Is this going to be on the exam?

confused-teacherRecently there was a discussion on the AP Calculus Community bulletin board regarding whether it was necessary or desirable to have students do curve sketching starting with the equation and ending with a graph with all the appropriate features – increasing/decreasing, concavity, extreme values etc., etc. – included. As this is kind of question has not been asked on the AP Calculus exam, should the teacher have his students do problems like these?

The teacher correctly observed that while all the individual features of a graph are tested, students are rarely, if ever, expected to put it all together. He observed that making up such questions is difficult because getting “nice” numbers is difficult.

Replies ran from No, curve sketching should go the way of log and trig tables, to Yes, because it helps connect f. f ‘ and f ‘’, and to skip the messy ones and concentrate on the connections and why things work the way they do. Most people seemed to settle on that last idea; as I did. As for finding questions with “nice” numbers look in other textbooks and steal borrow their examples.

But there is another consideration with this and other topics. Folks are always asking why such-and-such a topic is not tested on the AP Calculus exam and why not.

The AP Calculus program is not the arbiter of what students need to know about first-year calculus or what you may include in your course. That said, if you’re teaching an AP course you should do your best have your students learn everything listed in the Course and Exam Description book, and be aware of how those topics are tested – the style and format of the questions. This does not limit you in what else you may think important and want your students to know. You are free to include other topics as time permits.

Other considerations go into choosing items for the exams. A big consideration is writing questions that can be scored fairly.  Here are some thoughts on this by topic.

Curve Sketching

If a question consisted of just an equation and the directions that the student should draw a graph, how do you score it? How accurate does the graph need to be? Exactly what needs to be included?

An even bigger concern is what do you do if a student makes a small mistake, maybe just mis-copies the equation? The problem may have become easier (say, an asymptote goes missing in the mis-copied equation and if there is a point or two for dealing with asymptotes – what becomes of those points?) Is it fair to the student to lose points for something his small mistake made it unnecessary for him to consider? Or if the mistake makes the question so difficult it cannot be solved by hand, what happens then? Either way, the student knows what to do, yet cannot show that to the reader.

To overcome problems like these, the questions include several parts usually unrelated to each other, so that a mistake in one part does not make it impossible to earn any subsequent points. All the main ideas related to derivatives and graphing are tested somewhere on the exam, if not in the free-response section, then as a multiple-choice question.

(Where the parts are related, a wrong answer from one part, usually just a number, imported into the next part is considered correct for the second part and the reader then can determine if the student knows the concept and procedure for that part.)


A big topic in derivative applications is optimization. Questions on optimization typically present a “real life” situation such as something must be built for the lowest cost or using the least material. The last question of this type was in 1982 (1982 AB 6, BC 3 same question). The question is 3.5 lines long and has no parts – just “find the cost of the least expensive tank.”

The problem here is the same as with curve sketching. The first thing the student must do is write the equation to be optimized. If the student does that incorrectly, there is no way to survive, and no way to grade the problem. While it is fair to not award points for not writing the correct equation, it is not fair to deduct other points that the student could earn had he written the correct equation.

The main tool for optimizing is to find the extreme value of the function; that is tested on every exam. So here is a topic that you certainly may include the full question in you course, but the concepts will be tested in other ways on the exam.

The epsilon-delta definition of limit

I think the reason that this topic is not tested is slightly different. If the function for which you are trying to “prove” the limit is linear, then \displaystyle \delta =\frac{\varepsilon }{\left| m \right|} where m is the slope of the line – there is nothing to do beside memorize the formula. If the function is not linear, then the algebraic gymnastics necessary are too complicated and differ greatly depending on the function. You would be testing whether the student knew the appropriate “trick.”

Furthermore, in a multiple-choice question, the distractor that gives the smallest value of must be correct (even if a larger value is also correct).

Moreover, finding the epsilon-delta relationship is not what’s important about the definition of limit. Understanding how the existence of such a relationship say “gets closer to” or “approaches” in symbols and guarantees that the limit exists is important.

Volumes using the Shell Method

I have no idea why this topic is not included. It was before 1998. The only reason I can think of is that the method is so unlike anything else in the calculus, that it was eliminated for that reason.

This is a topic that students should know about. Consider showing it too them when you are doing volumes or after the exam. Their college teachers may like them to know it.

Integration by Parts on the AB exam

Integration by Parts is considered a second semester topic. Since AB is considered a one-semester course, Integration by Parts is tested on the BC exam, but not the AB exam. Even on the BC exam it is no longer covered in much depth: two- or more step integrals, the tabular method, and reduction formulas are not tested.

This is a topic that you can include in AB if you have time or after the exam, or expand upon in a BC class.

Newton’s Method, Work, and other applications of integrals and derivatives

There are a great number of applications of integrals and derivatives. Some that were included on the exams previously are no longer listed. And that’s the answer right there: in fairness, you must tell students (and teachers) what applications to include and what will be tested. It is not fair to wing in some new application and expect nearly half a million students to be able to handle it.

Also, remember when looking through older exams, especially those from before 1998, that some of the topics are not on the current course description and will not be tested on the exams.

Solution of differential equations by methods other than separation of variables

Differential equations are a huge and important area of calculus. The beginning courses, AB and BC, try to give students a brief introduction to differential equations. The idea, I think, is like a survey course in English Literature or World History: there is no time to dig deeply, but the is an attempt to show the main parts of the subject.

While the choices are somewhat arbitrary, the College Board regularly consult with college and university mathematics departments about what to include and not include. The relatively minor changes in the new course description are evidence of this continuing collaboration. Any changes are usually announced two-years in advance. (The recent addition of density problems unannounced, notwithstanding.) So, find a balance for yourself. Cover (or better yet, uncover) the ideas and concepts in the course description and if there if a topic you particularly like or think will help your students’ understanding of the calculus, by all means include it.

PS: Please scroll down and read Verge Cornelius’ great comment below.

Happy Holiday to everyone. There is no post scheduled for next week; I will resume in the new year. As always, I like to hear from you. If you have anything calculus-wise you would like me to write about, please let me know and I’ll see what I can come up with. You may email me at




One thought on “Is this going to be on the exam?

  1. Thanks for this post, Lin. I think about this kind of stuff all the time and you have catalogued and justified it beautifully. The AP Calculus exam definitely seeks to be fair in its questions on the free response portion so that students who make a small error don’t lose all of the nine possible points. So, some topics which will be heavily tested in a college classroom (such as the traditional optimization box problem) would not be tested in this manner on the AP exam. So, do we skip teaching this? Heck no.

    I think it’s important as a teacher to prepare students to observe, think, and connect. Because of its rigor, utility, and beauty, Calculus is a great medium for doing this. I also think it’s important to prepare students for their academic and professional lives outside of my classroom and because I live in a small town, I mostly know what happens to my students. I teach AB, but if I don’t teach integration by parts and partial fractions (which are not on the AB exam), even my students who score 5s come back to me for help. Part of the problem is that it is so easy for them to come back to my classroom since they mostly go to the University of Mississippi which is right across town from our high school. So, I know I have not really taught them enough to be independent. A first year teacher has a much harder time knowing what to teach and what to omit, what to emphasize and what to deemphasize.

    Because the AP program in general and calculus in particular is so great about publishing practice exams, it would be ideal if teachers could take those exams themselves at the beginning of their course instead of trying to march through a textbook. But as we all know, classroom teaching is tricky and finding time to do that kind of stuff is hard. Thank goodness for the internet and social media (which did not exist in 1989 when I started teaching) where teachers can ask questions like, “Is it on the exam?” Many high school calculus teachers are THE ONLY person in their school who knows anything about calculus.

    Liked by 1 person

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