Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

Thank you for watching the video.

To unlock all 5,300 videos, start your free trial.

Test Taking Strategies

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


So now we are going to look at basic strategies for dealing with the test. And the thing here is, fore-warned is fore-armed. If you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into, which you should at this point, but you’ll do better. And what we want to do now, is just really make sure that we’re ready for the test. So this is about the test and the simplest logistics are this.

You’ve got three hours and five minutes to take the test. And that doesn’t include you get a couple of breaks. So have a chance to kind of catch your breath and reflect on what you’re doing there. But three hours and five minutes is more than enough time, and I can’t stress that enough. I think people somehow think oh my God three hours five minutes, it’s a lot of time.

Multiple choice you’ve got 55 minutes to do 80 questions. And I know again that seems like it might not be enough time to do 80 questions. The fact of the matter is, it’s more than enough time if you know how to take the test, if you understand basic strategies. And we’re going to take a look at that, because there are some key ways to approach this, that will really help you do well on the multiple choice section.

The document based question you have 60 minutes for. And again, this is more than enough time, some basic strategies that have been introduced in earlier episodes, and some that we'll reinforce in and some new ones that we’re going to look at. Really you should make it no problem when you take a look at that document based questions.

And then finally, there is the free response section, which in the response section you’re presented with two questions. Each question has two choices. You got 70 minutes, so you got 35 minutes for each question. There maybe one that you really know very well, you can be able to knock off faster. And that way you can spend more time on the one that maybe you don’t know, you think you know as much about. Because I think you probably know more than you know.

But the 70 minutes you’ll be able to pretty much evenly divide your time, build in some organizational time and get out what you know about history.

So basically what I’m going to say here is, three hours and five minutes is more than enough time to do really well in this test. As long as you’re armed with strategies and that you’re confident when you approach it. So you can go in and take the AP test and have some fun with history.

So know we’re going to look at very specific strategies for dealing with the test. And the first thing that we’re going to talk about, is the multiple choice section, because that’s the first one that you’ll deal with when you walk in the room and sit down and they give you the packet. Once again, I mentioned you got 55 minutes to do 80 questions, don’t be intimidated by that. It’s more than enough time.

One of the things also you should know, is about the scoring for the multiple choice test. And that is that you get one point for every correct answer, you lose a quarter of a point for each incorrect answer and you get no points for answered questions.

Now that may lead some people to say oh good, I’ll just leave a bunch of blank answers. That won’t help you out. You really want to try and get as many correct answers as possible obviously. But if you can really start with a strategy that eliminates possibilities in the choices, eliminating one answer, we'll talk about that, you’ll really do a lot better.

So the first thing is, I want you to go with your first instinct. If you read a question, you start to read the choices and something clicks, go with that. Recently, there’s been lots of memory studies that show within, the first 10 to 15 seconds of people recognizing things, this even includes people looking at line ups for identifying criminals. That initial reaction is correct.

And in fact, the longer people take to look at things, the more muddy their memory gets. It might seem kind of intuitive but go with your first instinct I’ll guarantee that you’ll do really well.

Secondly read the question carefully. You’ll hear me say this over and over again I can’t stress it enough. Make sure you know what the question is asking. If you can quickly rephrase it in your own mind somehow, if you see key things, if it mentions a certain president, if it mentioned a political era, just make sure you focus in on that.

We want to talk about eliminating one answer, because eliminating one choice for the answer really increases your possibility of getting a question correct, and it’s better than leaving it blank, and getting no points. So if we see a question like this, ‘The principle of “popular sovereignty” was?’ One of the things you want to do is read the question carefully. Popular sovereignty, what pops up in my head? And if you’ve done your homework, you probably are thinking mid 1850s maybe Kansas and Nebraska, Stephen Douglas.

So let’s see what my choices are. Part of them is Missouri Compromise. Well Missouri Compromise was 1820 there was nothing about popular sovereignty there. So we're just going to say no we’re not going to do with that. First conceived by Abraham Lincoln I don’t think so. That’s not going to work, we’re going to just cross that out. A policy favoured by the Whig party during the late 1840s. Well, the Whig party didn’t disappear for no reason. They really didn’t have a lot of ideas and popular sovereignty wasn’t one of them. And if come up and say the Whig party, if they had popularised popular sovereignty they’d be remembered. You don't remember, them they’re gone.

Now a central feature of the Kansas Nebraska Act. My gut instinct is that’s the answer.

It was one of the first things I first thought of when I saw the word. Let me see what my other choice is. Successful in solving the dispute over slavery in new territories. Now, if I think about popular sovereignty, it did involve new territories. So now I’ve got it down to these two, those are out. So central features of the Kansas Nebraska act, I’m pretty sure that’s right. Successful, key words. You always want to look for key words. If they say all the time, everything were successful, you better know for sure. And one of the things we do know, again if you reflect on it is, Kansas Nebraska lead to a lot of turmoil. It lead to John Brown and his sons raiding people in Kansas. So as I think about those two, once again I can eliminate that one and there is my answer. So that’s one thing that we always want to do, is really try to eliminate it as much as you can. Now I dragged it out there, you’ll be able to do that much more quickly.

The other kind of question that sometimes students get really concerned about, and a little intimidated by, are these ‘EXCEPT’ questions. ‘All of the following were weakness of the articles of confederation government except:’

Let's go back to our strategy, read the question carefully. The key thing, all the following weaknesses ...articles of confederation. I can recall a bunch of things about that. Here is what I’m going to tell you to do when you an ‘except’ question. Read the answers without thinking about the except.

So read it as all of the following were weaknesses of the article of confederation. There was no power to levy taxes, that’s right. So in this case we can eliminate that. There was no power to regulate commerce. Once again, I know the articles of confederation was very weak centralized government, so we’re going to get rid of that one too. There was no power to borrow money. I’m not sure, I can’t totally remember, but I’m not going to eliminate that until I see what my other choices are.

There was no way to compel states to abide by foreign treaties. Well I definitely know the articles of confederation was really weak, in terms of the government trying to get the states to do anything. The states all had different kinds of currency, so that’s got to go. And then finally there was no strong executive, was that a weakness of the articles of confederation? Definitely. There was no president, there was no executive branch.

So now even though I may not have been sure, totally sure that there was no power to borrow money, I do know if I get rid of that 'except'. There wasn’t power to levy taxes, there wasn’t power to regulate commerce, there wasn’t a way to compel the states to do things and there was no executive, so I’ve got the answer right there, by eliminating the except and going with the positive. And that’s one of the things that I’m going to stress all the time, is to be positive in knowing that your strategy for answering questions like his is going to work for you.

Go back only if you have to. Get through all the questions as quickly as you can. Again, 55 minutes that’s almost an hour. And the thing about it is, if you just follow these basic strategies, you’ll get through all 55. If there is a question that you have no clue about leave it blank and continue on. If you have time left over, go back then. But answer the ones that you either definitely know the answer to, or that you’re able to eliminate one, two or three of the choices, and then move on. And what you’ll find is, if you review and practice and do this over and over, it will come to you second nature. It will be very easy.

We’ve got included in this course are two practice test that you can go to online. Maybe you don’t want to the whole test at once, maybe you say, you know what I haven’t got 80 minutes tonight. If you have 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, chunk it out and practice. Again there is lots of research that shows the more you practice this stuff, the better you’ll do on the test.

And it makes sense as with anything else. If you play a musical instrument, the more you practice, the better you get at it. The more you work on this, and if you follow these strategies, go with your first instincts, read the question carefully, eliminate at least one answer if not more, go back if you have time and review it and practice. You’ll kill the multiple choice test and you’ll have some fun with history.

So now we’re going to look at the Document Based Question. And there is an earlier episode totally devoted to this. So I really recommend you go back and look at that. But I want to refresh some of those ideas, and give a couple of new things to think about in preparing for the Document Based Question.

Of course, first and foremost just the logistic of it. You’ve got 60 minutes, there is a 15 minute mandatory reading period. And they install this in the test, I don’t know how many tears ago, but I think it’s a great idea. Because too often I think students take a look at a question, and they fly through the document, and they just want to start writing. This is going to make you take that time to really be thoughtful and reflective, and to use the strategies that we’re sharing with you here. And so, you've got that 15 minutes and then 45 minutes for writing, plenty of time. 45 minutes is long time, particularly if you’ve used the 15 minute well to get organized.

First and foremost, I sound like a broken record, read the question carefully. What are the key phrases? What are the verbs? What are they asking you to do? Are they asking you to asses, to compare and contrast, who are the principle players? What political era is it? Pull out that important stuff right away, because your brain is going to start just bubbling up. And in fact I would encourage it to bubble up because I’m going to tell you start brainstorming before you even look at the documents.

Once you’ve looked at those, what they’re asking you to do, access or compare and contrast Roosevelt progressive reforms with Franklin Roosevelt new deal. Before I even look at the documents I’m going to starting writing down, Teddy Roosevelt the pure food and drug act, the child labour laws, the meat pack and stuff. I’m going to just start to list that stuff. Franklin Roosevelt all the alphabet soup agencies, whatever else I can think of. I’m going to have all that down. So now when I proceed to look at the documents, I’m going to say, if I compare and contrast this, and if it ask me to compare and contrast and evaluate which is more effective, or something like that, now I’ve already got a bunch of stuff out there. And that’s where I may want to use a graphic organizer to really set up my essay.

And in another one of these episodes, the free response episode, I’m going to show you quite a few graphic organizers. I’m sure you know some already from working with your teacher in your AP course. You know the basic Venn diagrams and T charts and things like that timelines. So take a look at the question, take a look at what it’s asking and use you use your graphic organizer to set up how you’re going to write your essay. And in fact if you do, the 45 minutes is going to be more than enough time, to come up with a strong assertion about where you stand to start it out. And then to finish up with a strong conclusion that really says, here is why this is so.

And consider some opposing arguments. If someone was to say this Roosevelt was better than that one, I would really refute it by pointing out this and this. Be really confident and assertive.

One of the thing I want to add, if you have the time, in terms of preparing for the DBQ and actually preparing for the whole American history test. And I find it to be really successful with my students over time. Is to create your own document based question.

And it doesn’t mean you have to answer it. But if you do that, if you take the historical periods, if you start with the colonial period, go to the federalist era, Jefferson and democracy, the era of good feelings, just work your way though this. About 15 or 16 identifiable historical eras, and again you’ll see that on a later episode.

But think about, okay the federalist era. If I was going to write a document based questions about the federalist era, what would I write about? Well maybe the constitution, maybe Hamilton's economic policies, okay what kind of documents would I use? If you start to think that way and actually review, thinking about how would a DBQ about this period be set up, you’re going to number one learn a lot of the content. At least reinforce and review a lot of the content, and you’re going to be thinking like a really effective test taker. So that almost anything they throw in front of you, you’re going to sit there and say I’m ready for this. So that’s another strategy I’d really recommend that you employ. Maybe you can’t do all the periods of time, but again, when we get to free response episode you’ll see there are some periods that actually get touched on more than others. And maybe you want to create your DBQ about those periods.

So, basic strategy; read the question carefully, brainstorm before you look at the documents, organize it with some of graphic organizer to sort out your documents, and then thoughtfully write an assertive confident essay. And not only will you do well in a test, once again you’ll be having fun with history.

So we’ve done part A of the multiple choice and we’ve looked at Part B of the document based question. So now it’s time to look at part C of the AP US History exam, the free response section. And we're just going to take kind of an overview right now. There is a later episode that I'll really go into great depth in how to deal with this. How to really divide some strategies, so you can effectively answer the free response.

Once again 70 minutes to do two essays. You have two questions each questions has two choices.

So that’s the basic set up. We’re telling this, so if don’t already know it you won’t be shocked and say oh I didn’t expect that. Some of that you will be shocked to hear me say, read the question carefully. Now since you have two choices, you really want to look at both of them before you do anything. And you have enough time, 70 minutes is plenty of time.

So look at the first choice, the first question reading it carefully, what it’s asking. And then what are the two choices you might have, and then look at the second question and look at what choices you have there. If you know one, if the second one is something that you really know inside out, it's something that you wrote a research paper about, answer that one first because it’s going to take you less than 30 minute, 35 minutes to do that. If they’re about the same, do it in whatever order you want. But you don’t have to. There is nothing that says you have to do this one first, and this one second. It’s your choice.

As you read the question, part of reading it carefully is, identify the prompt category and by that I mean, is it about economics? Is it about politics? Is it about a specific presidential period? Is about a historical era? So again, that kind of stress to get the wheels going, so you can really brainstorm in an organized fashion. Well brainstorming isn’t getting all your ideas out. It’s not getting all your ideas, it's getting all your ideas out in a specific area.

So, identify the category as specifically as you can, in relation to reading the question carefully what do they want you tell them about that category. So once you've brainstormed, take a look at what you have and again organize it. And in a later episode again we'll show an array of graphic organizers that may help you really take that brainstorming and set it up.

So basically you can write a really effective and assertive confident essay that answers the question, sticks to the categories, and really very effectively gets at giving this readers what they want. You want to get as much historical information out as you can, but you want to do it in a way that shows you really know what you’re talking about. And so that’s the basic overview and strategy for tackling the free response essay.

© 2023 Brightstorm, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Terms · Privacy