Set Up Your Binder

Class binders are either a hot mess or the best possible way to keep your class work in order. Hard backed binders are fine, they do make for an impromptu writing surface. That being said, soft sided are my preference given that they are lighter and more flexible (fit into my back pack or side bag easier). The soft sided binders last a long time so after the initial investment I did not need to purchase them again for subsequent semesters.

I use heavy duty dividers with a pocket in the front one. Assignment due goes in the very first pocket as soon as I complete it so it is ready to be turned in at the beginning of class — I’m not scrambling to find it and it stays neat/presentable.

I use one binder per class and divide each binder into five sections:

  1. Syllabus (and only the syllabus)
  2. Notes from class
  3. Returned/graded homework
  4. Returned/graded quizzes and exams
  5. Auxiliary handouts

The syllabus is your contract with the teacher or professor. Typically, it gives vital information concerning class (and/or lab) meeting times and locations, instructor’s contact information, required and recommended reading, topics to be covered (read: what you are responsible for knowing by semester’s end), homework due dates and exam dates.

In graduate school, I did not read a syllabus carefully enough and turned in a take home exam one day late. The professor had in his syllabus, LATE EXAMS WILL RESULT IN AN “F” FOR THE COURSE. He could have failed me, but instead dropped my final grade one whole letter grade. To have worked the entire semester for a solid “A” and end up with a “B” because I didn’t read the syllabus still aggravates me and that was 14 years ago.

Notes from class are those which you hand write while attending class. Put the date up in the right hand corner (even if you are left handed) and put all notes in chronological order. The instructor may give you daily handouts for notes or they may expect you to take notes on your own paper. Either way, writing down what you hear will reinforce the subject matter being covered and that makes studying for test day MUCH easier.

Returned/graded homework is exactly that. This is a solid bank of information from which to study. Most instructors do not have the time or inclination to make up brand new, never seen before test questions. In many cases this is not even possible. Using these, you have a solid understanding of what your instructor will test on during the exam by studying what you did right and what needed correction on your homework.

Returned/graded quizzes and exams same story. Use returned quizzes to study for the upcoming exam and returned exams to study for the final exam if your final exam is cumulative.

Auxiliary handouts are those which your instructor wants you to have for reference. They may or may not be used for exams. They may be necessary to complete homework assignments or group projects. If your instructor hands them out, there is a reason for it. Hang on to them.

What I do not recommend

Some students have tried keeping all classes in one binder. I find that the sheer volume of notes and returned assignments is much too cumbersome for this. Plus, if the one binder is lost then all of your notes and former assignments for all classes are gone. I do not recommend this method.

Another variation is putting every piece of paper in your binder in chronological order. I have tried this on several occasions and it just does not work well. Notes that should stay together end up split apart by handed back material and auxiliary handouts. Returned homework gets lost in the shuffle. Reviewing problem sets gets bogged down by layers of notes. Keep each section divided and you will always know where to look.

You should not need to add additional sections to your binder. Much more than the above mentioned and the system gets too complicated to keep up with. Much fewer and the binder becomes disorganized and not useful.

Excessive handouts

There are classes where you may have an staggering number of class notes and/or handouts. If this is the case, keep only the current material in your binder. If your semester is divided by four exams, then after you complete Exam 1, put all material in a binder which can stay at home and start your course binder with material that will be covered on Exam 2. My advanced engineering classes were like this and I ended up filling 4 inch binders at home over the course of the semester. Each exam was a standalone so I did not need to keep all my materials with me daily. When it came time to study for the final exam, the entire semester’s worth of work was already in place, in order, ready to go.

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