How do you organize a binder?

Let’s suppose you have to keep a physical notebook (or binder) for a course you’re taking (or teaching, for that matter). Most people seem to prefer using tabs to give themselves the illusion of organization (oops — that shows my biases, doesn’t it?). You might have class notes in one section, homework in another, quizzes in a third, handouts in a fourth, and so forth; you have (apparently) created a system that feels structured and organized. (OK, that’s far too many parenthetical expressions in one paragraph — editorial remark.)

But is this system really structured and organized?

I’ve struggled with this issue for years when teaching honors geometry to high-school freshmen. For awhile I insisted on sturdily bound lab notebooks, in which nothing can be inserted or deleted without leaving an ugly mess. The advantage was that there was a permanent chronological record, of the sort that labs need to keep for research projects. Altering reality becomes difficult or impossible. Pages can’t fall out. All is well.

That’s the theory, anyway. But reality intrudes; in particular, there’s no great way to insert quizzes and handouts, nor even handwritten material that belongs between page 17 and page 18, say. It turns out that sometimes reality does need to be altered. We have to edit. Editing and revising are essential! So the bound lab notebook had to go.

We’re back to binders now. I developed a rigid set of requirements for my students when we switched systems two years ago. Here are some excerpts:

  1. All your work must be on 3-hole-punched paper attached to the rings of your binder. You may not share this binder with another subject. No pockets, no folders! If you want to keep using your bound notebook, you may do so, but you need to put it into your binder (if it’s a 3-hole-punched notebook) or else paste binder materials into the notebook. No more keeping two sets of notes.
  2. You may choose between two organizational schemes, but only these two:
    • strictly chronological (everything grouped together in date order, earliest to latest);
    • separate sections with tabs (each section arranged earliest to latest).
  3. If you choose to use tabs, put tests and quizzes together and classwork and homework together, but I recommend the single strict chronological order. That gives you a simple logical pass through your work when you are reviewing for a test, and it saves you from worrying about where any given handout lives.
  4. Classwork must be dated. Homework must be dated and numbered!!!
  5. Include a good amount of blank graph paper in your notebook. Lined
    paper is optional; I recommend doing all your work on graph paper.
  6. Leave room around your work to allow for subsequent corrections (which should always be done in a different color).
  7. Keep your lists of theorems, postulates, and definitions up to date! Be sure that those three lists are easily findable — by you and by me. Either put them at the very front or relegate them to the very back.

The following year I eliminated items 2 and 3 and replaced them with a requirement for a single chronological order with no tabs. The justification was that your binder should tell a story — chronologically from beginning to end. At any point in the year, and especially as we approach the final exam, you can review the entire year in a coherent way without jumping around.

This year I wavered on the tabs option, and we replaced the seventh item with a requirement to keep two running spreadsheets in Google Sheets, one for definitions and one for theorems and postulates. Each student sorts them alphabetically once a week and prints out a fresh copy for the binder.

The spreadsheets seem to work well, with no complaints. But I’m getting a lot of static about the no-tabs-single-chronologcail-order idea. That’s why I wavered on it. Why are so many students fixed on the faux-organization idea of having separate tabs for different categories of learning? The brain isn’t divided into homework, class notes, quizzes, and so forth — it’s hard-wired to tell stories, stories that flow from beginning to end. Should I strictly re-impose the “no tabs” requirement? I’m leaning toward doing so and asking each freshmen to give it an honest try unless and until they can construct a compelling argument for why tabs of this sort make sense.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston