AP® Physics 1 Units
A Guide to AP Physics 1 Topics & Concepts
The College Board® has made some changes to the number of AP® Physics courses they offer. There are now a total of three courses available, the first of which is AP Physics 1. It is the foundational course in AP Physics that is necessary for students who want to take up AP Physics 2 or AP Physics C in the future.
In this article, we’ll go over the AP Physics 1 curriculum. We’ll take a look at each of the AP Physics 1 units that you can expect to learn. In addition to this, we’ll also deep-dive into the AP Physics 1 topics and concepts that each of these units will teach you. With this, you will soon have a good understanding of what is taught as part of the AP Physics 1 course.
AP Physics 1 Course Overview
The AP Physics 1 course curriculum consists of two primary elements: science practices and course content.1 As you progress through the course, you will learn foundational physics principles. This course is designed to be equivalent to a first semester introductory course in physics at the college level.
Science practices form an integral part of the course and are prescribed to help you develop key skills to help with your study of physics. The course material consists of the main themes of study—the Big Ideas—and the units of instruction. Each unit is based on one or more of the Big Ideas and teaches a set of science practices.
There are a total of 7 AP Physics 1 units.2 Each unit teaches an array of AP Physics 1 topics and concepts to provide a well-informed introduction to the world of physics. And again, science practices are interwoven into each unit from the very beginning. (Note: This information is valid through Spring 2024 exams, as The College Board has announced that AP Physics 1 will experience an update to its units and topics that will go into effect for Fall 2024 exams.)
By the end of the course, students should be ready to take the AP Physics 1 exam. The questions in this exam assess a student’s knowledge of the concepts in the course as well as their science practice skills. Each unit and science practice has its own weighted score on the AP Physics 1 exam.
Let’s start by understanding what science practices are and the skills they develop.
AP Physics 1 Science Practices1
Within this course, students engage with seven AP Physics 1 science practices, fostering crucial skills for effective study and practice of physics. These science skills significantly contribute to accurately interpreting and addressing questions in the AP Physics 1 exam.
Every AP Physics 1 unit teaches one or more science practices. Many of these practices are repeated throughout the course so students can become familiar with them. By the end of the course, students should not only be able to use these science practices on the exam, but also in their future study and practice of physics.
5 Big Ideas in AP Physics 12
Simply put, the big ideas are the foundational themes upon which each AP Physics 1 unit is built. This helps develop an understanding of the various concepts taught throughout the course. Each Big Idea is repeated throughout the course in various units so students can see how various concepts are interlinked.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these big ideas.
Big Idea 1: Systems (SYS)1
Every system and object has internal structures, and each displays properties like mass and charge.
The units based on this big idea are: Dynamics, and Circular Motion & Gravitation
Big Idea 2: Fields (FLD)1
Interactions can be explained using fields found in a particular space.
The units based on this big idea are: Dynamics, and Circular Motion & Gravitation
Big Idea 3: Force Interactions (INT)1
Forces can be used to articulate inter-object interactions.
The units based on this big idea are: Kinematics, Dynamics, Circular Motion & Gravitation, Energy, Momentum, Simple Harmonic Motion, and Torque & Rotational Motion.
Big Idea 4: Change (CHA)1
Changes in systems are caused by inter-system interactions.
The units based on this big idea are: Kinematics, Dynamics, Circular Motion & Gravitation, Energy, Momentum, and Torque & Rotational Motion.
Big Idea 5: Conservation (CON)1
Constraints in changes caused due to interactions are a result of constraint laws.
The units based on this big idea are: Energy, Momentum, Simple Harmonic Motion, and Torque & Rotational Motion.
Now that you have a better understanding of the science practices and ideas that form the basis of all AP Physics 1 units, let’s break down each unit and the topics you will learn.
AP Physics 1 Units and Topics1
AP Physics 1 currently has a total of 7 units in the course.2 Each unit is further divided into smaller sections known as AP Physics 1 topics that allow for easy learning. These topics will teach you foundational physics concepts related to the main unit. Effective Fall 2024, these units and topics will be updated.5 In this section, we’ll look at each of these units, their weights in the final AP Physics 1 exam, and their related topics.
Units and Topics (Spring 2024 exam only)
(Note: In Fall 2024, the AP Physics 1 will undergo significant changes to align with the College Board’s revised course framework. With the addition of an eighth unit on Fluids from AP Physics 2 to AP Physics 1, students can expect an expanded curriculum. Notably, there will be an integration of connections between rotational and translational motion, inclusion of specific learning objectives related to power, and the incorporation of equations for objects in simple harmonic motion.)
AP Physics 1 Labs Outline1
The integration of labs aligns with the objectives and learning goals of the AP Physics 1 course. Engaging in lab activities provides students with a valuable opportunity to enhance and hone their understanding of the subject. There are a total of 7 labs in the curriculum, and these include experiments on 1D and 2D kinematics, Newton’s second law, circular motion, conservation of energy, impulse, momentum, harmonic motion, and rotational motion. These lab investigations enable students to:
- Participate in the seven scientific practices
- Craft experiment blueprints
- Formulate predictions
- Gather and scrutinize data
- Employ mathematical procedures
- Construct interpretations
- Share research outcomes
To learn about these lab experiments in detail and to understand more about their significance in the AP Physics 1 curriculum, read our article on AP Physics 1 labs.
Now that you know everything about the AP Physics 1 course and exam description, it's time to start studying. Use UWorld’s AP Physics 1 practice test to prepare with hundreds of exam-like questions to understand what to anticipate on the exam. Our in-depth answer explanations can help you focus on your weak areas and get you closer to your target score.
Based on the last available detailed breakdown shared by the College Board, the most challenging topic on the exam was Science Practice 2, which focuses on Mathematical Routines.3 This practice involves the application of mathematical principles to solve physics problems. Specifically, students are required to demonstrate proficiency in algebraic manipulation, equation solving, and the interpretation of graphical representations.
The following are the weights of each unit2 on the AP Physics 1 course through Spring 2024:
- Unit 1: Kinematics (12%–18%)
- Unit 2: Dynamics (16%–20%)
- Unit 3: Circular Motion and Gravitation (6%–8%)
- Unit 4: Energy (20%–28%)
- Unit 5: Momentum (12%–18%)
- Unit 6: Simple Harmonic Motion (4%–6%)
- Unit 7: Torque and Rotational Motion (12%–18%)
Starting in Fall 2024, there will be the introduction of new units and topics, accompanied by adjustments in weightings.
Unit 4, focused on Energy, constitutes a significant portion of the test (20%-28%), surpassing all other units. Notably, the next highest unit, Unit 2: Dynamics, accounts for 16%-20%. Therefore, cultivating a strong understanding of Units 4 and 2 could have a substantial positive impact on your overall score.
The College Board discontinued SAT Subject tests, including “SAT Physics” as of January 2021.4 The College Board made this decision to simplify the college admissions process and reduce redundancy with Advanced Placement (AP) exams.