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Ultimate Guide to the AP Research Course and Assessment

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is administered by the College Board and serves as a standardized set of year-long high school classes that are roughly equivalent to one semester of college-level coursework. Although most students enroll in an actual course to prepare for their AP exams, many others will self-study for the exams without enrolling in the actual AP class.

AP classes are generally stand-alone subjects that easily translate to traditional college courses. Typically, they culminate in a standardized exam on which students are graded using a 5-point scale, which colleges and universities will use to determine credit or advanced standing. Starting in fall of 2014, though, this traditional AP course and exam format has begun to adapt in efforts by the College Board to reflect less stringent rote curriculum and a heavier emphasis on critical thinking skills.

The AP Capstone program is at the center of these changes, and its culmination course is AP Research. If you are interested in learning more about the AP Research Course and Assessment, and how they can prepare you for college-level work, read on for CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the AP Research Course and Assessment.

About the Course and Assessment

The AP Research course is the second of two classes required for the AP Capstone™ Diploma. In order to enroll in this course you need to have completed the AP Seminar course during a previous year. Through that course, you will have learned to collect and analyze information with accuracy and precision, developed arguments based on facts, and effectively communicated your conclusions. During the AP Research course, you apply these skills on a larger platform. In the AP Research course, you can expect to learn and apply research methods and practices to address a real-world topic of your choosing, with the end result being the production and defense of a scholarly academic paper. Students who receive a score of 3 or higher on both the AP Seminar and AP Research courses earn an AP Seminar and Research Certificate™. Students who receive a score of 3 or higher on both courses and on four additional AP exams of their choosing receive the AP Capstone Diploma™.   

The AP Research course will guide you through the design, planning, and implementation of a year-long, research-based investigation to address a research question of interest to you. While working with an expert advisor, chosen by you with the help of your teacher, you will explore an academic topic, problem, or issue of your choosing and cultivate the skills and discipline necessary to conduct independent research and produce and defend a scholarly academic paper. Through explicit instruction in research methodology, ethical research practices, and documentation processes, you will develop a portfolio of scholarly work to frame your research paper and subsequent presentation of it.

Although the core content and skills remain standardized for every AP Research course, the implementation of this instruction may vary. Some AP Research courses may have a specific disciplinary focus wherein the course content is rooted in a specific subject, such as AP Research STEM Inquiries or AP Research Performing and Visual Arts. Similarly, other AP Research courses are offered in conjunction with a separate and specific AP class, such as AP Research and AP Biology wherein students are concurrently enrolled in both AP courses and content is presented in a cross-curricular approach. Alternatively, AP Research may be presented in the form of an internship wherein students who are already working with a discipline-specific expert adviser conduct independent studies and research of the student’s choosing while taking the AP Research class. Finally, some AP Research courses are delivered independently as a research methods class. In this style of class, students develop inquiry methods for the purpose of determining which method best fits their chosen topic of inquiry/research question, and each student then uses a selected method to complete his or her investigation.    

Only schools that currently offer the AP Capstone Diploma may offer the AP Research course. Because it is a part of a larger comprehensive, skills-based program, students may not self-study for the AP Research course or final paper. At this time, home-schooled students, home-school organizations, and online providers are not eligible to participate in AP Capstone.

Your performance in the AP Research course is assessed through two performance tasks. The first is the Academic Paper, which accounts for 75% of your total AP score. In this paper, you will present the findings of your yearlong research in 4,000-5,000 words. Although the official submission deadline for this task is April 30, the College Board strongly recommends that this portion of your assessment be completed by April 15 in order to allow enough time for the second of your performance tasks.

The second performance task is your Presentation and Oral Defense, which accounts for the remaining 25% of your total AP score. Using your research topic, your will prepare a 15-20 minute presentation in an appropriate format with appropriate accompanying media. Your defense will include fielding three to four questions from a panel consisting of your AP Research teacher and two additional panel members chosen at the discretion of your teacher.   

In 2016, fewer than 3,000 students submitted an AP Research project, but enrollment is projected to grow rapidly, since 12,000 students took the AP Seminar assessment in 2016 and most will presumably go on to submit an AP Research project in 2017. Scores from the 2016 AP Research projects reveal a high pass rate (score of three or higher) but a difficult rate of mastery. While 67.1% of students taking the assessments scored a three or higher, only 11.6% received the highest score of a five, while nearly 40% received a three. Only 2% of students submitting research projects received the lowest score of one.   

A full course description that can help to guide your planning and understanding of the knowledge required for the AP Research course and assessments can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for successfully completing the AP Research course.

How Should I Prepare for the AP Research Course?

As you undertake the AP Research course and performance tasks, you will be expected to conduct research, write a scholarly paper, and defend your work in a formal presentation.  Having already completed the AP Seminar course, these skills should be familiar to you. You should use your scores on the AP Seminar performance task to help guide your preparations for the AP Research performance tasks.

Carefully review your scores from AP Seminar. Make sure you understand where points were lost and why. It may be helpful to schedule a meeting with your AP Seminar teacher to review your work. Alternatively, your AP Research teacher may be willing to go over your AP Seminar projects with you. You might also ask a classmate to review your projects together to get a better idea of where points were earned and where points were lost. Use this review as a jumping point for your AP Research studies. You should go into the course with a good idea of where your strengths lie, and where you need to focus on improving.

A sample timeline for the AP Research course is available on page 36 of the course description. One detail worth noting is that the recommended timeline actually begins not in September with the start of the new school year, but instead begins in May with the completion of the AP Seminar course during the previous school year. It is then that you should begin to consider research topics, problems, or ideas. By September of the following school year, it is recommended that you have already finalized a research question and proposal, completed an annotated bibliography, and prepared to begin a preliminary inquiry proposal for peer review.    

What Content Will I Be Held Accountable For During the AP Research Course?

To be successful in the AP Research class, you will begin with learning to investigate relevant topics, compose insightful problem statements, and develop compelling research questions, with consideration of scope, to extend your thinking.  Your teacher will expect you to demonstrate perseverance through setting goals, managing time, and working independently on a long-term project. Specifically, you will prepare for your research project by:

    • Identifying, applying, and implementing appropriate methods for research and data collection
    • Accessing information using effective strategies
    • Evaluating the relevance and credibility of information from sources and data
    • Reading a bibliography for the purpose of understanding that it is a source for other research and for determining context, credibility, and scope
    • Attributing knowledge and ideas accurately and ethically, using an appropriate citation style
    • Evaluating strengths and weaknesses of others’ inquiries and studies

As in the AP Research course, you will continue to investigate real-world issues from multiple perspectives, gathering and analyzing information from various sources in order to develop credible and valid evidence- based arguments. You will accomplish this through instruction in the AP Research Big Ideas, also called the QUEST Framework. These include:

  • Question and Explore: Questioning begins with an initial exploration of complex topics or issues. Perspectives and questions emerge that spark one’s curiosity, leading to an investigation that challenges and expands the boundaries of one’s current knowledge.
  • Understand and Analyze Arguments: Understanding various perspectives requires contextualizing arguments and evaluating the authors’ claims and lines of reasoning.
  • Evaluate Multiple Perspectives: Evaluating an issue involves considering and evaluating multiple perspectives, both individually and in comparison to one another.
  • Synthesize Ideas: Synthesizing others’ ideas with one’s own may lead to new understandings and is the foundation of a well-reasoned argument that conveys one’s perspective.
  • Team, Transform, and Transmit: Teaming allows one to combine personal strengths and talents with those of others to reach a common goal. Transformation and growth occur upon thoughtful reflection. Transmitting requires the adaptation of one’s message based on audience and context.

In addition, you will use four distinct reasoning processes as you approach your research. The reasoning processes are situating, choosing, defending, and connecting. When you situate ideas, you are aware of their context in your own perspective and the perspective of others, ensuring that biases do not lead to false assumptions. When you make choices about ideas and themes, you recognize that these choices will have both intended and unintentional consequences. As you defend your choices, you explain and justify them using a logical line of reasoning. Finally, when you connect ideas you see intersections within and/or across concepts, disciplines, and cultures.

For a glossary of research terms that you should become familiar with, see page 62 of the course description.

How Will I Know If I’m Doing Well in the AP Research Course?

Because your entire score for the AP Research course is determined by your research paper and presentation, which come at the very end of the course, it can be difficult to gauge your success until that point. Do yourself a favor and do not wait until your final scores come back to determine how successful you have been in the course.

As you undertake the AP Research course, there will be many opportunities for formative assessments throughout the semester. These assessments are used to give both you and your teacher an idea of the direction of instruction needed for you to master the skills required in the AP Research course. You should use these assessments to your advantage and capitalize on the feedback you receive through each. A list of possible activities used for these assessments can be found on page 41 of the course description.

Another way that you and your teacher will track your progress is through your Process and Reflection Portfolio (PREP). The PREP serves to document your development as you investigate your research questions, thereby providing evidence that you have demonstrated a sustained effort during the entire inquiry process. You will review your PREP periodically with your teacher, who will use it as a formative assessment to evaluate your progress.

Throughout the course, you will be assigned prompts and questions to respond to in your PREP. You will use this portfolio to document your research or artistic processes, communication with your expert adviser, and reflections on your thought processes. You should also write freely, journaling about your strengths and weaknesses with regard to implementing such processes and developing your arguments or aesthetic rationales. 

Your final PREP should include:

    • Table of contents
    • Completed and approved proposal form
    • Specific pieces of work selected by the student to represent what he or she considers to be the best showcase for his or her work. (Examples might include: in-class (teacher-directed) free-writing about the inquiry process, resource list, annotated bibliography of any source important to the student’s work, photographs, charts, spreadsheets, and/or links to videos or other relevant visual research/project artifacts, draft versions of selected sections of the academic paper, or notes in preparation for presentation and oral defense.)
    • Documentation of permission(s) received from primary sources, if required — for example, permission(s) from an IRB or other agreements with individuals, institutions, or organizations that provide primary and private data such as interviews, surveys, or investigations
    • Documentation or log of the student’s interaction with expert adviser(s) and the role the expert adviser(s) played in the student’s learning and inquiry process (e.g., What areas of expertise did the expert adviser have that the student needed to draw from? Did the student get the help he or she needed — and if not, what did he or she do to ensure that the research process was successful? Which avenues of exploration did the expert adviser help the student to discover?)
    • Questions asked to and feedback received from peer and adult reviewers both in the initial stages and at key points along the way
    • Reflection on whether or not the feedback was accepted or rejected and why
    • Attestation signed by the student which states, “I hereby affirm that the work contained in this Process and Reflection Portfolio is my own and that I have read and understand the AP CapstoneTM Policy on Plagiarism and Falsification or Fabrication of Information”

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to maintain strong communications with your teacher as you progress through the AP Research course. Not only is your teacher your best resource for learning new skills and knowledge, but also it is your teacher who will be responsible for grading your final performance tasks and as such, you should always have a strong understanding of how your work is being assessed and the ways in which you can improve it. Remember, your teacher wants you to succeed just as much as you do; work together as a team to optimize your chances.

How Should I Choose a Research Topic?

You will begin to consider research topics before the school year even starts. If your AP Research class is offered in conjunction with another course, such as those rooted in a specific subject or linked to another concurrent AP course, you will have some idea of the direction in which your research should head. Regardless of whether you know the precise subject matter of your topic, you should begin by asking yourself what you want to know, learn, or understand. The AP Research class provides a unique opportunity for you to guide your own learning in a direction that is genuinely interesting to you. You will find your work more engaging, exciting, and worthwhile if you choose a topic that you want to learn more about.

As you begin to consider research topics, you should:

    • Develop a list of topics and high-level questions that spark your interest to engage in an individual research project
    • Identify potential expert advisers to guide you in the planning and development of your research project (For tips on how to find a mentor, read CollegeVine’s “How to Choose a Winning Science Fair Project Idea”)
    • Identify potential opportunities (if you are interested) to perform primary research with an expert adviser during the summer, via internships or summer research projects for high school students offered in the community and local higher education institutions
    • Discuss research project planning skills and ideas with students who are currently taking or have already taken the AP Research course

You might also find inspiration from reading about past AP Research topics. One list of potential research questions can be found here and another can be found here. Keep in mind that these lists make great starting points and do a good job of getting you thinking about important subjects, but your research topic should ultimately be something that you develop independently as the result of careful introspection, discussions with your teacher and peers, and your own preliminary research.

Finally, keep in mind that if you pursue a research project that involves human subjects, your proposal will need to be reviewed and approved by an institutional review board (IRB) before experimentation begins. Talk with your teacher to decide if this is the right path for you before you get too involved in a project that may not be feasible.

Once you have decided on a research topic, complete an Inquiry Proposal Form. This will be distributed by your teacher and can also be found on page 55 of the course description.

How Do I Conduct My Research?

By the time you begin your AP Research course, you will have already learned many of the basics about research methods during your AP Seminar course. You should be comfortable collecting and analyzing information with accuracy and precision, developing arguments based on facts, and effectively communicating your point of view. These will be essential skills as you move forward in your AP Research project.

As you undertake your work, remember the skills you’ve already learned about research:

    • Use strategies to aid your comprehension as you tackle difficult texts.
    • Identify the author’s main idea and the methods that he or she uses to support it.
    • Think about biases and whether other perspectives are acknowledged.
    • Assess the strength of research, products, and arguments.
    • Look for patterns and trends as you strive to make connections between multiple arguments.
    • Think about what other issues, questions, or topics could be explored further.

You should be certain to keep track of all sources used in your research and cite them appropriately. The College Board has a strict policy against plagiarism. You can read more about its specifics on page 60 of the course description.

How Do I Write My Paper?

Before you begin writing your final paper, make sure to thoroughly read the Task Overview handout which will be distributed by your teacher. If you would like to see it beforehand, it can be found on page 56 of the course description. You should also review the outline of required paper sections on page 49 of the course description.

Your paper must contain the following sections:

› Introduction

› Method, Process, or Approach

› Results, Product, or Findings

› Discussion, Analysis, and/or Evaluation

› Conclusion and Future Directions

› Bibliography

Before you begin writing, organize your ideas and findings into an outline using the sections listed above. Be sure to consider how you can connect and analyze the evidence in order to develop an argument and support a conclusion. Also think about if there are any alternate conclusions that could be supported by your evidence and how you can acknowledge and account for your own biases and assumptions. 

Begin your paper by introducing and contextualizing your research question or problem. Make sure to include your initial assumptions and/or hypothesis. Next, include a literature review of previous work in the field and various perspectives on your topic. Use the literature review to highlight the gap in the current field of knowledge to be addressed by your research project. Then, explain and justify your methodology, present your findings, evidence, or data, and interpret the significance of these findings. Discuss implications for further research or limitations of your existing project. Finally, reflect on the project, how it could impact its field, and any possible next steps. Your paper should conclude with a comprehensive bibliography including all of the sources used in your process.

Make sure to proofread and edit your paper yourself, have it proofread and edited by a friend, and then proofread and edit it again before you complete your final draft.

How Do I Prepare For My Oral Defense?

Once your paper is finished, you may be tempted to sit back and rest on your laurels. Although you’ve no doubt expended a tremendous about of energy in producing a final product you can be proud of, don’t forget that the work is not over yet. Your oral defense accounts for 25% of your total score so it should be taken seriously.

Your oral defense is a 15-20 minute presentation that uses appropriate media to present your findings to an oral defense panel. You may choose any appropriate format for your presentation, as long as the presentation reflects the depth of your research. If your academic paper was accompanied by an additional piece of scholarly work (e.g., performance, exhibit, product), you should arrange with your teacher for him or her, along with the panelists, to view the scholarly work prior to your presentation.

As you plan your presentation, consider how you can best appeal to your audience. Consider different mediums for your presentation, and how those mediums might affect your credibility as a presenter. You want to be engaging to your audience while still being taken seriously.

Following your presentation, you will field three or four questions from your panelists. These will include one question pertaining to your research or inquiry process, one question focused on your depth of understanding, and one question about your reflection throughout the inquiry process as evidenced in your PREP. The fourth question and any follow-up questions are at the discretion of the panel. A list of sample oral defense questions begins on page 52 of the course description. For a complete outline of the oral defense, see page 49 of the course description

How Will My Work Be Assessed?

Because this assessment is only available to students enrolled in the AP Capstone program, your teacher will register you for the assessment when you enroll in the course. You should confirm with your teacher that you are registered for the assessment no later than March 1. 

You will submit your final paper and complete your oral presentation no later than April 30, at which point your teacher will submit your work and scores through an AP Digital Portfolio. Your presentation will be scored by your teacher alone. Your paper will be scored by your teacher and validated by the College Board.

You may find the scoring rubric from the 2016 performance tasks available here. You may find a collection authentic student research papers and scoring explanations available here.

Preparing for any AP assessment can be a stressful process. Having a specific plan of attack and a firm grasp of how your work is assessed will help you to feel prepared and score well. Use CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the AP Research Course and Assessment to help shape your understanding of the course and how to complete your performance tasks effectively. When submission day arrives, you should feel better prepared and informed about the work you have produced.

For more about information about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.