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Advice for New AP World History Teachers

⏱️  6 min read

written by

Eric Beckman

eric beckman

August 4, 2020

AP World History is going through a huge change this summer as teachers prepare for the new AP World History: Modern course. But, the people most anxious about teaching the course in fall may be the teachers least affected by these changes: those teaching AP World History for the first time. I have twice been a new AP History teacher, first with European History and then five years ago with World History.

Based on these experiences and a review of the AP World: Modern course and exam description (henceforth CED) I have some advice for new AP World teachers.

Respect your limits, and theirs

The good news is that neither you nor your students need to know everything. Learning more content and preparing to present it are important, of course, but you can choose areas for focus and depth. Students can do very well on the AP World History exam without knowing everything. Applying what they know is most important for all of the question types, even the multiple-choice.

First, the AP Exam is standardized. A traditional high school scale does not apply. A student who earns 60% of the available points on the AP World History Exam would earn a passing score of 3 or 4, roughly equivalent to C or B in a college course. As you look through all of the possible illustrative examples in the CED, remember that no one needs to know all of the possible content.

Second, most questions on the exam allow students with varied content backgrounds to succeed. On the first short-answer question of the 2019 test, for instance, students could use examples from many societies, including the Mongols, Aztecs, Hittites, ancient Indo-Europeans, Turks, and Bantu, to name a few, as evidence (click here for all of the free-response questions, SAQ 1 is on p. 2). Students needed to know the difference between “nomadic” and “sedentary” as historical concepts, but they could use one of a myriad of examples to illustrate. The same principle holds true for evidence on the long-essay and document-based questions. Taking this a step further an example need not be mentioned anywhere in the CED to count as evidence on the exam. As long as it is accurate and used appropriately, it works. 

The same is true for most of the multiple-choice questions. Remember, all MCQ will require students to interpret stimulus in order to answer confidently. Proficiency at this skill is thus useful in all questions. In addition, students do not need to know all of the details in the stimulus in order to break it down. Consider the first multiple-choice question in the sample exam questions in the new CED which uses a primary source from a medieval Hungarian monarch (ctrl-f Hungary will take you there). Students do not need to know anything specific about Hungary to answer the first question. They do need to know about the Mongols, a much bigger topic, and knowing about the medieval Papacy would help, but is not essential. Students just need to recognize that Europe was decentralized after the end of the Western Roman Empire, another big topic. Although the answer includes “feudal” describing the states of Europe, students do not need to know anything about the internal workings of these states to understand that there were many of them. Some questions will require more specific factual knowledge, but others will require less; and, students getting two out of three questions correct will score well on the exam.

Key Concepts can be the key

In addition to the mountains of content new teachers face multiple organizational structures in the CED: time periods, key concepts, themes, skills and reasoning, units, topics, and learning objectives. All of these plus the textbook can overwhelm a teacher when planning. The good news is that, as with the overall content, teachers need not use all of these categories to organize their course. Choose one or two structures and stick with them in structuring the sequence of class. Reference the others as you progress through the content. 

For me, the new units create problematic framing for the course, and the content can be organized in a variety of other ways. So, I recommend using your textbook and the key concepts. But, a teacher could responsibly use the units, if they point out their biases to their students. Whatever you choose, keeping it simple by only using one or two organizational schemas will keep you saner. So, if you use the topics and learning objectives, then I recommend putting the key concepts on the back burner. Historical thinking skills and reasoning structure daily lesson plans, not your overall planning.

I use the textbook to organize the sequence of the class content and the Key Concepts (focus on the thirteen top-line concepts)  to prioritize textbook material. In this approach, the teacher needs to emphasize that students should use the textbook as a resource and not as the class itself. As students read they should look for illustrations of the key concepts and for essential vocabulary. The textbook is not the class, but it can be a tangible, familiar guide to the content. Identifying the most important material in each chapter and facilitating historical thinking opportunities connected to it is the teacher’s primary role in this system. The historical thinking should include additional texts, images, and data (more about this below). Selecting examples from each chapter helps vary the content by region so that students see the whole world. Building historical thinking skills and creating an inclusive narrative with varied examples are far more important than any particular piece of content.

Here is an example of slides that I use to do this work. They are only intended as prereading to help students focus their reading. Slides refer to chapter 14 in Bentley and Ziegler’s Traditions and Encounters, 5th edition

For each chapter, the best thing that you can do for students is to identify the most important ideas, details, and terms for understanding the key concepts. They and you do not need to know everything in each chapter, just some things and how they fit into the big picture.

Spaces for learning

Being just a little bit ahead of the class is not a problem. Become a learner with your students. Approaching the content with the same “beginner’s mind” (as some Buddhists say) as the students is an advantage. Using the textbook to organize the sequence of the course is just fine, as long as you spend most of your time in class developing historical thinking skills. Students gain background and factual knowledge on their own while doing more advanced activities in class. For example, students can practice argumentation by deciding how examples from the textbook illustrate key concepts. Students should think critically about historical content every day in World History.

"A detail from a Song-era painting on silk depicts two sturdy, broad-bottomed junks..." (caption and image from Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters, 5e, 2011)

Or, you can always have students take a section of content in the textbook and categorize it using the six themes in the CED (ctrl-f theme 1) and make connections with other material. For secondary sources, students should identify and discuss the author’s argumentation. Then, they can compare this with the textbook's treatment of the same content. In a tweet, AP History teacher Kathryn Byars summarized this approach well, as is her won't. She plans to use the image below as a template for her class warm-up.


AP World History teacher communities contain many helpful colleagues with tons of resources to share. They can help you to find primary and secondary sources beyond the textbook for any topic. Just ask. Fiveable will be here to help, of course, and I find a lot of useful material interacting on Twitter using #WHAPchat and in the AP World History Teacher’s Facebook group. 

You Can Do It

Take a deep breath. You’ve got this. Just keep your organize simple and clear, and always use the content as an opportunity to think historically. A whole community of great teachers is here to support you.

UPDATE: I will be doing a live stream based on this article on Monday, August 19th at seven pm Central Time. 🎥 Click here to reserve a spot and tune in.

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