Archive for the ‘Strategies’ Category

On student note-taking and determining importance

I was walking around our media center, excited to read over my students’ shoulders as they worked on an integrated project. Within five minutes, both my teaching partner and I had lines around us with students waiting for conferences. A hum fell over the space, but not the hum of productivity – the hum of frustration! Our students had no real idea of how to research or take notes, at least not independently. I used their frustration to hook their interest in learning how to take notes, and spent most of the next nine weeks teaching them how to take notes. I used the Q-Notes strategy that I describe in this post. The rest of the year we focus on reading and taking our own notes versus using the handouts I had used as a single subject teacher, and it was good.

The next year, I started out with note-taking strategies and found that my students struggled with the Q-Notes. My teaching partner found a different strategy, Boxes and Bullets on Learnzillion, and we tried that with the students and still they struggled. The root problem was not the note-taking strategy, but that these students had a real difficulty in determining what was important and what was not in the text. Their difficulty was in creating a filter for the onslaught of information, something that they will need to do for the rest of their lives. I thought a great deal about how we read informational text as adults, and realized that I was going about note-taking in an inauthentic way. I have never taken notes on an entire article, chapter, or nonfiction book in my adult life unless it was an academic assignment; however, I read nonfiction text all the time as most adults do. I read to be informed about issues that matter to me, or to solve a problem that I might be having – in other words, I read to answer questions. The fault was not in my student’s note-taking skills, so much as it was in their questioning skills.

Aha! Students were trying to take notes for me, and not themselves. This is possibly the root of all school problems.

At the beginning of the next unit, I put the standards students were supposed to master up on the Promethean Board. We discussed what they meant, and any unfamiliar words. I then asked students what questions they would need to be able to answer to prove that they had mastered the standard. I modeled the first one, and then had students work together create questions for the rest of them while I circulated. We had a great conversation about thick versus thin questions and answerable versus debatable questions. During sharing time, we agreed upon a set of questions we would use for our note-taking/research for the unit. We then discussed what resources were available in class, and that students were to focus their research on these questions – this is what we agreed was important to know. Students not only used the class resources, but they shared helpful internet resources on Edmodo. It was an amazing, student centered experience.

Once I switched my focus to teaching my students how to create good questions, their notes became more focused and their research improved dramatically.  It did require some scaffolding, and practice over the next several units but students really responded and it had the added benefit of creating student ownership of the content. I continued to expose them to different styles of note-taking, and then encouraged them to use the methods that worked best for them. We would meet about their notes throughout the unit, having them compare with other classmates and discuss what was working for them and what was not. It was better.

This year I’m going to start with the idea of generating questions to frame the research/learning that we will do over the course of a unit. I plan to use the QAR framework to create a common questioning vocabulary and to use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge chart and these stems to help students develop more meaningful questions. I want to help students to recognize that the structure of informational text can also be used to determine if a piece will be useful in their research and how that might change or guide their note-taking.  I will continue to expose students to a variety of note-taking structures until they find what works for them. The last piece to implement this year is a note-taking conference that will happen during each unit or project, where students will select their best example of notes so that we can evaluate their progress together and set goals.

How do you help students take good notes, independently?


Learning Contracts and Interactive Notebooks

My student’s success in taking good notes from text using the Q-Notes strategy lead me to wonder how I could apply that to my interactive notebooks. I was approaching my World War I unit and had access to ten copies of America Enters World War I. The book addressed most of the I Can statements my students had to master for the unit, so I decided to jump in and see what happened.

The process:

I created a chart to represent left side/right side assignments. The left hand assignments were all Q-Notes from the book, and I chose appropriate right hand assignments from the list I put in the front of their notebooks. I then decided what I would supplement with whole class experiences, and planned to meet with them individually about their notes. Then they had a week and a half to get it done – using combined school/homework time.

The results:

  • Students were very capable of taking the notes to met the I Can statements.
  • During class discussions/review I found more of my students participating and seeming to retain more content using this method.
  • While the notes were fabulous, right-hand sides seemed to suffer – either not getting completed or students misunderstanding the instructions – even though I purposely kept it to assignments we had completed before in class.
  • My “go-getters” were constantly conferencing with me as they finished their notes pages, and some children I never saw individually as they were late completing assignments.


Summarizing and note-taking are part of Marzano’s nine instructional strategies that work, and the students did seem to retain more information. I am excited as the I Cans become the student tasks and I help them find resources – articles, websites, nonfiction books to meet them. For my next contract, I’m going to try the following:

1) Provide one task at a time and provide short term due dates. I believe some of my students were simply overwhelmed, and others kept thinking that they would have class time tomorrow without realizing that time was going to run out eventually. This still allows students to work ahead, while providing a safety net for those still developing their time management.

2) Use checkpoints. I was re-reading How to Teach Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom to refresh my memory on learning contracts. The author used a “study guide” format which seemed similar to my I Can statements, and every 1 – 2 objectives there was a “checkpoint”. For me this is a small quiz that I create on Edmodo – I am not going to allow students to progress to the next task until they pass the checkpoint.

3) Meet in small groups by informational text RIT band. I want to meet with everybody in small group, twice a week. This ensures that I will see all of my students and have an opportunity to question them and lead small group discussion on the content and to troubleshoot right hand assignments. Since I am their Language Arts teacher as well, it is a great opportunity to work on their informational text skills while working on the content.

Note: a great deal of my growth this year is due to my risk-taking teammate, who is flipping her classroom this year. While I’m not doing that, I have admired the self-pacing and individualized instruction that is happening in her classroom. You can check out her blog here.

Q-Notes: Note-taking strategy

This year I am teaching a combined LA/SS block, so I decided to teach note-taking when it came time for the informational text unit. It was incredibly successful and I’ve been using it as a building block to other things since.

The strategy is very simple, and easy to use on any text with sub-headings.

  • Write the name of the lesson, the article, or chapter at the top of the page.
  • Draw a vertical line about a third of the way from the left of a piece of paper or notebook page.
  • Each sub-heading is turned into a question matching the main idea. Write the question on the left side of that line.
  •  The section is read with the question in mind and the student takes 2 – 5 notes to answer the question on the right side of that line.

That’s all there is to it. I taught a mini-lesson on how to turn the headings into questions, and then we did a practice session using a section of the SS textbook. I read over the students notes and made a list of the mini-lessons they were going to need (summarizing, main idea). After the lessons, we did another set. Repeat.

It took three sets over three weeks, but my kiddos are note-taking fools. Next year, this is the very first thing I will teach them how to do.

This method seemed kind of common sense to me, but I was asked to look for some research and I found this handout. Do you have any note-taking strategies you would like to share?

Update: The explanation handout is no longer online. There is an explanation that could be used for this strategy or Cornell Notes (as they are very similar) here:


There is a template available here

Standards – Yes, “I can”

At the beginning of a unit, I give my students an “I can” sheet of everything they need to be able to do by the end of that unit. The “I can” statements are grouped under student-friendly questions based on the indicators.

For example:

5-3.5 Summarize the reasons for the United States control of new territories as a result of the Spanish American War and the building of the Panama Canal, including the need for raw materials and new markets and competition with other world powers.


Why did the United States control new territories after the Spanish-American War?

  • I can explain how the need for raw materials and new markets lead to imperialism
  • I can summarize the causes and effects of the Spanish-American War on the United States
  • I can explain the reasons the United States controlled new territories
  • I can summarize the reasons for the building of the Panama Canal
  • Vocabulary: imperialism, Spanish-American War, yellow journalism, U.S.S. Maine

Notice that the actual Spanish-American War is not mentioned in the indicator, just the result. I think in order to understand the effect of something, you need to understand what the something was – hence the “I can summarize the causes and effects of the Spanish-American War. This idea is based partly on Marzano’s setting goals and objectives. In the workbook, it suggests that you create a guide for each unit with the essential vocabulary and concepts that students will be expected to understand.

Ways to use:

  • I use this sheet to plan out my interactive notebook handouts/activities to make sure I don’t “miss anything” – I also use it to review my tests to make sure each indicator is represented.
  • I project this at the beginning of each class instead of writing objectives on the board.
  • I have the students read over the statements after we have finished our lesson and rate themselves on their understanding.
  • It is a goal of mine for this to become their study guide for their tests.

Facts Questions Response (FQR) – a note-taking/connections strategy

 One of the great challenges of nonfiction text for students is the constant barrage of facts.

Names, high end vocabulary, dates or sequences, fast transitions – students have to learn, as we all do, how to take note of what is important. A large part of that is having a purpose for the reading, but an equally large part is having a personal filter – what information causes you to question or reflect.

 Enter the FQR strategy.

 The basic premise is that students take notes in a three column format.

Facts Question Response

As students read, they make note of important facts. For each fact that they note they must either write a question and/or a response. Students are shown through a gradual release of responsibility how to use the form. It is modeling intensive, because students have to learn to not only determine important information, but to ask questions that can guide further reading/research and to make connections that help them understand the text.

This was the recommended sequence:

Day 1: Teach background information about the reading. In the example I saw, the reading involved Andersonville, so the the first day was a brief background of the Civil War with a focus on the Andersonville prison camp.

Day 2: Pass out the reading (it focused on the plight of two young men who were incarcerated there), and the teacher models the strategy through the first few paragraphs. What I liked was that the teacher didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the strategy, she launched into using it, thinking out loud and helping the students make sense of it as she was modeling. Students had to write what she wrote so they got a good “feel” for what went where and then had a model on their own paper to follow.

Later in that day she also gave students a chance to make verbal responses with their peers, to get used to the idea of making a thoughtful response.

Day 3: Partner reading/responding to finish the FQR while teacher circulated.

It seems time intensive, and it is, but I feel that this would be an “investment strategy”. Something that you would take the time to teach well once, and then be able to utilize often, re-teaching areas that seem to need it as the year goes by. I loved how it made students reflect on the material they were reading, and how it provided a guide to make sense of their notes.

I’m including links to more information on FQR as well as some forms. I like the columns versus the chart, because I think that a kid might feel they need to “fill in every space” and that isn’t necessary. I also think that for my younger students I would need to be a bit more specific in my modeling. For example, “If you’ve read two paragraphs and haven’t taken a note, you need to write something”. I also believe I would want to stress the purpose of the reason and how that can help determine importance.

I know I’ll be using this strategy this school year, I hope its given you something to consider!


  • FQR using picture books: This is a five page pdf lesson plan for implementing FQR. Nice discussion of modeling types of questions, not crazy about the FQR sheet style.
  • FQR Sheet from Amy’s Activities: This is a three column pdf with lines for the students to write on, but is less “chart like”.

Response Cards – An Active Learning Strategy

A teacher asks a question, calls on a student, and gets an answer. Students who aren’t called on are disappointed, and students who didn’t raise their hands are relieved.

Response cards are an easy, inexpensive way for all students to answer every question in a low-risk way! Response cards are a piece of paper, or index card with responses written on it. Students hold them in front of them with their fingers on the answer. You can quickly scan the class to check their understanding.

They can be student or teacher made, the one criteria is that answers must be written on the front and back of the card. That way the student is looking at the answer they are showing you.

Types of Response Cards

  • Multiple-Choice Response Cards – A B C D – I use these with Brainpop quizes and as test review. I made them using wordart and laminated them as I use these fairly frequently)
  • This or That cards – good for comparisons – I’ll use these for groups of people or names (Axis Powers/Allies, Patricians/Plebeians, names) these are usually lesson specific and I’ll have the children make them.
  • 🙂 😐 😦  – Happy face – Neutral Face – Sad Face – Good for inferencing/mood in fiction.
  • Yes/No or True/False cards

Response cards are only limited by your imagination. Individual whiteboards also make great response systems without the limitations of “set” answers. A high tech version of response cards are student response systems that connect to an interactive whiteboard. The important thing is to get as many students involved as much of the time as possible!

Find Someone Who – A Preview/Review Activity

A twitter post reminded me of “Find Someone Who” icebreaker – you know the one where you have a list or bingo-style board of characteristics (hair color,  has moved, has a pet, etc) and you circulate around the room looking for “someone who” fits that characteristic.

If you’ve never participated in this, here is a link with a thorough description.

I love motion activities, and so I’ve adapted it to use for content – either as a preview or review activity.

For a preview activity, make a list of things that relate (however tangentially) to your unit. Allow for the Find Someone Who procedure.

Example for the Middle Ages:

  • FSW has played chess
  • FSW has seen a movie with a knight in it.
  • FSW has ever dressed up as a princess.
  • FSW has been to Medieval Times.
  • FSW thinks sword fighting is cool.
  • FSW can tell you about King Arthur and Camelot
  • FSW has read one of these books: Crispin and the Cross of Lead, Catherine called Birdy, A Door in the Wall

Review games are even easier, because you are dealing with a common body of content.

  • FSW can sketch the Feudal Pyramid
  • FSW can show where the Crusades were fought on a map
  • FSW can list three types of jobs a serf might perform
  • FSW can explain why the Church was so important
  • FSW can define the word “cathedral”

When I do content based Find Someone Who activities, I make sure I circulate so that I can monitor conversations. Students must sign off that they have actually explained, showed, or drawn what was required. If I suspect students are randomly signing, I’ll ask that student to explain, show, or draw for me. If they can’t they must sit down, and do a quiet review activity at their seat.

Quiz Quiz Trade – A Review Game

It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s useful.

What you need:

  • A set of questions and answers printed or written out on cards.
  • One card for each student.
  • About five minutes.

You can create the cards, or let students do this, or you can do it yourself using index cards or a table in Word.


  • Teacher announces: Quiz Quiz Trade
  • Students:
  • Find a partner.
  • Student 1 asks Student 2 the question on the card.
  • Student 2 either answers it or says I don’t know. (It is important to the speed of the game that students admit when they don’t know)
  • Student 1 either congratulates Student 2 or goes over the answer.
  • Student 2 then repeats the procedure with Student 1.
  • Student 1 and Student 2 trade cards and find a new partner.
  • I usually let students play Quiz Quiz Trade for about 5 minutes.

They know I will stop the game immediately at the first sign of inappropriate behavior, and since they love it that is enough to keep this activity running smoothly.

When I introduce the game, I have two students come stand at the front of the room, and wallk them through the process I have written out above.  I review “deal-breakers” which for me include: running, refusing to take a question from a classmate, faces made at classmates, anything derogatory or rude, anything that is not class/topic related.

I usually monitor by wandering through the milling crowd with a card. Some students like to ask me the questions, so I always carry a card.

I learned this strategy at a Kagan Cooperative Learning workshop, and if you ever get the opportunity to attend one I highly recommend it!

Clock Partners

This is a partnering strategy that I believe will be the trifecta:

  • everyone pairs with everybody else at some point
  • once practiced, it should be a seemless and easy transition to partners
  • something the students can see as fair – thus limiting complaints

In this strategy, students are given a blank clock face, and asked to “make appointments” with each other to fill up the hours, for up to twelve partners. I say “up to” as some teachers only assign even or odd numbers to make the number of partners more manageable.  Eve Heaton, of Science Notebooking, has posted about this in detail on her blog, along with a nice clock face.

After re-reading her posts, and doing some additional reading on Proteacher and AtoZ Teacherstuff forums I’ve thought through my procedures. I’m going to start doing this in January, and break the process down into steps. If it goes well, I’ll do it next year starting in August. I don’t plan on spending more than 10 minutes per day over three days on the setup and practice.

Day 1:

  • Introduce the idea and “ground rules”
    • If someone asks you to be their buddy, you must say yes. No making faces, no backing away.
    • Walk and talk quietly as you make your appointments.
    • Pass out the clocks, and have them write their name in the middle.
    • Today we will make appointments for 2, 6, and 10 o’clock.
    • These will be partners I have chosen for them. I will review the ground rules of being polite. No making faces or comments.
    • To create these pairs I will rank the students ability-wise in order from highest to lowest. Then I will split this list in half and place them side by side. Since there are three appointments needed, I pair the student at the top of the left column with the first three students on the right, making adjustments as needed.
    • I will make a master spreadsheet of these teacher created pairs and show them on my Promethean board.
    • Procedure for students:
      • Find your 2 o’clock partner and stand back to back.
      • I will check to make sure everyone is responding appropriately and in they are paired correctly, then they can write their partners names in the correct part of the clock.
      • To avoid accidental “overbooking” I’m going to have them color in the space for that hour.
      • Repeat for the other two teacher chosen appointments.
      • Students will glue clocks in to their notebooks.

Day 2

  • Students will pair with their clock partners to answer some review questions from yesterdays lessons. Three questions, one for each appointment we made yesterday.
  • Today we will make three more appointments – 2, 6, and 10 o’clock.
  • Procedure for finding partners:
    • Students will choose a partner of the opposite gender and turn back to back.
    • When I see that everyone has a partner, then they can write their partners names in the correct part of the clock.
    • To avoid accidental “overbooking” I’m going to have them color in the space for that hour.

Day 3

  • Students will answer review questions from yesterday’s lesson by working with their clock partners. 2 questions today, one partner from the first day and one partner from the second day.
  • We will make 3 appointments today at 12, 4, and 8 o’clock. These will be “student choice” partners – they will only be limited to students who are not already on their clocks.
  • Procedure for finding partners:
    • Students will choose a partner and turn back to back.
    • When I see that everyone as a partner, then they can write their partners names in the correct part of the clock.
    • To avoid accidental “overbooking” I’m going to have them color in the space for that hour.

This will leave three open spaces on the clock, but will create 9 pairs. My average class size is eighteen, so I could add a friend for a class of twenty, or take one away for a class of 16. I still control what groups I want them to work in by calling the hour, so it doesn’t matter.

Random thoughts:

  • students whose partner is not there will report to the board and I will assign them to a group.
  • I think I will use a spinning wheel on my promethean board with the clock numbers on it to occasionally choose “hours” to increase the “random” factor.
  • I want to make a concerted effort to use the strategy at least two to three times a week.

Variation on the Clock:

  • Baseball Partners – Diagram of a baseball field, four partners.
  • Ocean/Continent Partners – Outline Map of the world, 7+ partners depending on how many you fill in.
  • Cell phone partners (same principle as clock using the keypad numbers instead of hours)

I would love to hear from you if you successfully use this strategy – please include your tips and tricks or if you know another variation!

The Ball Game – A Motion Strategy

Sometimes the simple things can make the biggest difference.

I use this anytime I feel my kiddos need “waking up” as it generates immediate interest. I keep an inflatable world globe ball by my desk at all times, just in case.

The game couldn’t be simpler. I ask a question, if the student knows the answer then they raise both arms to catch the ball. I throw it, they catch it, and answer the question. They throw it back. Repeat. The kids absolutely love this. If I ask a question that has a list for an answer, we’ll do a “think fast” round. In a “think fast” round I announce the topic (inventions, presidents, etc.) and start the game by throwing the ball to a student. If the student gives a correct answer, they then toss the ball to another student, who then answers.

Any ball will do, but the globes are great for social studies. A teacher friend of mine and fellow blogger uses a numbered soccer ball and pre-written questions. There are also commercially made inflatables with reading comprehension questions for informational texts that  the children also adore.

Here is a link to those on Amazon.

A teacher I work with kicked this up several notches, using a soccer ball and pre-written questions. I asked her to write it up for me, and she was kind enough to write a very descriptive post as a comment. Be sure to scroll down!