I’m teaching an AP course this year: AP World History. (I reverse the title so that I can call it “WHAP” in all my materials.) It’s been some years since I’ve been so intimate with the College Board, and this is my first AP course since Gary and I finalized our Four Questions and started been blogging and doing workshops for teachers. The great gift that the Four Question Method gives to teachers and students is intellectual clarity: we know at any given moment what question we are trying to answer. That clarity is what drives 4QM teachers’ decisions about pedagogy, assessment, and evaluation. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the College Board seems to value murkiness in its questioning. An old friend of mine used to have a bumper sticker on his truck that said “Eschew Obfuscation.”  I’m thinking of having a bunch of those stickers made up and sent to College Board Headquarters. They probably wouldn’t think it’s as funny as I do.

Clear As Mud

There’s a much longer article to be written here about the problems with the College Board’s “AP Historical Thinking Skills,”* but for now I’ll limit myself to decoding one of the “Task Verbs Used in Free-Response Questions” given on page 200 of the “AP World History: Modern Course and Exam Description:” What does the College Board mean when it asks students to “Explain?” 

The first tip-off that there’s a problem is that the verb “Explain” is followed by a full paragraph of clarification. “Explain” apparently requires a lot of explanation. Here’s the full text:

Explain: Provide information about how or why a relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning. Explain ‘how’ typically requires analyzing the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome, whereas explain ‘why’ typically requires analysis of motivations or reasons for the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome.”

This paragraph seems designed more to defend against a possible lawsuit than to actually give students guidance in thinking like historians. There’s the long list of things that could be “analyzed” (whatever that means), which is preceded by the ultimate weasel word, “typically.” This amounts to a nearly incomprehensible definition that still leaves the door open for test makers to use “explain how” and “explain why” in some manner not covered by their definition. How teachers are supposed to prepare students for a question that uses “Explain how” or “Explain why” in an atypical fashion is beyond me.

College Board Code

Here’s what I think they’re really after. I told my students that“Explain how” is College Board Code for Question One: It means, “Tell the story of something that happened.” And I think “Explain why” is College Board Code for Question Two: It means, “Say what someone important in the story was thinking.” I suspect that part of the reason the College Board doesn’t write its essay questions in 4QM style is because they think simple questions are perceived as easy. But as anyone who’s tried to get students to give an accurate and clear answer to any of the Four Questions knows, simple questions can be very difficult to answer. If your whole brand is based on “college level” academics and you need to appear rigorous at all costs, then I guess asking students to “provide information about how or why a relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning” makes you look more demanding than if you simply asked them to tell you a clear and true story.

The point here for teachers is that the Four Question Method can help you to figure out exactly what it is you want your students to be thinking about when they’re answering an essay question. And if you know that, you can write clear questions. And if you do that, when you grade your students’ papers you’re actually evaluating their abilities to think like historians – not to decode your muddy questions. 


*”Skill 1” is actually two plural nouns: “Developments and Processes.” It’s like saying that skill 1 for driving a car is “wheels and engines.”