The College Board has introduced a wave of Advanced Placement (AP) course revisions to take place over the next few years. The big trend we see in revised courses? More room for big ideas and less emphasis on  memorizing a vast body of details.
If you’ve ever taught an AP course you know what a welcome and needed change this is. In the past, the demanding, college-level AP exams have covered so much content that teachers felt they had to prioritize superficial familiarity with many ideas over deep understanding of a few. AP Art History required students to “know” over 500 specific works of art. AP United States History and AP European History each required students to “learn” all the major events that occurred between 1450 and today. The National Research Council found that the topics covered in AP Physics were so broad that it was not possible to teach more than a “cursory” overview of the most important topics in the field.
Those of us who want our students to perform well on the exams, but also know that covering so much material robs students of the deep understanding they deserve, have felt like this:

Luckily, the College Board has recognized this problem and is working to refocus all the courses listed above (as well as others) on the big ideas that matter most. Here are some of their revision intentions:

  • AP Art History required content will be limited to 250 works of art across 10 content areas in order to “promote in-depth learning.” According to the College Board, “These changes reflect recent scholarship that emphasizes critical analysis of works of art and understanding of relationships among global artistic traditions.”
  • Although the time periods covered will not change for AP European History, the revised course will be “structured around the investigation of five course themes and 19 key concepts in four different chronological periods, from approximately 1450 to the present.”
  • Specific learning objectives will be written to demystify the content required for the AP U.S. History course. With a smaller, clearly articulated set of required facts, teachers will be able to go “into depth with specific historical examples in order to explain the key concepts within each period,” College Board says.
  • AP Chemistry is now “organized around a few underlying principles called the big ideas, which encompass the core scientific principles, theories, and processes governing chemical systems.” The enduring understandings and essential knowledge related to each big idea will be articulated as well. The College Board explains that, “to develop conceptual understanding, it is essential that the student can draw connections between concepts and engage in reasoning that combines essential knowledge components from across the curriculum framework.”
  • AP Physics B will be split into two full-year courses, Physics 1 and Physics 2, in order to “allow students to achieve in-depth understanding” and provide ” more time for hands-on explorations of physics content and inquiry labs.”

This new curricular shift — away from mountains of detail, toward in-depth conceptual understanding — will help make AP teachers put the critical thinking, disciplinary thinking, inquiry, and rigor back into their courses. Three claps for that!