How to Waste Students’ Time with Binders and Notebooks

Binders, notebooks, interactive notebooks, portfolios and other tools can provide a method to showcase student learning, collect reference materials and teach organization.

Or they can be a time-consuming process that fails to do more than provide a sporadic grade.

Here’s how to waste students’ time with binders and notebooks:

  1. Require students to follow a specific format and structure, then provide a grade for organization.  Rather than teach students how to create organization, provide them a set list. This way, they will only know how to organize that class notebook, rather than how to apply organization to their own files and papers beyond that class.
  2. Do not provide, or reinforce, use of the reference materials. Do not create activities or opportunities that require students students to use the reference materials on repeated occasions. This will help show how useless the notebook and its contents are.
  3. Require students to collect past work with an ill-defined or inappropriate purpose. If all assignments are required, penalize students twice– once for missing the assignment submission, and again for it being missing in the binder or notebook. If “Best Work” is to be showcased, then make sure that students are given specific assignments that count as their best work– such as the only writing assignments or projects in the course.
  4. Surprise students with notebook checks to ensure they are lugging the thing to class each day– especially if it’s a massive 4-inch binder or an interactive notebook made fat with added pages that isn’t used daily or regularly for meaningful tasks. When they make the decision to prioritize based on the information (such as not being used), penalized that budding decision-making skills.
  5. If used daily, make sure that most tasks are stand-alone bell-ringers or similar activities that may relate tangentially, at best, to the rest of the day’s tasks. This will reinforce that the notebook is just another receptacle for tasks that could be done on any paper, without the need to carry and keep track of the binder or notebook.
  6. Since you, the teacher, never ever forget anything important, make sure to penalize students if they forget their notebook, even if it’s not being used that day. Do not have back-up or alternate activities to accommodate a student without their notebook.

If those things don’t appeal to you, then consider some of these:

  1. Be clear and consistent on your purpose of the binder and notebook. Make sure that the activities included are meaningful and relate to that purpose. If the purpose includes “teaching organization” then students will need opportunities to learn and practice their own organization rather than follow a checklist.
  2. Ensure that the notebook or binder is used regularly for reference. Recording new information (bell-ringers or daily activities) can be a useful purpose, but there should be some reason why the tasks must be done in the notebook as opposed to on separate paper.
  3. Be realistic. Students are not likely to refer to reference materials in their notebook if they think they already know it, if they find it to be more effort than asking or online or in a printed reference, or if they don’t find the notebook a useful reference (including if they find their own handwriting difficult to read.) Students– people– are unlikely to refer to practice exercises to review a process. Handwriting is rarely as easy to read as printed type, and this is exacerbated by those who read a lot of printed type (as many people do online, on phones, etc.)
  4. Be considerate of student needs when ordering the notebook or binder to be lugged around each day. Even an interactive notebook can get fat with added activities, and can have parts sticking out or off if (folded wrong, or tabs), which can be an irritation to some groups of students. Consider storing in-class if possible, or limiting how much is added to the notebook (goes with the above purpose– can bell-ringers be done on paper if they are daily practice of writing or grammar?)
  5. Have a process to support students who are absent, who have missed an assignment/ activity to be included in the notebook, and who have forgotten their notebook.  Keeping in mind that students are human, and that they have not only their set of classes, but also other priorities and issues at home, with friends, and with any activities they are involved in.

It’s been [redacted] years since I was a high school student, but I still remember resenting those massive binders, and the utter uselessness of them. I had as many as four binders to carry around and keep track of, the purpose of which, if even given beyond “teaching” organization, were rarely matched by the tasks included. As a “good student” I hated losing points for my binder– including for absent work I hadn’t completed or, at least once, that I was told “not to worry about” since it was completed in class. The above lists represent both my student-perspective from high school AND college, plus experience teaching and collaborating with colleagues.

What’s your take on binders and notebooks?

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