Thursday, October 25, 2012

Organization: Getting it Out of Your Brain and Into Your Notebook

“I know I did that homework. I just can’t find it!” This was always the saddest part of my day when teaching - and yes, it did happen almost every day. A student spent all of the time to do the homework but left it at home, and I would have to deduct points. I always believed that the student had done the work, but school is about actions, not intensions. 

Organization is one of the most important skills students can learn in school. We adults may not use chemistry, algebra, or parts of speech daily, but we all need to be organized. The earlier a student learns this, the happier he or she will be.

Being organized is not just about putting things in the right place. It is about getting things out of your head. I know people who are “pilers” - they have piles of paper on their desk, or in their school backpack, but they swear that they know where everything is. In fact, I could say that I am a reformed “piler.” But having to remember where things are takes a little bit of mind share, a little bit of short-term memory that can’t be used for other things. Without a system, you always have to be thinking about it. With a system, you don’t have to think about it until you need it. I first saw this idea of freeing up brain space in a great book Getting Things Done by David Allen

The other benefit, of course, is that it keeps students from losing late penalty points for forgotten homework and keeps adults from paying late penalties for forgotten bills. Again, it is one of the few skills we should learn in school that we will all use as adults.

Even though most of my life now is kept electronically on my computer or phone, I still believe that students should learn organization the old fashioned way, with paper. Schools may be using iPads and content management systems, but most classes still run on paper. Even our students who write their essays online using Clickademics Essay Engine often print out their final draft and hand in their essay on paper. (We will soon have a way to email the essay directly to the teacher from our site. Save time and trees!) 

Here is my recommendation for students to get organized:
  • Keep an assignment book where you write down every assignment. Every teacher should be posting assignments online, but they are often on different pages which the students might forget to check. Taking five minutes to write down the assignment in a small notebook means that all of the week’s work is in one place. For each day, draw lines to create rows for each class. On the side, draw a column and check off when you have completed an assignment. I mean it. Checking it off means you don’t have to think about it anymore.
  • Keep a 3 ring binder for each class. I know it mean more trips to the locker, but it keeps things simpler and your backpack lighter.
  • Put 5 dividers in each binder. The labels may vary, but I recommend:

  1. Current Work: these are assignments and projects that you are working on now, including completed homework that needs to be turned in the next day.
  2. Articles: any papers that your teacher wants you to read like newspaper articles or pages xeroxed from a book
  3. Notes: any notes you take should go here
  4. Projects: once you have completed a project or essay, move all of your instruction sheets and earlier drafts to this section
  5. Graded Work: anything returned to you with a grade should go here.
  • Keep all your papers. Do not throw anything away. This usually comes in handy at the end of the semester where you will need your notes to prepare for final exams. It is also helpful when the teacher is preparing class grades. If you see a mistake in your grade - no credit for something you turned in or a grade typed incorrectly - it is really easy to clear up when you still have that graded piece of work. It is difficult when you have to convince the teacher that you remember getting an “A” on the assignment. At the end of the semester, ask your teacher which papers you can take out of your notebook and put them in a draw until the end of the year when you can recycle the whole pile.
  • Resist the urge to put papers in the pockets of the notebook. It defeats the purpose of the dividers.
  • Organize your computer files the same way. If you are lucky enough to attend a forward-thinking school where work is submitted electronically, keep your documents just like you keep your papers. Create a folder for each class. Within each class folder, create a folder for Assignments, Notes, Projects and Essays, and Graded Work. If you upload work to Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku, be sure to keep a copy on your hard drive. Keep the files forever because hard drive space is cheap. Every document you create in your whole academic career takes up less space than a short video.
My wife and I learned how to keep a notebook in school, and we keep all of our business and household papers the same way. It is much easier to find important documents in a binder than in a file folder.

So free your mind and improve your grades by getting organized now. And don't make forgotten homework the saddest part of your day.

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