Tummy rumbling yet? Try this fun activity to teach your students how to answer extended questions successfully

A few years ago, I picked up a class at the start of year 11. I had not had much interaction with most students in the group and their previous experiences of science had been negative.

Many of them were both demotivated and deflated. They were far from where they were capable of being and were not enjoying science. How could I at least get the students to see the value of science and give it a go? Could they enjoy science even though they did not plan on taking it further? Like most teachers, I never could turn down a challenge.

Making sandwiches

Structuring writing

A stack of jam sandwiches

Source: © Merc67/Getty Images

The key to mastering science exams? Surprisingly, it might involve a jam sandwich

I thought long and hard about the skills the students would need to pass their GCSE combined science exams and decided to tackle something that I knew they could be successful at but, looking at their previous papers, they had not even attempted: the dreaded six-mark questions. These extended questions require the use of detail and specific scientific language, all put together into a logical sequence. How could I get my students to do this? I considered something my partner had shared with me a few years previously on structuring written communication – writing instructions for how to make a jam sandwich. I decided to get my students to write out these instructions, a technique that many teachers have used for years to get students to think about structuring their writing.

The first full lesson I had with the students started with the normal introductions and expectations of them and me. I explained that we would not be tackling any science right away and handed them each a piece of scrap paper (sustainability is important, after all). I asked the students to write the instructions for how to make a jam sandwich. You can imagine the puzzled look on the students’ faces – I imagine they were thinking ‘Who is this woman and has she lost the plot?’

I gave the students five minutes of the 50-minute lesson to write their instructions. I then collected them in and placed a full loaf of bread in its bag, a knife, a plate and a jar of jam on the front bench. I quickly ordered the instructions from those that said very little to the more detailed attempts.

Following the recipe

Motivating learners

The first instruction was along the lines of ‘put jam on bread’ so I placed the jar of jam on top of the bagged loaf of bread. This was met with groans and shouts of ‘You know what they meant!’. My response to this was ‘Do I? How do I know? It doesn’t say that here’. I went through several sets of instructions until we established the aim of the activity, the students were all engaged and they all participated in the task.

It was something that they all ‘knew’ the answer to yet had not explained in enough detail to acquire all the marks on offer. There was much laughter but also an important lesson.

I showed the students an example of a six-mark question and linked this to their jam sandwich instructions. We discussed the idea that we cannot assume the person marking their answers knows what is in their mind – we need to be clear in what we mean and explain in sufficient detail to answer the question. Jam sandwich became our code for six-mark questions. If a piece of work was handed in lacking detail, I would ask: ‘Jam sandwich?’ The students knew exactly what I meant and it became a special code for our group.

On one occasion a student was parked in my lesson and asked why there was a picture of a jam sandwich on the board. One of my students said ‘Ahhh that is for us to know, only our class will understand what it means’ and thus our six-mark question jam sandwich code was well and truly established. After the exams several students reported that whenever they came across six-mark questions they thought of our lesson on jam sandwiches and how to structure their answers. More importantly every student in that class improved their grades and their feelings towards science.