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‘It’s So Draining’: AP Students and Teachers Face Distance Learning Struggles

Advanced Placement courses have gotten even harder during the pandemic due to a lack of support, limited class time, and a breakneck pace.

As Berkeley High School (BHS) wraps up the first semester of an undoubtedly unique year, many Advanced Placement (AP) classes have felt the struggle more than others, with students set to face an even more daunting spring semester. While all teachers have struggled to adapt to distance learning, AP teachers have had to deal with one of the most challenging barriers: time. 

The College Board has made plans to keep 2021 AP testing similar to normal, pre-pandemic years. Due to COVID-19, many tests were abbreviated last year, shrunk from the normal three and a half hours into merely 45-minute or hour-long online exams. However, this year, students can “expect exam scores to reflect the full scope of AP coursework,” stated the College Board in an AP exam update email for 2021. 

This has caused difficulties for several AP teachers, as BHS runs on a term system: During distance learning, students only take three of the usual six classes at a time, switching to the other half roughly every five weeks. This has left teachers with less than half of the teaching time they would have in person. While many teachers have simply removed half of their curriculum, AP classes don’t have the same option. 

AP Government and Economics teacher Amanda Toporek teaches in the Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA). She said that she has changed up her teaching format in response to distance learning, simply focusing on a positive learning experience for her students. 

“My goal has been to focus on the skills that any version of the test would require,” Toporek said, “but not get too bogged down in what the test is going to look like, because we don’t know what the test is going to look like.”

While few of Torporek’s students chose to take the AP test in the spring, many students in classes like AP Chemistry, AP Biology, and AP U.S. History do plan to take AP tests this year. These classes in particular cover a large amount of content that is difficult to get around.

“Everything has to go twice as fast,” said Aaron Glimme, who teaches AP Chemistry, “which means that we need to take advantage of every shortcut we can think of.”

For classes with a large amount of content to cover, the majority of learning has taken place outside of class in the form of asynchronous lectures. This saves class time for reviewing material, doing practice problems, and the select hands-on elements of the classes. Despite this adjustment, many students struggle with the fast paced self-learning. 

“AP Chem goes extremely fast,” said Kayoko Hoffman Hattori, a sophomore in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), taking AP chemistry. “If I miss one lecture, I’ve missed half of the entire content that we’re supposed to learn for the next test.”

Hoffman Hattori added that the class has also made her doubt herself more than in previous years and in previous classes. “It’s made me kind of second guess how smart I am.”

“It’s just not the way I’m typically used to learning,” explained Emmy Sampson, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), who is taking three AP classes this year. She added that it’s hard to stay motivated to complete hours of homework after attending Zoom classes all day. “But the biggest part for me is that we don’t have time to cover everything that’s going to be on the exams at the end of the year.”

Many teachers  and students share this same concern, worrying that the large gaps in between terms will make it harder for students to remember material. Additionally, the time constraint leaves less time for review and general test preparation. 

In order to “support schools that want more instructional time before testing,” the College Board is offering two testing dates for 2021: one in late May, and another in the first half of June. This will also help to even out the disparity at BHS that left the even term students at a disadvantage compared to the odd term students. 

More details are to come in February, but according to Glimme, “It is absolutely essential that we forcefully push for the later testing date…. I can not stress enough how important this will be in allowing all students to be fully prepared to succeed on the AP Tests,” he wrote in an email response to the College Board update. 

Jett Lai Costa, a senior in AHA, didn’t have much opportunity to take AP classes before this year. As many of their classmates aren’t planning on taking the AP test, Lai Costa says,  “I need to do a lot more learning about the tests on my own.” They have plans to take three AP tests this spring. “The most important thing that I need to focus on is asking for help when I need it.” 

AP Biology Teacher Glenn Wolkenfeld explained that the increased workload and stress in his students has become apparent. “The main thing that I’ve done is I’ve promised my students the utmost compassion and flexibility,” Wolkenfeld said. 

Both Glimme and Wolkenfeld have offered accommodations and support for their students, such as the opportunity to make test corrections, do retakes, and earn credit for late work. For that, many students remain grateful. “I think they are really mindful that we are doing the best we can given the circumstances,” Sampson said.

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