Rubrics and Writing: Demystifying Essays in AP Psychology

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Authored by

  • Amy Fineburg
    Spain Park High School
    Hoover, Alabama

This article will help you teach students how to write a successful essay for the AP Psychology Exam by simulating the procedures used at the AP Reading. We’ll use AP Psychology rubrics to grade AP Psychology Exam essays. As students apply rubrics to their own essays and to sample essays, they’ll become proficient in answering essay questions effectively and efficiently.

This article focuses on using 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 should, of course, 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.

Step 1: Assign students two essays during a 50-minute period

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.

Remind your students of the following:

  • Identify the verbs in the question. The verbs 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.

Other tips:

  • 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 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 must write in complete sentences and in paragraph form.

Step 2: Grade the essays using an AP Psychology rubric

Train yourself to grade your students’ essays with a rubric. For examples, see the most recent rubrics — called Scoring Guidelines — on AP Central.

  • 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.
  • 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.

Here are two approaches you might take:

  • Mark the points you awarded on the essays, highlighting the phrasing the student used to earn the points. You may also want to cross out any superfluous phrasing you found distracting. Also, point out any misinformation the student 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.
  • Another option: 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.

Step 3: Show your students how to use the rubric

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.

  • Help students notice that these sample essays meet the minimum requirements for using complete sentences and paragraphs, which are prerequisites for an essay to be 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. If you develop your own essay prompts and rubrics, you may require more precise answers than 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.

Build a good understanding of the rubrics

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.