This general idea – a simple and effective way to help students structure exam answers – has been around for a number of years and although structure strips were originally created for use in primary education (5 – 10 year olds) it’s an idea that can, with a few modifications, be applied to both GCSE and A-Level teaching. If you want a relatively simple, clear, explanation of what structure strips are and how they have been used, have a read of this blog post.
If you haven’t followed this link, structure strips were originally colour-coded and made to be stuck into the exercise books of primary school children. In this A-level version, however, the idea is to create the strips as Word format templates that students can either use to word process their answers to exam questions or print out to complete by hand.
In this respect think about structure strips as being like training wheels when you’re learning to ride a bike: they’re designed to help you keep your balance and stop you falling over until you’ve mastered the skills required to safely venture out on your own (at which point they can be removed).
Similarly, when answering exam questions, while all of your students may start-off needing help, some will probably require more help than others – and structure strips can be used to guide how they approach and respond appropriately to different questions.
The easiest way to grasp the basic idea is to have a look at the three example documents included with this post. These are for AQA exam questions but they can be easily edited to refer to other Specification exam questions. Alternatively, you can create your own strips to exactly fit whatever your Specification demands, based on these templates (I’ve left them in Word format for easy editing).
1. Blank structure strip template: Use this as the basis for creating your own strips.
2. Structure strip template with possible student directions: This shows how you can give your students directions about how to answer various mark questions (from simple 2 markers to 20 markers).
The level of help you provide can be tailored to the needs of different students: some may require very little initial help while others may need to be guided very carefully through the process. Although this means you will, when you start to use structure strips with your students, have to create “personalised strips”, the time it initially takes will probably be no-more than the help you’d normally provide to individual students. Once you’ve produced strips tailored to different student levels these can, of course, be reused with different students in different classes. The high initial investment, therefore, will gradually tail-off as you effectively create a database of structure strips for use with future classes.
In this way it’s possible to provide different levels of help to different students simply by giving them differently edited structure strips – and as students increase their ability to answer questions successfully you can progressively withdraw the extra help (just like those training wheels…).
3. Example of 6 mark question with suggested answers: This example provides the highest level of student help by giving suggested answers. You could, of course, modify this for different students in a number of ways, such as by only providing:
• 3 examples. A student has to apply them to the question.
• 1 answer / example. The student has to think of 2 others.
• A set of rough guidelines as to how to successfully answer the question.
• A blank structure strip. The use of coloured boxes, associated with in the student’s mind with different skill domains, is all the guidance they need.
In this respect the colour coding loosely follows the AQA skills domains:
Red = knowledge
Yellow = explanation
Green = evaluation
Blue = conclusion.
You can, of course, change these colours or dispense with them altogether (although I don think they provide a useful visual reminder of each skill domain).
For higher mark questions, the coloured strips can be related to something like the PEEL mnemonic:
P = Red
E = Green
L = Blue
Finally, structure strips are, I think, potentially most useful in a couple of ways:
1. To introduce students to the idea of clearly structuring exam answers to cover all the required assessment objectives.
2. To help students at the lower attainment levels develop the confidence to express their ideas clearly, concisely and in a way the examiner finds valid.
While the example structure strips I’ve included here should clarify their use, use the Comments Box if you’ve got any specific questions.
If you’d like an example Structure Strip for a “GCSE application to method question” you can find one on the Sociology Support site.
As you can see from the screen grab, it’s a little different to the Structure Strips I’ve created, but the underlying principles are much the same…