who convinced me to put it together into a book, and the great feedback and requests from teachers and students alike that keep me plugging away on these projects such as the AP-2 book (and then a long list of video lessons to get back to).

The bottom line is I switched careers and became a teacher because I enjoyed it, it was fun. I started work on the videos, books, and website because it helped students, and I enjoyed it. I’ve continued working on these resources due to the amazing feedback and support, and because it’s fun. Now I need to kick myself in the rear end and remind myself that there’s not a thing I can do about the folks who are expecting the book to be something it’s not. These books and videos aren’t going to make themselves, and it’s supposed to be fun, so it’s time for me to quit whining and get back to work.

Make it a great day!

AP Physics 1 Essentials — What it Is, What it Isn’t

Yesterday I received a review on Amazon for the AP1 book that was, at best, scathing. Please allow me a moment to first state that the reviewer is correct in his statement that the book doesn’t contain many of the high level, conceptual, reading-intensive questions that are found on the AP1 practice exams. I agree, as that is not the book’s intent. We have college level texts all over the place that do a MUCH better job as a primary source and going into detail. They are much bigger, are much more expensive, and are backed by much larger companies. I think the reviewer, however, missed the point of the book.

The AP1 Physics Essentials book is designed to be a guide book that students will actually read, starting from basic principles and building fundamental concepts with simple examples (many from past NY Regents Physics Exams) and then building upon those examples to intermediate level problems, which are demonstrated in detail. The goal is to allow students to build these “essentials” so that they can get a better foundation in concepts and basic applications independently (as, of course, reading is primarily an independent activity).

The AP-1 style exam problems, however, are considerably different. They focus on considerably more complex problems, are challenging to read and interpret what is being asked, tie multiple concepts together in unique and novel applications… a style of learning that is extremely difficult to accomplish independently and passively. Research has shown again and again that this type of understanding requires active learning activities, inquiry-based labs, guided analysis, discussion, and group problem solving. All of which are impossible to accomplish within a book, which is why the AP1 book doesn’t even try. It is meant as a supplement to assist with building the foundational skills so students are better prepared for the active learning experiences which will build those skills so necessary for success in the course.

In truth, the AP-1 book is the book I would want to use with my students. It is the book that I could send them home with to read a few pages, coupled with the video mini-lessons, so that we can use our valuable class time more productively in those active-learning experiences. It is not meant to be a textbook replacement, or a 320-page miracle for those taking the AP-1 exam without external preparation.

I also believe that having an AP-1 style problem set would be valuable to teachers and students, as very few AP-1 style problems have been released for use in classrooms (likely because the sample exam was JUST released to instructors). Over the summer I’ll be working with other physics instructors to build up a set of public domain AP-1 style problems which we will make available to instructors and students. I can also foresee incorporating these into a future edition of the AP-1 book (perhaps as end-of-chapter problems) to provide further resources to students and instructors as we learn more about the actual AP-1 course.

To summarize, though, I hate to see customers disappointed in APlusPhysics products, especially when the customer misses the intent of the product. I’m hoping this post clarifies the intent of the book, and I have also updated the book descriptions on Amazon and the iBooks store to call this out even more clearly and (hopefully) alleviate such potential disappointment in customers in the future.

AP Physics 1 Essentials – Coming Soon! #physicsed #physics #apphysics

After many, many long hours and tons of great feedback from physics teachers across the globe, I’m thrilled to announce the AP Physics 1 Essentials, a guidebook / review book for the upcoming AP Physics 1 course, is due for release in late August.  I began work on this project in the summer of 2010 when conversations at the AP Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., led to a number of different teachers talking about the need for a detailed course breakdown to support the change, followed by discussion of what the true cost of the change would be in terms of instructor hours, curriculum rewrites, resource revisions, etc.  It was obvious there was going to be a need for a guidebook for the course, and my goal was to provide a short “everything you need to know” book that was easy-to-read, fun, engaging, and inexpensive so that students could pick this up as a guidebook/review book without having to purchase entirely new textbooks to support the changing course.

I quickly picked up a following of fans eager to see the project succeed and more than willing to contribute what they could, from early draft versions of the Division of Content plans (which only vaguely resemble the final curriculum guides), to proposed and/or recommended formula sheets, to technical reviews, editing, “wish lists,” etc.  I’ve been amazed at the positive response and helpfulness of so many, that has allowed this project to progress through multiple obstacles, from revised content and organizational issues through technical hurdles such as a corrupt book file caught nearly 80% into the rough draft.  I guess this qualifies as checking the  “nothing worthwhile is easy” box on the project.


I’m grateful to my family for allowing me the many hours early in the morning, late in the evening, and during the summer to work on this effort.  As I write this, for example, I’m on vacation with my family.  It’s almost 6 am, I’m watching the Allegheny River flow past, and just saw a bald eagle fly up the river, not 30 feet from where I sit typing.  I also must thank the many physics instructors across the globe who have contributed in so many ways, from editing to hints to encouragement… but I need to say a special thank you to the APlusPhysics community.  The website began as a tool to use in my own classroom, and quickly grew so popular that I felt compelled to continue to expand it at the request of its users.  With more than 30,000 students using it EACH MONTH, I’ve been absolutely floored by the number of thank-you messages, letters of encouragement, and success stories contributed voluntarily by community members.  You guys set me on this path, made the site and the books successful, and it’s your encouragement and support that have kept me at this project through the wee hours of the night and long hours of frustration.

Moving on to the final product… I’m proud to say the book is finished.  Sure, it has a few more edits to make, a few more tweaks here and there, but everything is on track for a late August 2013 release.  My long-term goal was to have the book released one year before teachers began teaching the revised AP course, and it appears we’ll hit that deadline on the nose (with special thanks to the AP for delaying the change a year from the date I was originally told back in the summer of 2010).  I’m hoping you find it valuable to your courses and studies.  This book was written as the guidebook I would want my students to have for the course.  Not a full standard physics textbook, because my students don’t learn and fully read their physics textbook (except in snippets), but rather a book designed to be used as written, read AND understood, with tons of example problems and solutions.

Thank you so much for your tremendous support.  I hope you enjoy AP Physics 1 Essentials as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to work with you and so many other amazing people on this project.

Make it a great day!