Which AP Physics Course Should I Take?

Considering an AP Physics course? Outstanding, but which course should you take? The College Board now offers four separate and distinct versions of AP Physics, each designed with very different content, styles, and levels of mathematical complexity.

Currently, the four physics courses offered are AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, AP Physics C: Mechanics, and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. So let’s start by talking about the courses and what each has to offer.

Algebra-Based Courses

The new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses are both algebra-based courses, meaning no knowledge of calculus is required, though students should be comfortable with basic algebra and trigonometry. The exams for these courses were first offered in May of 2015, so the courses and the exams are still evolving through their infancy. Further, the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 courses include a strong emphasis on conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Compared to traditional physics courses, these courses include a significant amount of reading and structured writing, experimental design, and critical thinking.

Though mathematical reasoning and problem-solving are required for success in the course, they aren’t emphasized as strongly as in traditional courses. The courses are centered around seven “big ideas in physics,” and many of the exam problems will test your ability to interpret and apply one or more of these ideas to a new and unique situation (sometimes referred to as a transfer task).

Like most introductory physics courses, both AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 include a strong lab component to help students develop proficiency in science practices which are crucial to success. The course as a whole focuses on the idea that physics is something you do, not just something you know.

The associated AP exams for these courses consist of two sections: a 90-minute multiple choice section and a 90-minute free response section. The multiple choice section consists of 50 to 55 questions with four answer choices per question. Unlike most multiple choice tests, however, certain questions may have multiple correct answers that need to be chosen to receive full credit.

The free response section consists of four or five questions. Typically one question will cover experimental design, one question will cover quantitative and qualitative problem solving and reasoning, and three questions are of the short answer variety. In addition, students are expected to articulate their answers with a paragraph-length response.

AP Physics 1

The AP Physics 1 course itself is designed as a first-year physics course. The bulk of the course centers around traditional Newtonian Mechanics, beginning with the study of motion (kinematics), forces (dynamics), work, energy, power, linear momentum, circular motion and rotation, gravity, and oscillations. In addition, AP Physics 1 also includes a brief introduction to mechanical waves, basic electrostatics, and simple electrical circuits.

AP Physics 2

AP Physics 2 is designed as a follow-up to AP Physics 1, utilizing the same course philosophy, but extending the content covered to include fluids, thermal physics, a deeper look at electrostatics and more complex electrical circuits, magnetism, optics, and modern physics.

Calculus-Based Courses

The two AP Physics C courses both incorporate calculus, so students should have calculus as a pre-requisite or co-requisite for the best possible experience. AP Physics C: Mechanics can be offered as a first-year physics course, though some schools offer both AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism in the same year to students who have prior physics courses in their background.

Compared to AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2, the AP Physics C courses follow a more traditional path with a stronger emphasis on quantitative problem solving. The level of calculus complexity is relatively light, with a strong focus on application of principles to various situations as opposed to the longer written explanations of the AP–1 and AP–2 courses.

AP Physics C: Mechanics

Similar to AP Physics 1, AP Physics C: Mechanics covers only traditional Newtonian Mechanics. Students study motion, forces, work, energy, power, linear momentum, angular momentum, circular motion, rotational motion, gravity, and oscillations. Compared to AP Physics 1, however, the C course incorporates a higher level of technical complexity, such as dealing with situations of a non-constant acceleration, incorporation of drag forces (such as air resistance), and calculations of rotational inertia.

Both of the AP-C exams consist of roughly 35 multiple choice questions given in a 45-minute interval, followed by three free response questions in a second 45-minute interval. The AP-C exams are typically given back to back on the same afternoon.

AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism

The AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism course is by far the most technically complex of the AP Physics courses. Beginning with electrostatics, the course includes a detailed look at charges, electric forces, electric fields, electric potential, and capacitors. These concepts are then applied to an analysis of electrical circuits, including circuits with multiple sources of potential difference, real and ideal batteries, and transient analyses of circuits which include capacitors.

From there, the course transitions into a look at magnetism, with a strong focus on the relationships between electricity and magnetism as Maxwell’s Equations are investigated. It’s typically in this section that students really begin to challenge themselves, applying fundamental relationships (and calculus skills) to problems of increasing sophistication and technical complexity. With the added knowledge of magnetism, inductors are also discussed and tied back into the analysis of electrical circuits.

As you can see from the course descriptions, both of the AP Physics C courses are quite limited in scope, allowing for a much deeper exploration of the fundamental relationships and their application to various problems and situations.

Long-Term Goals

So then, back to our original question – which AP Physics course should you take? The answer, as is so often the case in life, is that it depends. Students who are planning on a career in engineering or physics should definitely consider the calculus-based courses (AP Physics C). These courses are fundamental to future studies, and a majority of colleges and universities accept scores of 4 or 5 in these courses for credit (though many students choose to re-take these courses to further cement their understanding of the fundamental concepts and boost their freshman GPA).

AP 1 2 C Table 001

For students who aren’t planning on a career in engineering or physics, the AP Physics 1 / AP Physics 2 series might be a better answer if their school of choice accepts AP–1/2 credit, as AP Physics C could be “overkill” compared to future course requirements. The problem, however, is that the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 courses are so new that many colleges don’t know how to deal with them, and as of the writing of this article, there aren’t many schools that provide college credit for strong scores on the exams, as the course content and philosophy often times don’t match up well with the college’s offerings. For this reason, students who are up for a challenge and enjoy problem solving may want to target the AP Physics C course, even if they aren’t planning on a career in engineering or physics. Many universities will give credit for a good score in AP Physics C as a general science credit.

To complicate matters, there are often times opportunities to take a sequence of these courses. In many high schools, AP Physics C is offered as a second-year physics course, with students taking on both the Mechanics and E&M courses in a single year. It’s a fast-paced course, but doable for those who have successfully passed an introductory physics course. For those taking physics for the first time, AP Physics C: Mechanics is a reasonable year-long endeavor. Some schools with extended class times offer both AP–1 and AP–2 in the same year, though this is a very aggressive undertaking.

Summarizing the Choices

To summarize as best I can in this nebulous time period, AP Physics C courses are traditionally for students heading toward physics and/or engineering related career paths, and require a pre-requisite or co-requisite in calculus. Definitely take AP-C Mechanics before AP-C E&M, though it is possible to do both in the same year, especially with some prior physics background. For students not taking calculus or not headed toward physics or engineering careers, AP Physics 1 is a great place to start, with AP Physics 2 a reasonable follow-up for those interested. The concern with these choices is the newness of the courses, and whether colleges and universities will give credit for a strong AP score. As always, discussing and planning out course selections with a guidance counselor in consultation with an admissions counselor is highly advised.

Strategies for Success

Regardless of which course(s) you choose, the AP Physics courses are challenging courses that require a level of independence and personal accountability to learn the material. These courses aren’t designed for “spoon feeding,” in which the instructor lectures, students listen, and everything works out. In order to truly understand the material and perform well on the culminating exam, you must engage in the class on a daily basis, struggle through the challenging problems, make mistakes again and again, and learn from them. Actively participate in classroom and lab activities and discussions, ask questions, but be prepared to search out your own answers. And don’t be afraid to take a step back every now and then and think about how what you’re learning applies to the course goals as a whole. Concept-mapping or outlining the topics in the course can be a terrific way to make connections you might not otherwise recognize.

And of course, you have tons of resources to help you. Beyond just your textbook (which I do recommend you actually open and actively read) and teacher, you’ll find outstanding video tutorials and Q&A forums like those at Educator.com, discussion and homework help communities, “cheat sheets,” and extra problems at APlusPhysics.com, and of course there are some great review and companion books available for these specific courses.


About the Author 

Dan Fullerton is the author of AP Physics 1 Essentials, AP Physics 2 Essentials, and the APlusPhysics.com website.  He is an AP Physics teacher at Irondequoit High School in Rochester, NY, and was named a New York State Master Physics Teacher in 2014.


AP and Advanced Placement Program are registered trademarks of the College Board, which does not sponsor or endorse this work.

AP Physics 1 Outline

     I’ve received quite a few requests over the past couple months, and especially the past couple days, asking if I knew of an “outline version” of the AP Physics 1 learning objectives, essential knowledge, etc., organized by topic.  I already had this created from working on the AP Physics 1 Essentials book as a chapter outline/roadmap correlated to the new AP 1 course, but had never bothered to put it in a user-friendly format to share.  Well, until yesterday.

     Here it is: http://aplusphysics.com/educators/AP1Outline.html/

     I understand this may not be the order in which you’d teach the topics, but for me at least, this organization is much easier to wade through and make sense of than the current AP Physics 1 and 2 Framework document (in which I get easily lost in the 200+ pages).  Perhaps it will be of use to you as well.  Please note that you can drill down by clicking on the triangles to the left of the topics, it’s quite a big document if you expand it all out.

     I’m planning on doing this for AP-2 as well, though I probably won’t have a chance to start on it until late July.

Three Wishes for Standardized Exams in 2011

As we begin the new year, I have high hopes for several changes in the administration, timing, and implementation of standardized physics exams from both the College Board and the NY State Board of Regents. Although I believe the likelihood of all of these happening in 2011 is quite slim, I maintain that all three are reasonable and feasible.


#1 Finalize Plans for AP-B Physics

The College Board’s decision to redesign the AP-B course deeply effects course sequencing at Irondequoit High School.  We’ve heard talk of the split for several years now. A seminar describing the changes was presented at last summer’s national AP conference in Washington, D.C., where the presenter and College Board representative stated “it’s a done deal, the only question is timing.”  We were told that the changes would be implemented in the 2011-2012 school year or 2012-2013 school year.  That’s fast!  We were promised more detailed information by last fall.  And we’ve heard nothing beyond a New York Times article which mentions potential changes in the 2014-2015 school year.

The preliminary redesign information presented at the 2010 AP conference indicated the course would be split into AP-1 and AP-2, where AP-1 is designed as a first-year course, and AP-2 is the more detailed, deeper second-year course.  The courses could be taken concurrently, although this was strongly discouraged during the presentation.

Actual implementation will have profound consequences for our district.  First, our school currently offers three levels of physics.  Regents Physics for juniors or seniors (a college-prep course based on NY state standards, equivalent to a typical Honors Physics course); AP-B, which can be taken as a first-year course by advanced students or as a second-year course following Regents Physics; and AP-C Mechanics and E&M, which can be taken by seniors who took AP-B as a first-year course.

Our concerns center around what the added AP-1 and AP-2 offerings will do to our other programs.  As a NY state school, we are highly encouraged to offer Regents Physics, consistent with state standards and a formal state-administered final exam in June.  Splitting the AP-B course into a two-year sequence could potentially damage our AP-C course, unless we replaced our current AP-B offerings with a combined one-year AP-1 and AP-2 (which is making the problem of the AP-B course having too much information in too little time even worse!). Or, we could combine AP-1 and Regents Physics together although the defined curricula don’t make for a smooth overlap, and offer AP-2 in place of our current AP-B course. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for our enterprising students to jump right into AP-2 prior to AP-C, which means we would likely need to add yet another physics course, AP-12, as a first-year course for those students who want to take AP-C as a second-year course.  As you can see, this gets complicated in a hurry.

The bottom line — this change is going to take some time and require an overhaul of our entire science program and sequencing.  College Board, we need a timeline, we need details, and we need sample exams.


#2 Eliminate the NY State Regents Physics Exam

As a teacher, I want as much information as I can get about my students.  I use assessment to plan instruction. I use assessment to grade. I use assessment to let me know what I’m doing that’s working and what needs refinement. The current physics Regents exam and curriculum, however, doesn’t meet my needs for a culminating final exam, nor do I feel it adequately assesses my students’ understanding of physics.

The exam is largely a test of how well you can use your formula sheet (known as the reference table). If you can write down "givens," "finds," and pick a formula, you can plug and chug your way to a fairly high score without demonstrating true understanding. Not only that, but typically this is the last exam given after a week of exams, and in some cases it actually falls on a date after our school’s graduation. Most of the students taking the course have already been accepted into college, don’t need to pass the course to graduate, and therefore have no vested interest in doing well on the exam. Yet our department goals focus on students scores on this exam.

Further, topics included in the curriculum are addressed at inconsistent depths. Mechanics coverage is adequate, but electricity and magnetism, the precursors to so many aspects of our daily lives in the 2000s, is quite inconsistent. Students learn basic electrostatics as well as series and parallel circuits, then move into fundamentals of magnetism and basic EM induction. However, past exams indicate VERY few magnetism questions… less than one question every two years! Waves are introduced, leading into optics, but optics is quite incomplete. Lenses are not addressed, but refraction and diffraction are (although only qualitatively).

Most disturbing, however, is the final unit of the course.  Where you would expect to introduce basic atomic / nuclear physics and applications, the curriculum dictates a study of the Standard Model.  Not only is this topic inconsistent with learning "fundamentals" first, but the level at which it can be taught with the students’ background to this point in the course leads to rote memorization of a few facts and learning to copy answers off the formula sheet.  Teaching for Understanding?  Not a chance.

My wish for 2011 would be to see the state eliminate the Regents Physics exam, a consideration that has been rumored in light of state budget issues. There are plenty of standardized exams already available if we see a need for comparing students across classes, districts, and regions.

Instead, allow us more freedom within our districts to differentiate to student needs and interests.  Of course, fundamental concepts need to be covered in an introductory course — mechanics, energy, E&M, waves, atomic physics, and so on — but within these core areas, give me the freedom and time to focus on student needs and interests appropriately. Are the students excited about projectile motion? Let’s take the time to go further, learning how to apply concepts to real-world situations, making predictions, verifying, and including real-world parameters such as wind and drag. Students want to know about relativity and special relativity? Take some time to explore time dilation, length contraction, space-time, and point of view. Students are excited about electronics — expand E&M to include more than just resistive circuits… introduce diodes, transistors, integrated circuits, even design and processing!

There are so many areas students are interested in. Let’s eliminate an unnecessary exam that creates excessive paperwork, wastes money, and provides minimal qualitr5fy information about students while simultaneously providing teachers the opportunity to differentiate while encouraging engagement and enthusiasm.  In addition, eliminating the exam would provide an inviting avenue to replace our school’s current Regents Physics course with AP-1 physics, which is being designed to allow time for deeper exploration of selected topics.


#3 Offer AP-C Mechanics Exam in Winter

Yet another wish for the College Board. I teach AP-C physics (both mechanics and E&M) as a year-long course. Roughly 80% of AP-C students in the country take only AP-C Mechanics. Therefore, they spend the year preparing for their single exam in the spring, which they take as soon as they complete the course while the material is fresh.

The 20 percent of AP-C students taking both mechanics and E&M exams take the exams back-to-back on the same day, with a couple minutes of breather between the tests. They are therefore at a disadvantage because their mechanics course ended several months earlier — the material isn’t as fresh.

I would love to see the College Board offer a winter AP-C Mechanics exam, allowing us to complete this exam while the material is fresh in students’ minds before moving into E&M. Further, this would benefit students who are on waiting lists to the most prestigious colleges… a 5 on the AP-C Mechanics exam could help set them apart from other applicants, and results could be available in time for colleges to use the information in their final decision-making process.

College Board, please consider offering the AP-C Mechanics Exam in the winter.  (Yes, I know this is not likely to happen due to the cost incurred in creating another exam and scoring it, especially given the small number of students who would take it, but I have to think there’s a way this could be offered in a digitized format to protect exam integrity and reduce costs.)


Will It Happen?

There you have it, three wishes for administrative physics exam changes in the year 2011. Are they likely? Some more than others. I believe we will see more information from the College Board about the AP-B redesign, but I’m not holding my breath for any promised dates. I don’t believe the College Board sees any issue in the timing of the AP-C Mechanics Exam, so the first step is to at least communicate this desire. As for elimination of the Regents Exam, If state budget funding does push this to fruition, I believe there’s a strong chance the AP-B course split may push this issue on its own, although, once again, timing is uncertain.

What do you think? What changes are you envisioning in the coming year?