State Assessments: Note-Taking & Writing Strategies

By Mary Blow on April 19, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Last week, I received an email from a good friend who shared test-taking tips that she is using in her classroom. The other day, a 6th grader in an unidentified U.S. location wrote, thanking me profusely for the test-taking tips that I had posted on my Web site. She wanted me to know that she is “less nervous to take the exam.” The next email was from a fellow blogger, Renee, who was looking for paired passages to use for state test review. It is evident that teachers and students across the country are in state testing mode. Read on for some of the review strategies I use in my classroom.

Photo copyright Shutterstock/jeka.

Overview

I like state tests because they force me to stop and review with my students, teaching them to pull all their skills together for the grand finale. We take all the skills we learned throughout the year and apply them to taking the test. Sometimes it takes a gentle reminder; sometimes I have to reteach a skill. I plan about three weeks to review reading strategies, organizational patterns, and note-taking. Our goal is to apply formerly learned skills to the test format while reinforcing skills and increasing retention for the following year. Before I start, I ask my students to write down their areas of strength and weakness. I also give my students a practice test, which is the first time they actually see the test format. Student input and practice test data are then used to target gaps during test review.

 

Note-Taking Strategies

Cornell_Notetaking_Method In many of our content areas, we read to our students throughout the year, so preparing them for the listening passage is not a major concern. My students are allowed to select a method of note-taking that best supports their learning style: drawing a plot map, illustrations with call-out balloons, or the Cornell method. Usually, it is the students who struggle with writing or who are visual learners who prefer illustration and map methods. However, I provide notes throughout the year using the Cornell Note-Taking System, so understandably, most of my students prefer this method.

The Cornell method, as illustrated in the image to the right, recommends that students write “cues,” key words or phrases, in the left column and details in the right. Download the instructions for the Cornell Note-Taking System at the Cornell University Study Skills Resources Web page under the subheading “Tips for Reading and Learning From Lecture.” Judith Dodge, in the article "Noting What I've Learned," offers a tiered graphic organizer based on the Cornell method. 

My students are allowed to take notes during both readings; however, I suggest that they listen the first time, jotting down the key words. During the second reading, they fill in the blanks in the right column, thereby giving them options. 

Analyzing the Essay Prompt

The SMART Notebook video below illustrates how we analyzed a prompt, identified the tasks, and self-evaluated an extended response. Turning the essay prompt into a checklist helps many students be sure they completed all the tasks. We simply draw a line, extending each bullet to create a checklist. We highlight the details from each passage. I modeled how to mark the details from Article 1 using the code A1. Together we label Article 2 details. The students worked independently, evaluating their own responses and labeling the details A1 or A2.

A fabulous colleague from Heuvelton Central School, Ronica Lawrence, shared how she holds her students accountable for completing each task. She has her students label each bulleted task B1, B2, and B3 within the written response to ensure that they address all the tasks. This way, they can’t check off each task without physically identifying it in their writing. 

 

Alternatives to Written Responses

This year, because our spring break falls four days before our state testing, I am going to pair a listening passage with a nonfiction article. This allows us to review two portions of the test at once. Instead of writing out the answers, we bullet or outline the details, saving students from burning out and me from grading overload. My students do not respond to all of these prompts in writing. Alternatively, we analyze prompts and determine how to best approach them. We discuss the number of tasks and bullet the text-based details for the short answer responses. We discuss organizational patterns and outline an essay, debating the best details and the best organizational patterns. From the group discussions and the bulleted or outlined responses, I can determine if they understand how to address all the parts of the questions accurately and with sufficient relevant details. If you want to review this with your students, Somers Central School in Lincolnsdale, NY, has published a Web page with a list of organizational patterns, Words That Signal a Text's Organizational Structure 


Highlighting Details

SAR_RESPONSE_LABELEDHighlighting is a technique we use when writing short answer responses and essays. I instruct my students to include at least two details for each task. For example, in the question to the right, there are two tasks to address, so they need four details. We have to include the freedoms (highlighted in yellow) and responsibilities (highlighted in green) of a young girl who lives on a boat. They labeled the freedoms F1 and F2 and the responsibilities R1 and R2. I can easily confirm that my definition of a text-based detail and their idea of a text-based detail correlate. If they do not, I explain that a text-based, or specific, detail refers to text that I can put my finger on in the article. It is tangible. An idea, on the other hand, comes from your head. Ideas are good because they require higher level thinking. If you cannot put your finger on it, it is considered a great idea. Ultimately, this activity ensures that we are on the same page in defining a text-based detail and that they have ample text details to support their ideas.

When writing the extended response or essay, my 6th graders are required to include a minimum of six specific text details, three details from each passage. In order to ensure they do this, we color-code the details, highlighting the details from each article a different color, building off their prior knowledge of the short answer responses. (If the colors bother them, they can label them A1 or A2, or Article 1 or Article 2.) Color-coding provides a visual reminder when they actually take the test. It also helps them to self-evaluate, by determining if they have ample details to support their ideas. It also helps me to grade more quickly. For more in-depth ideas for teaching the extended response, visit my past post, “State Assessments: Extended Response," where I share essay-writing tips and a SMART Notebook lesson.

 

Avoiding Grading Overload

When we write out the short answer responses, I cannot possibly keep up with all the grading. A couple years ago, I attended a Mary Ellen Ledbetter conference, and she provided a solution to this problem. When we write out the answers, we take turns reading the responses. Each day five students read their answers aloud. By the end of the week, 25 students are graded. The rest of the week we either bullet or analyze prompts. The effort and quality of writing is improved because it is being read aloud, and grading and feedback is provided immediately.

Ineteractive rubric Mary Ellen also introduced me to interactive rubrics, which theoretically are reverse outlines. For example, on a short answer response or paragraph, I give them a slip of paper, like the form to the right, asking for a topic sentence, three supporting details, and a closing sentence, and they fill it out. This activity forces my 6th graders to engage in self-evaluation and revision, the highest level of thinking. Download the interactive rubric to the right to put the task of evaluation into the hands of your students.

As always, please feel free to share your ideas and strategies.

 

Comments

Hi, Brooke,

I'll tell you a secret. I think Mrs. Lawrence is a better teacher than me. You are very lucky. I look forward to meeting you soon. Good luck tomorrow. ~Mrs. Blow :-)

Hello, Mrs. Blow,

I look foreword to meeting you also. I think you are a great teacher by just listening to Mrs. Lawrence talk about you...in a good way! I will see you soon, and I hope you feel better!:) Sincerely, Brooke

Brayden, I am feeling better. Thank you for asking. I am glad my tips helped you to relax. You have the best teacher ever, so I know you will do just fine on your test. I can't wait to meet you. ~Mrs. Blow :)

Hi, Dakota, I look forward to meeting you, too. I am so happy that the test taking tips helped you. Good luck on your test. ~Mrs. Blow :)

Hi, Kaylee, I am very excited to me you, too. As soon as the state tests are over, Mrs. Lawrence and I will start making plans to use the webcams. ~Mrs. Blow :)

Hi, Cole, Thank you for sharing the review games you created. We are using them today. I look forward to meeting you, too. Good luck on your tests. ~Mrs. Blow :)

Dear Kendan, I am so glad that WALTeR helped you. I agree. We need to have a webcam chat. I will see what we can do about that. Good luck on your tests. ~ Mrs. Blow :)

Hi. I am one of Mrs. Lawrence's 6th grade students. I look forward to seeing you guys over the webcams. Did you like our ELA games? Tell your class I said hi. - Cole Piercey P.S. I am Andrew Woodards friend. I am a boy!

Hi, Mrs.Blow. I'm one of Mrs. Lawrence's students. My name is Kaylee Hutton. I'm very exited to meet you. I just moved here this year. Mrs.Lawrence always talks about you. I am really exited to see you on the video camera see you soon.

Hi! I'm Dakota from Mrs. Lawrence's class. We would love to web cam with your class. I'm using your tips for taking my test. Thank you for showing Mrs. Lawrence them because they are very helpful.

Dear Mrs.Blow,

How Have you been? Are you feelling better? You have been a real influence on our class. Your testing tips are AMAZING! I used to get really nervous on tests, but your tips really helped!

Dear Mrs. Blow, I am from Heuvelton Central School and my teacher, Mrs. Lawrence talks about you all the time telling us how wonderful you are. our class all thinks that you are a good teacher. Our class and your class should really have webcam chats. We learned WALTeR and it helped a lot. Sincerely, Mrs. Lawrence's 6th grader Kedan Mack =) :)

Hello, Mrs. Lawrence's Sixth Grade Class! It has been nice getting to know all of you this year. Please let Mrs. Lawrence know that I am one of her biggest fans. We would love to web conference with you. Do you have an idea or topic in mind? I will talk to my class and see if they have any ideas. I wish you the best of luck on your state tests. ~Your Friend, Mrs. Blow

Ms. McD,

Yes, I create a separate post for multiple choice strategies and activities which went live yesterday. I posted the link below for your convenience. You may be interested in QAR strategies: http://blogs.scholastic.com/classroom_solutions/2011/04/state-assessments-test-taking-skills-and-review-strategies.html ~Good Luck, Mary

Mrs. Blow, This is our 6th grade class! We just finished viewing your Note-taking blog. Hello from the class. We are such big fans and Mrs. Lawrence talks nonstop about you! Thanks for all your help. We would love to start webcam activities with your class! Good luck on your test! Where do you go on fieldtrips? Thanks for mentioning us!!! Mrs. Lawrence's 6th Graders in Heuvelton Central School

These tips are so helpful!

+ Do any teachers have an engaging way to go over the kinds of mult. choice questions the students will be asked on Day 1?

I thought they could split into teams and each be in charge of identifying what they're being asked to do, then explain how they figured out the best answer.

As I started planning, however, it seemed like overkill. So, if anyone has a more lively approach, pls let me know.

-S

Ronica,

I think so many students like the Cornell method because it allows them to take notes in a logical manner, and they can either write out the supporting details or draw pictures. It fits all learning styles. I am glad to give you credit. It is through meeting fantastic teachers like you that I learn so much. I'll be sending some things your way soon ~Mary

I am so glad to see that you use Cornell notes too! My students love this note taking style. I taught it in science last year and the kids just use it on their own now which proves it is an excellent way to take notes. It is exactly how I took notes in college in the 80s! Now we have a name for it! I should have patent the idea myself! Thanks for giving me credit for the B1, B2... Talk to you soon!!!!

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