Answering Free-Response Questions - Barron's AP Psychology, 7th Edition

Barron's AP Psychology, 7th Edition (2016)

Chapter 16. Answering Free-Response Questions


Every year around the beginning of June, high school and college psychology teachers gather at a university for one purpose: to grade AP psychology free-response question answers. These readers are assigned to one of the two essay questions and go through careful training to ensure they grade your writing fairly and consistently. Readers go through several reliability checks during the reading to make sure each free-response answer is read fairly. This is a unique grading experience for many of the readers, just as writing the AP psychology free-response answer might be a unique writing experience for you.

Writing an effective free-response answer on the AP psychology test may require you to modify the way you usually answer a normal essay question. These essays are graded in a very specific way, and your writing should take this difference into account. Free-Response graders strive to be very consistent and objective, so the tests are graded in a systematic way. The entire grading system is set up to ensure that every student’s response is given a fair reading. Understanding how the tests are graded should give you insight as to how to use your writing time best.

This chapter begins with general suggestions about answering the free-response questions. These suggestions and hints apply specifically to AP psychology free-response questions and are based on how the items are designed and graded. Then an example AP-style free-response question and rubric are provided. AP readers use rubrics similar to this one to score student responses. Finally, a fictional student response is provided with a complete explanation of how this student response would be scored. Carefully examining this question, rubric, and scored sample student response will give you a complete picture of how the items are structured and scored.


Style/Organization Hints

1.Remember to think before you start writing and feel free to jot down a few notes. You should have timed some practice responses before the test in order to get an idea about how much time you need to answer the questions. Use two to three minutes to organize your thoughts about each response, but be careful not to spend so much time that you feel rushed later.

2.Do NOT write your answer in outline form. While readers do not give points for the use of full sentences, proper paragraph form, and so on, they are not allowed to give any points for a response written as an outline. Write your response in sentences and paragraphs. Do not label parts of your response with letters; use paragraphs to show where you move from one point to the next.

3.Make sure you cover everything in the question. If possible, try to answer the different parts of the question in order. Picture the likely rubric in your mind, and answer each part of the question in a clear, organized way.

4.Structure your answer so that it clearly shows you answered all parts of the question. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that indicates which part of the question you are answering.

5.Do not worry about an introduction and conclusion. Remember, you get points for accurate information, not style or aesthetic considerations of your response. Do not waste time repeating the question, the reader knows it well enough by now!

6.Try to write as legibly as you can in the time you have. Readers become experts in reading difficult handwriting, but undecipherable handwriting certainly will not help you get a better score. If you have time at the end of the test, look back through your response and rewrite any particularly messy words. If you need to add text in the middle of your response, clearly indicate where the additional text should go. Some students find leaving a little space between paragraphs for this purpose effective.

7.Use all your time. If you have extra time, use it to go back and make sure you said what you wanted to, add more examples for clarification, and rewrite any confusing sections.

Content Hints

1.Keep it simple. When asked to describe several methods of experimental control, for example, the graders will want the best and therefore most common ones. Do not waste time and energy explaining unnecessarily complicated techniques. For instance, write about random assignment, not group matching.

2.Use psychological terms. Readers are looking for your psychological knowledge, not what these terms mean in other contexts. In all cases, use the term, define it clearly, and give an example if possible.

3.If asked to define a term, make sure not to use the word itself in your definition. For instance, the sentence “Modeling is when someone models another person’s behavior,” is unlikely to score a point, because the writer is not demonstrating any knowledge about the concept.

4.Make sure your context is clear. Sometimes whether you get the point or not is determined by whether you use an example in the right context. For instance, you might give a great example of retroactive interference. However, if you place it into a paragraph discussing state-dependent memory, you may not get the point if the reader is not sure you know which concept the example applies to.

5.If you feel clueless about part of a question, do not despair. Do your best—write something, if at all possible. You might hit on what the rubric asks for. If not, you will not be penalized for trying. Do not worry—missing one part of the question will not ruin your score.

6.When asked about a psychological term, define and give an example of the term in your response. Although most free-response questions ask for applications or examples rather than definitions of terms, defining and giving an example of the term gives you an additional opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge to the reader. It is possible that either your definition or the example you provide may fit the scoring rubric. But make sure you pay attention to the question: If it specifically asks for an example, make SURE you provide a clear example in context because the scoring guide will focus on examples.


Professor Reiman places participants in a room with three confederates who are all asked to compare the size of geometric figures. The participants are randomly assigned to one of two conditions: In the first condition, the three confederates are introduced as introductory psychology students. In the second condition, one confederate is identified as a graduate student in perception research. During both conditions, the confederates all give the same wrong answers to the size-comparison questions. Professor Reiman tracks how many times participants conform to the incorrect answers. For this experiment, identify:

■the independent variable

■the dependent variable

■the operational definition of the dependent variable

■one confounding variable controlled for by this research design

■the principal difference between Professor Reiman’s study and Asch’s original conformity research

■your prediction about the level of conformity in the first condition

■your prediction about the level of conformity in the second condition

After reading the question, stop and think about what it is asking you. You are allowed to make notes on the question sheet, and many students find making a simple outline at this point and organizing their thoughts helpful. All free-response questions imply a certain organization for your answer. Use this implied organization, do not ignore it. You might be tempted to create a unique organization for your answer. However, your reader is not giving you points based on organization, so the time you spend planning this unique organization is wasted. In addition, if you answer a question out of order, you increase the chances the reader might misunderstand what you are trying to say. In this case, the format of the question indicates that you organize your essay based on the seven bulleted elements. Do NOT write your answer as an outline (this is specifically prohibited in the instructions in the test booklet), but you SHOULD organize your answer in the same order as the elements in the question. Writing one paragraph per bullet in the implied order will help AP readers score your response (and you want to help your reader!).

Also, notice that this question does not ask you to review the Asch study in detail. Knowing the basic findings of Asch’s conformity study will help you with the last two bullets, but a detailed description of Asch’s study does not directly answer this question. Always do what is asked of you in the free-response question: adding information that the question does not ask for (even if it is accurate information) will not help your score.

In addition, remember not to spend your precious time writing an introduction or conclusion. Grading rubrics (as you will see) are focused on measuring your psychological knowledge, not general writing skills like introductions, conclusions, writing mechanics, and so on. Answer the elements of the question clearly and in order rather than spending time with introductions, conclusions, or creative ways to organize your response.

At this point, you may want to write YOUR response to this free-response question before looking at the scoring rubric provided below. After you write your response, you can use the scoring rubric to score your answer.


This is a 7-point question.


Independent variable

The answer should identify the different introductions of the confederates as the independent variable. In the first condition, all the confederates were introduced as psychology students. In the second condition, one of them was identified as a graduate student in perception. This was the only designed difference between the groups and is thus the variable the experimenter is trying to manipulate, the independent variable.


Dependent variable

You should identify conformity as the dependent variable. Professor Reiman manipulates the independent variable to see how it affects conformity, the dependent variable.


Operational definition

Professor Reiman operationally defines conformity as the participant agreeing with the wrong answers of the confederates. Do NOT award a point if you identified the operational definition as conformity. Conformity is the dependent variable.


Confounding variable

The main element of the experimental design mentioned that would control for potential confounding variables is the random assignment. Randomly assigning participants to the two conditions would control for many possible subject (participant)-relevant confounding variables (you do not need to use this term, examples are enough). You might say “random assignment would control for the possibility that participants might misunderstand the directions” or “might be in a bad mood at the time of the study” or “might have hostile reactions to psychology students,” and so on. Any example of a subject-relevant confounding variable is correct.



The main difference between Professor Reiman’s and Asch’s study is the inclusion of this particular independent variable. In one of the conditions, Professor Reiman identifies one of the confederates as a graduate student in perception.


Level of conformity in the first group

You receive one point for demonstrating your understanding that most of the participants in the first condition would conform to the group’s wrong answers some of the time. This condition is similar to Asch’s original study, so the results would be similar.


Level of conformity in the second group

You receive another point for predicting the level of conformity in the second group, with one confederate identified as the expert. You should predict a higher level of conformity in this group due to the addition of the authority figure.


Notice how the rubric directs the readers to look for points that correspond to correct answers, not mistakes you make. You might be relieved to know that you will not be penalized for saying something incorrectly or even making a factual error. Readers look for points and ignore incorrect information. This rule has one exception: Do not directly contradict yourself. Readers will not give you a point if you directly contradict something you wrote earlier.

The rubric shows you how you should write your response; it is organized in the way the question implies. If you organize your answer in this way, the reader can go through your response and look for the points in order. This is not just to be kind to the reader (although that is a nice thing to do). It increases your chances of communicating effectively with the reader. The more clearly you communicate to the reader, the better your chances of getting points.

AP Psychology readers often use “grids” as they grade responses to keep track of how many points a response earns. The grid is based on the organization of the question and mirrors the rubric. If it helps you think about how to organize your answer, you can imagine or even sketch out what you think the grid for a question might look like (but don’t spend much of your precious writing time drawing a grid!). The grid for this example free-response question might look like the one in Table 16.1. Readers would use the column on the right to check off when a student essay earned a point.

Use the sample free-response question and rubric to grade the following fictional student essay.

Table 16.1.

Point 1


Point 2


Point 3

Op. Def. DV

Point 4

Conf. Var.

Point 5


Point 6

Predict Group 1

Point 7

Predict Group 2


Professor Reiman picked a valuable psychological topic to study. Her experimental design includes many valuable elements but also includes several problems. In this essay, I will critically examine Professor Reiman’s experiment to determine the most likely results.

The independent variable in this experiment is prestige. In one condition, all the confederates are introduced as psychology students. In the other situation, one of the confederates is a graduate student in perception. This change is the independent variable. The dependent variable is whether the people change their answers or not. This is also the operational definition. One of the confounding variables in the study is the presence of the confederates. For an accurate study, Professor Reiman should not use confederates in the research, she should use a random sampling of people not familiar with her research.

The only major difference between Professor Reiman’s study and Asch’s research is the fact that she had one of the people in one of the groups pretend to be a graduate student in research. That is the principal difference.

I think people would conform in both groups but more in the second one than the first. Most of the people in the first group would conform to the wrong answers because speaking out against the group is hard. However, more people would conform in the second group because not only is the majority saying the wrong answer, the graduate student in psychology is saying the wrong answer, too. The participants in the study would consider that person to know what he or she is talking about.

In conclusion, Professor Reiman’s study is a valuable addition to the world of psychology. She proves that people are too easily swayed by experts. This can become dangerous if those experts do not know what they are talking about.

Grading the Fictional Response

You may want to use the rubric explained earlier to grade this sample response (and/or the response you wrote for this question) on your own. Before we begin discussing individual points, notice the introduction and conclusion to this sample response. The student does not write anything in those two sections that directly addresses the question. These two sections did not help this response. The student could have used his or her time more effectively by just starting the response in the second paragraph where he or she starts answering the question directly.

Grading this response using the rubric would result in the following:



The student correctly identifies the difference in the two groups as the independent variable:

“In one condition, all the confederates are introduced as psychology students. In the other situation, one of the confederates is a graduate student in perception. This change is the independent variable.”


Not awarded

This student is unclear about the difference between an operational definition and the dependent variable.



The student identifies “whether people change their answers or not” as the operational definition. The student incorrectly says this is also the dependent variable, but the point is awarded for this correct identification.


Not awarded

The student misunderstood that the use of confederates in this study is not a confounding variable. Researchers can and often do use confederates in research. It is not in and of itself a confounding variable.



The student correctly explains that the difference between this study and Asch’s research is the inclusion of the graduate student in perception.



The student states, “Most of the people in the first group would conform to the wrong answers,” which corresponds with the findings in Asch’s study.



The student predicts more of the participants exposed to the second condition would conform than those in the first condition.

So, overall, this essay would get 5 out of 7 possible points.


**Remember, since this is an eBook, directions on the Practice Tests will look similar to those you will see on test day, but you must record your responses separately. Use the hyper-links to click between questions and answers. Good luck!