Help for AP Physics Students during the Pandemic

A tip for mastering AP physics when teacher/tutoring help is not available.

Jan. 3, 2021 – Note to my readers – This is my first blog post in slightly over six months. After an extremely busy June 2020 spent dealing with issues concerning San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, in July I was preparing to go on a 65 mile backpacking vacation trip with my wife along a rugged segment of the John Muir Trail when I herniated a disc in my lumbar spine. This took me completely out of commission and left me in considerable pain and discomfort for two entire months. My adventures with the local medical system during this time are another story that I will spare you, but I am slowly recovering after doing physical therapy since September. I am finally exercising, bicycling and hiking again, but my loss of fitness was great, and it will be some time before I regain my previous level. The only good thing about the pandemic in light of the above is that I could work online and did not have to drive to my tutoring appointments which allowed me to continue to assist my students despite my injury.

The most common problem mentioned by my students during the pandemic is that technical glitches and other difficulties associated with remote learning are making it harder to finish the curriculum this year. It is more difficult to get assistance from teachers under these circumstances, and, in a challenging class like AP physics, access limitations are particularly problematic.

Many AP physics students rely on tutoring, but this is often an expensive proposition, and many families might not be able to afford the fees, particularly if a student needs several hours of help a week.

For many students who take physics in high school, AP physics may also be the first physics class that they have ever taken. If so, this makes their task even more difficult.

I long advocated that students first take a regular high school physics class before they attempted AP physics. Unfortunately once SMUHSD adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for their non-AP science classes, the regular physics curriculum significantly diverged from the topics covered in AP physics, and I was no longer comfortable making this recommendation.

The best recommendation that I can make to AP physics students under our current circumstances is to get a copy of the textbook previously used for regular physics in the SMUHSD. Below I will tell you how to use it to get a quick introduction to the material before doing your AP class work.

The book is entitled Conceptual Physics: The High School Physics Program by Paul G. Hewitt, ISBN-13: 978-0-13-364749-5. This is the edition used in the SMUHSD regular physics program prior to the adoption of NGSS, and students may still be able to check out a copy from their school library. It can also be purchased new or used on Amazon.

When a new chapter is started in the AP physics class, I recommend first doing a quick read of the corresponding chapter in Hewitt’s book. This text is much simpler reading and will give students a decent introduction/overview. Do the Concept Check and the think! problems embedded in the chapter text. The Concept Check problems are simple questions to make sure one was awake while reading the chapter section. If you can’t answer them, look back through the text in the section for the answer. The think! problems are quick tests of understanding with answers at the end of each chapter. Also at the end of each chapter, the Think and Rank problems are worth doing.

I realize that many students might immediately scoff and say that they are already overloaded with class work, so how are they going to fit in additional time to do my recommendations above???

My response is simple. If you understand what you are doing, your required class work will be completed much sooner and you will do better on exams. Too many AP physics students succumb to the temptation to memorize equations and other tricks to help them get over the AP physics hurdle. In the process their education suffers tremendously.

Finally, here is Hewitt’s short and simple dedication page in his textbook. It is a sentiment too often lacking in College Board AP classes:

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

2 thoughts on “Help for AP Physics Students during the Pandemic”

  1. David, sorry was so slow to respond to this very helpful “hack” for EVERY class (use the #@$% textbook, people!) but I am sorry to hear you had suffered such a painful summer/fall. Wishing you smooth and good healing as you continue to rehab in this new Lunar New year.


    1. Thanks, Eudora. I am about 80-90% recovered from the back injury.

      You are right that unfortunately textbooks are being de-emphasized in many high school classes in favor of worksheets which I think is a mistake, but in this particular article about AP physics I am advocating that students actually first read the corresponding chapter in the textbook used by the regular (non-AP) physics class before tackling the AP class material. It is preferable to get a more intuitive, minimal mathematical, understanding of physics before getting lost in a lot of equations. The usual AP approach often leaves students unable to see the “forest” of physics because of all the time wasted searching through the “trees” on the AP physics equation “cheat sheet.”


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