In addition to conveying our subject matter, I think it is critical that teachers help students learn good study skills, such as note-taking and test-taking strategies and organization skills. One thing I have noticed about organization over my years as a teacher is that a really organized student can usually do fairly well, even if she has deficiencies in other areas, such as reading comprehension, writing, and higher order cognition, whereas a highly intelligent student with poor organization skills almost always has trouble in school and earns grades far below his ability. I have found notebook checks to be an effective way to teach organization skills.
Notebook checks can be conducted in a variety of ways. My high school English teacher used to collect our notebooks each time we had a test and check them while we took our tests. I’ve done this before, too, but it isn’t the most efficient way to check notebooks, as it puts all of the work on the teacher. Using this method, a teacher might think of five random things he or she expects to find in the notebook, such as a certain term defined, a handout given out on a certain date, a homework assignment, a journal, etc. One of the reasons I am no longer a fan of this method is I don’t think it really teaches the students organization. It’s hard to justify marking points off if you can’t find something in the notebook when later the student can find it — what you’re really teaching is that they should follow your idea of organization, not something that works for them. I contend that if they can find it in their notebooks, then their organization system must work just fine, even if it looks crazy to you and me.
When I was student teaching, my supervising teacher also gave notebook checks, but I think she gave them too much weight (two test grades), and she looked for the wrong things. Her classes all began with a warm-up. Two days a week, the warm-up was a grammar exercise and the other three days were journals. She collected two grammar warm-ups and three journals at random on each notebook check. What I don’t like about this is that I feel it doesn’t teach organization at all. A student in her class would not need to hold onto handouts, assignments, or notes because all she was interested in was the warm-ups!
I learned a much better method for creating notebook checks from a colleague of my supervising teacher. As a requirement for my student teaching experience, I had to observe another teacher in my [future] department/area of concentration. On the day I observed this teacher’s class, he was giving a notebook check, and I was much more impressed by his method for assessing organization. This method requires a measure of organization on the part of the teacher, but I think it is more effective at teaching students organization as well. Basically, what the teacher does is ask questions about items that should be in the notebook. The student is allowed to search through his or her notebook for the answers. If the student doesn’t have them, too bad — students quickly learn they must keep everything.
Notebook checks should not be too long, as students will take time flipping through their notebooks for the answers. Mine are ten questions. Missing several questions will hurt a student, and that’s the idea — students quickly learn that their notebook check grades will be better if they are organized! Students should not be able to to guess the answers to notebook check questions. It is possible the students might remember the answers without looking them up in the notebook, especially if they study regularly, but I think the questions on a notebook check should be specific so that students need to look up the information. It’s also important for students to write the date on everything — warm-ups, notes, handouts, etc.
My students do warm-up exercises (journals or grammar exercises) when they come to class, which keeps students busy while I take roll and pass out papers at the beginning of class. However, they will see little need in doing warm-ups if there is no pay-off in terms of grades, so on each notebook check, I select two warm-ups at random and ask students about them. Aside from that, I ask them questions about terms in their notes, homework answers, quizzes, essays, or anything else that might be in their notebooks.
Sample notebook check questions might look something like this:
- Locate your journal for March 16. What was your opinion? [Say, for example, the journal asked whether it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.]
- Locate your homework assignment for April 4, p. 671, ex. B. What was the answer to number 3?
- Find your test on pronoun reference. Check one of the questions you missed and explain why you got it wrong [make sure you've gone over the test! If there were any 100's on that test, you might avoid questions like this].
- Locate your quiz from March 30. What was the answer to number eight?
- Locate your notes for April 11. Who wrote Lyrical Ballads?
- Locate the Power Point Presentation on American Realism, Regionalism and Naturalism. What is verisimilitude?
Of course, you would go on in this vein until you have ten questions about items students should be able to locate in their notebooks. My SMARTBoard (interactive white board) really helps me in terms of questions about students’ notes. I can go back to every date on which students took notes and see what I wrote down on the SMARTBoard, so I can say without a doubt that it should be in a student’s notes.
At first, you will have absent students complain that they were not present on the date when such and such was assigned or whatever. Just tell them they are responsible for making up all the work they miss and mark them wrong if they leave it blank. Over time, you will begin to hear your students ask their peers things like “What was our warm-up yesterday?” and “Can I borrow your notes from yesterday?” And that is the idea! It’s a good idea not to ask about items that were handed out the day before a notebook check, simply because if a student is absent on that day, he or she doesn’t have adequate time to make up the work prior to the notebook check.
I like this method more than rifling through the students’ notebooks because the students have to locate the information, which means they have to have it organized in a way that facilitates locating it, and second, it’s a snap to grade. Just like any quiz or test, you make up a key and check the answers against it. Sometimes answers may vary and still be correct, and in those cases, simply note what you’re looking for. For example, in question one above, students may either agree or disagree, but they should have some opinion on the question.
One other benefit of this particular method of assessment is that it can help lighten the paper load for teachers. I do not, for instance, collect homework (grammar assignments, for the most part, in my class). Instead, I go over homework in class and ask students to correct their answers and use the assignments to study for tests. Will some students skip the homework? Of course, didn’t you? However, an effective way to combat this problem is to simply ask students you suspect didn’t do the work to contribute their answers when you go over it in class. Grading homework makes me crazy, so I decided I just wasn’t going to do it. However, I still want to make sure students are doing it at some point, so I ask them about it on notebook checks.
As the year progresses, students will ask me if such and such is going to be on the notebook check. When they ask that, I make a mental note to put it on the next one, as they are usually asking because they don’t feel like doing the particular assignment. The randomness of your questions should keep them on their toes without making you responsible for looking at every single thing they do in their notebooks. Over time, as students become more organized, they actually come to like notebook checks as they are a good way for students who are organized to bring up their grades. To make it worth their while, I do make notebook checks a major grade, but I wouldn’t do them more than once a month. Overall, their grades on quizzes and tests should rise, too, as they have well organized materials for study.