top of page

The Death of Scratch Paper: 5 Reasons Why the Modern Student Won't "Show Their Work"

I work with educators at my school site to ensure access to materials for success, and as far as physical assets are concerned, this can be challenging when resources are limited. We've also worked to ensure that students have opportunities to collaborate, illustrate and organize ideas with Thinking Maps, and utilize sentence frames to structure how to process their understanding of tasks.

When it comes to state testing, we strive to ensure that all students have access to scratch paper to sketch out their ideas, prepare writing, or take notes on what they read, see, or hear. Over the first two days, I've estimated that only one out of twenty-five of our students are even attempting to use scratch paper. In discussions with teachers throughout our site, I encountered similar experiences. If you're seeing the same thing and wondering why students seemingly shut down this practice when it matters most, here are some considerations before blaming students:

1) We're seeing a paradigm shift in the traditional writing process.

The rough draft, as we remember it, is no more. If your school experience was similar to mine in Staten Island, the writing process in middle school involved preparing an outline, then writing a rough draft. This was followed by a “first draft”, then a “second draft” where we would reflect any edits of the first. It was then time for a “final draft”, which was the same as the second draft but on nicer paper. Heaven forbid your school had word processors in the computer lab, because now you would have to type in every single word you just handwrote, often depending on mouthing to yourself the next phrase to enter on screen.

This is no longer the case in classrooms, as the practice has evolved alongside accessible technology. That “rough draft” is now “version 1.0” and is typed in immediately, sometimes via speech-to-text. Version 1.0 is annotated in real-time with crooked red and blue underlines, spelling errors are instantly called out, and revisions occur as soon as the writer identifies it is appropriate. In the same amount of time a student would have produced 3 drafts in the past, students today may generate a multiple of this.

With that said, there at least should be some evidence of preparation or organization in advance of the typed “multi-draft”: something in the form of a tiered table of topics, or graphic organizer to lay out structure. Where are the outlines and thinking maps? Are students so dependent on digital word processing that they are reflexively bypassing the brainstorming and outlining process?

2) Students are likely overwhelmed by test anxiety.

Perhaps these practices become the first casualties of test anxiety, where student feelings of intellectual and academic inadequacy become overwhelming enough to eject productive behaviors. Anxiety can cause cognitive lapses to incur, magnifying the stress into a minor panic attack, or a functional shutdown which may manifest itself as fatigue.

So in order to consolidate energy and will, students may decide to forego note-taking or scratch paper. It’s the easiest cut to make for students because they know that it won’t directly impact their score since state assessments do not grade notes or scratch. This may differ from classroom practices, where teachers may include notes as part of a “participation grade”. That may be enough to inspire students during grading periods but many students become locked in to the economics of academic work: if it’s not graded then it’s not worth anything.

What does get scored on state assessment? What you write and what you choose. For many students this means that the only value possible is through what you know and what you can do. Therefore, in the eyes of our young test-takers, assessment items become pass-fail; either you know it or you don’t, so organizing notes or thinking ultimately may not contribute to this in their minds.

3) Digital tools have supplanted scratch paper as a medium of annotation.

In the days of bubble-based testing, scratch paper and a calculator were all you had to depend on. We were reluctant to put a mark in the composition test booklet until we were certain it belonged in the “final draft”. We queried proctors as to whether the use of highlighters was “permitted”. We scrambled to shorthand details from anything we had to listen to.

At this point, nearly every state assessment has these tools embedded and universally accessible to all students. In California, all students have access to line reading assistants, highlighting, glossaries and dictionaries, periodic tables, and formula reference guides in their digital test interfaces. Beginning in 6th grade, students have access to first a basic four-function calculator, then a scientific calculator, and finally a graphing calculator. Text boxes in which students enter long-form essays have formatting tools and spell-checker built in, so the need for physical tools has all but vanished.

Audio and video presentations are easy for students to navigate through the capacity to pause, restart, and scroll with a mouse click. Notepad features allow students to quickly enter their thinking before transferring it to the main answer field: a rudimentary version of Google Keep, if you’d prefer. It’s reasonable to believe the act of physically documenting notes on paper is seen as an archaic craft by students because the tools of productivity have always been there: it’s not necessarily “technology” to them if it’s been around their whole lives.

4) Students lack access to modeling of note-taking practices.

Whenever I sit through professional development, I try to avoid note-taking in deference to listening to the presenter. The slide deck is usually readily available as a later reference, but at the same time there isn’t necessarily a “right” way to take notes during these sessions. In classroom settings, opportunities for teachers to model note-taking are rare, since we strive to allow students to productively struggle through solving questions.

So when students are expected to take notes as part of assessments, whose notes are we expecting them to replicate? Who have they seen as the model for how this practice benefits them? What opportunities have been provided to refine their skill beyond “Cornell Notes for homework”?

In addition, the note-taking practices modeled by teachers may be unintentionally too broad to apply to task types that students may see on state assessments. How does one use notes to approach selectable text, evidence-based selected response, or matching tables? If a note-taking practice doesn’t apply for a student to the question in front of them, they likely will lose confidence in that practice’s application with others.

5) We don’t equate note-taking strategies with test-taking strategies.

The annual ritual of “test review and preparation” seems to reflect a “recipe” of reminders that we, as educators, naively believe we are the first to impart upon students in their academic careers. Process of elimination: now you’ve got a 50/50 shot at guessing right! Go back and check your work: it’ll be like taking the same test twice! How have your other teachers never told you this?!

Yet lost in the discussion is the connection that the note-taking strategies that students have been guided through during the year as part of assignments and projects are exactly the tools which students can employ during these types of assessments. The transfer between the two as separate “types” of strategies and routines does not occur, when in reality this becomes an optimal opportunity to employ them for demonstrable purpose.


Before working toward solutions, I considered whether this was in fact a problem worth solving: if we expect students to create 21st Century content, then how much longer should we expect to impose 20th century techniques on their thought process? At its core, this issue resides in our desire in hoping to see students apply what we hope they’ve learned: evidence to demonstrate that we had a meaningful impact. The way our generation of learners process information is drastically different than any other previous range of students, so in order for us to design what works, it’s important to contextualize why we see this shift.

There are many reasons why there appears to be a pushback from students, and we involve them in this awareness, we move closer in developing cognitive organization tools that will carry with them long after the end of a testing window.


 Recent Posts
bottom of page