The Free Response Section of the AP Psychology Exam

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

One of the two sections on the AP psychology exam is the free-response section, which includes essays. In this lesson, we'll examine the free-response section of the exam closer, including the instructions, types of questions, timing, and scoring.

AP Psychology Exam

Edie is very excited: she's in high school, but thanks to Advanced Placement exams, she's going to end up with college credits before she even finishes high school!

Advanced Placement, or AP, exams are tests put out by the College Board that allow students to earn college credit if they pass. There are many subjects that have AP exams: physics, economics, French, English, and a bunch of other content areas.

Edie is going to take the AP Psychology Exam, which allows students who pass it to get credit for a college introductory psychology class. It's like she'll have taken 'Intro to Psych' before she even sets foot on her college campus!

There are two sections to the AP psych test: a multiple choice section and a free response section. The free response section consists of two essay questions. Edie will have to answer both free response questions in 50 minutes. Together, her score on the two essays will be 1/3 of her total score on the test.

Let's take a closer look at the free response section of the AP psych exam and what Edie needs to know to do well.

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  • 0:05 AP Psychology Exam
  • 1:16 Instructions
  • 3:54 Types of Questions
  • 4:52 Time & Scoring
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Edie feels pretty good about the multiple choice part of the test, but she is a little nervous about the free response section. She's not the best writer, and having to write two essays in less than an hour seems really hard to her!

To save time, Edie can memorize the instructions ahead of time. That way, on test day, she can just skim the instructions and jump right in to planning and writing her essays. The instructions can be found at the College Board website, but they don't really change much from year to year.

For example, in 2014, the instructions were: 'You have 50 minutes to answer both of the following questions. It is not enough to answer a question by merely listing facts. You should present a cogent argument based upon your critical analysis of the question posed, using appropriate psychological terminology.'

While those words might vary a little bit each year, the basic gist will likely remain the same, so as long as Edie understands the instructions before test day, she can save a few minutes.

Of course, Edie won't know the exact questions she'll be asked ahead of time, but there are some key words that she can look for once she does know the questions.

If she sees the word 'identify,' it means that she should point out psychological concepts in her response. For example, if she's asked to identify the school of thought that Edward Thorndike and Alfred Binet contributed to, she'll want to mention educational psychology in her answer.

'Show' or 'describe' in the question indicates that Edie should detail characteristics and give examples of whatever they are asking about. For example, if they ask her to describe Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, she'll want to mention what it is and also give examples of different intelligences in Gardner's theory, like intrapersonal or kinesthetic intelligence.

If Edie sees the words 'explain,' 'discuss,' or 'relate,' she'll want to make connections between the question and different psychological viewpoints. For example, if she's asked to discuss the major shift in psychology in the mid-20th century, she'll want to write about the way that the middle of the 20th century, powered by social, political, and scientific changes, moved from a mostly behavioral view to a mostly cognitive one.

And no matter what the question asks, Edie will want to make sure to 'define' any terms that she uses in her essay. If she talks about the behavioral view of psychology, for example, she'll want to say that view sees humans as being driven by rewards and punishments.

Types of Questions

Edie should also understand that she is likely to see two different types of questions: unit-based and interunit questions. Unit-based questions ask for students to explain something that has to do with a particular part of psychology. For example, she might be asked to explain why Skinner's behavioral theory is an incomplete picture of human experience. The answer will be limited to behavioral theory.

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