College Binder Organization in 10 Simple Steps (or Less)
Updated December 3, 2020
If you’re reading this, you’re probably trying to get organized for college. That’s great! I’m really proud of you.
Yes, I’m proud of you, even though we probably don’t even know each other. Why? Because I see students struggle with organization issues all the time. Almost none of them ever do anything about it. So yes, I’m proud of you for taking action to be more organized.
I’ve written elsewhere that organization skills are one of the core qualities of good students. When you know where everything is, you don’t waste time looking for stuff you can’t find. So, being organized both reduces stress and increases productivity.
In this post we’re going to focus on just one aspect of getting organized for college: college binder organization . We’ll go over why I suggest students use binders instead of notebooks. We’ll also review what to look for when binder shopping (there’s more to it than you might think).
Then we’ll learn some binder organization basics. Finally, we’ll look at a fairly simple binder setup. This binder organization system should work for just about any class, so you can use it semester after semester.
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Before we launch into binder organization, I want to delve into the big debate: should you use notebooks or binders in college? Clearly, I’m a binder fan, but I want you to know why I recommend college students use binders .
Note: if you’ve already decided on binders, you can skip this section and go straight to tips for organizing a binder.
Binder vs Notebook
Before I wrote this post, I had no idea there’s an intense and fairly passionate binder vs. notebook debate among college and college-bound students. I did some research and here’s what I found.
Notebook Pros and Cons
The primary advantage of a spiral notebook is that it stores all your notes in one place. You don’t have to worry about loose pages falling out of your notebook or the pages getting out of order. Plus, notebooks are less bulky than binders and therefore are easier to carry.
The primary disadvantage of a notebook is that the pages are fixed – you can’t easily add to or rearrange pages in a notebook. You can put course handouts inside pockets within a notebook, but that won’t work if you have lots of handouts for one class. The alternative is to have a separate folder for handouts, but then you have two items to keep track of and bring to class.
Binder Pros and Cons
The primary advantage of a binder is that you can easily add to and rearrange the contents. This means binders have more organizational options than notebooks.
You can put dividers, zippered pockets, document holders and other accessories in a binder. Binders are also easier to store than notebooks, since they can stand upright on their own (a big advantage if you’re storing them on a bookshelf).
The primary disadvantage of binders is that they’re bulkier than notebooks and harder to carry. The contents of a binder can also get out of order very easily if you’re not careful.
Binders also tend to be more expensive than spiral notebooks. However, you can reuse binders from one semester to the next, which is often not possible with notebooks.
Why College Students Should Use Binders
Binders are bulkier and more expensive than notebooks, but I still recommend that students use binders. There’s no denying that binders offer more organizational possibilities than notebooks. And since getting and staying organized in college is our main goal here, I suggest that college students use binders for their classes.
One vs Many Binders
I know some students use one binder for all their classes, but I endorse the one binder per class approach. Again, our goal is organization and having one binder for each class follows some organizational best practices.
First, having one binder for each class makes it easier to color code your course materials (more on that later). Second, the one binder per class approach lets you group like things together.
Grouping like items is a basic organizing principle. It’s why kids are taught to store all their crayons in one box, all their Legos in another and so on. With one binder per class, your biology materials are in one place, your history materials are in a different place and things stay more organized.
Best Binders for College
In most cases, a 1 inch binder will be enough to hold all the materials for each of your classes. As you get further along in college, you may find some courses need a larger binder. But, a set of five or six 1 inch binders can get you through the first few years of school, if you take care of them.
There are a few things you should look for when shopping for college binders:
Cover type. Trust me, you want hardcover binders. Don’t buy flimsy plastic binders that can’t stand up on their own. Those are hard to store, they’ll slide around on your desk, and you’ll be lucky if they make it through one semester without splitting at the seams.
Ring quality. Look for binders that are easy to open and close. If the rings don’t line up so they can close properly, choose a different binder.
Color. I’m a big fan of color coded binder organization, so I suggest buying binders in different colors. Alternatively, you can buy white binders, then apply your own color coding system.
Pockets. This is really up to you. If you like the kind of binders that have clear pockets on the front and/or back, then go ahead and buy those. They do tend to be a bit more expensive than binders without exterior pockets, though. In the tutorial below, you’ll see that I used a plain binder without plastic pockets on the outside.
Price. If you’ve shopped around, you’ve probably realized that binders can be crazy expensive. Even “economy” binders can sell for more than $4 each. When buying binders for college, balance price against durability. Look for plain, undecorated (so, not cute) binders with reinforced seams.
What I currently recommend as the best binders for college are SEEKIND 1″ binders. These are good quality, hardcover binders that are fairly priced. You can buy a six pack in assorted colors, including blue, gray and orange, which gives you lots of color coding options. Each binder has a clear front pocket, too.
Now that we’ve settled the notebook vs binder debate and reviewed what to look for in a binder, let’s go over some simple rules for organizing binders.
6 Simple Rules for Organizing a Binder
When it comes to organizing binders for college, or any other purpose, there are some basic rules to follow. These tips will help you create a school binder organization system that you can easily maintain during the semester.
1) One binder per subject/topic. This follows organizational best practice of storing like items together.
2) Color code or label (or both). You should have a quick way to identify which binder belongs to which class. You can use a different colored binder for each class.
If you only have binders in one color, like white, be sure to label them in some way. Place the labels on both the spine and front of the binder, so the class name is obvious. You don’t want to show up to math class with your history binder because you couldn’t tell them apart.
3) Organize by dividing. Dividers are used to create major sections within your binder. You can then use tabs to create subsections. You can see an example of this in the tutorial below.
4) Frequently used goes first. Frequently used material should go in front, so it’s easily accessible when you open your binder. For instance, when organizing a binder for a college class, the course syllabus should be one of the first things filed in your binder.
5) File and sort regularly. To keep an organized binder, you should have a regular filing and sorting routine. You can learn more about what a filing and sorting routine for your college binder should include in the last section of this post, how to keep an organized binder.
6) Keep it simple. Whether you follow the binder organization system in this post or another one, or create your own, you should keep the system as simple as possible. This is especially true if you’re just learning how to stay organized. Don’t make your binder system too complex or put a lot of things in your binder that don’t really need to be there.
Speaking of what you should and shouldn’t put in a binder, let’s look at some binder organization supplies.
Supplies for Organizing Your Binder
The following is a list of supplies you may want to put in your binder. Some of these are essential, like dividers. Others are optional, which I’ve noted. Many of these appear in the photo tutorial, so you can see how they’re used to organize a binder for a college class.
Binders. As mentioned above, I think 1 inch, 3-ring binders are sufficient for most students and most classes. I currently recommend these SEEKIND binders that come in a variety of colors.
Sheet Protectors. You may want to put frequently used items, like your syllabus, in a sheet protector. This prevents the paper from tearing due to repeated use, and makes it easy to access the document without having to open the rings on the binder. I really like these sheet protectors with colored edges, which helps maintain my color coded organization system.
Dividers. I use white binder dividers, so I can carry a common color scheme throughout. For example, in the tutorial, I’m using a blue color scheme. I write section titles in blue on my white dividers. I think this gives a cleaner, more organized look than using multi-color dividers within my binder.
Repositionable Tabs. I use these two inch repositionable tabs to create subsections within my binder.
Paper. The type of paper you put in your binder depends on the type of note taking you use most often. For example, if you use the Cornell method of note taking, it’s probably worth buying paper that’s already formatted in the Cornell style.
If you use regular, lined paper to take notes you can buy the more expensive reinforced paper, but unreinforced paper will probably work fine for most students.
3 hole punch. You may get a lot of handouts or need to print out PowerPoint slides or readings in some of your classes. If you’re going to use binders to stay organized in college, it makes sense to have your own inexpensive 3 hole punch.
Zippered Pencil Pouch. This is optional. If you have a pencil case you carry in your bag or backpack, you may not need a zippered pencil pouch inside each binder. I find them handy, so use one per binder. That way I don’t have to dig around in my bag to find pens or other accessories.
Sticky Notes. This is also optional. In the tutorial, I create my own sticky note dashboard, but I’ve noticed a lot of my students like these sticky note sets made specifically to fit in 3 ring binders.
Organizing a Binder Photo Tutorial
At this point we know the basic rules of binder organization and have our supplies, so it’s time to assemble our binders. Kind of.
You may want to buy your college school supplies before classes start, to take advantage of back-to-school deals. But you should wait until the first week or two of class to fully assemble your college binders. You need to get the syllabus for each class first, then use it as a guide when organizing your binder.
For instance, some classes may have lots of homework, while others have none. You need to read through the syllabus and then decide which sections are really needed in your class binder. Some sections you may need include:
- Lab exercises
- Project planning notes
- Research paper notes
- Paper/essay drafts
- Returned work (homework, assignments, tests)
- Study guides/practice tests/other exam prep
But again, this will vary by class, so wait and get the syllabus to see how to best organize your binder.
You’ll notice in the tutorial that I actually have two sections for notes in my binder. That’s because binder organization isn’t just about putting things in a certain order. Your binder is a place to record, process, store and retrieve information. So, below is a complete binder organization system, one that separates recording and processing from storage and retrieval.
Okay, let’s get to organizing!
Step 1: Choose Your Binder
You can see here that I’m using a simple blue 1 inch binder. The binder doesn’t have plastic pockets on the front or back, but does have reinforced seams. If your binder’s seams have a ridged or waffle cone pattern or texture, they’re reinforced. If the seams are smooth, they’re probably not reinforced.
Step 2: Add Supplies (optional)
I put a zippered pouch at the front of each binder. In addition to pens and pencils, this pouch holds other supplies I commonly use. This includes a small calculator, a 6 inch ruler, some index cards, and reinforcements to patch up pages that may tear.
If you carry pens, a calculator and other school supplies in your backpack, you may not need a zippered pouch for each binder. Just do what works best for you here.
Step 3: Create an Action Folder
At the front of my binder, even before the class syllabus, is a sheet protector that serves as my “action folder.” This is where I put anything that requires action on my part. For me, this means anything I need to copy for my students, to hand out in class, to grade or to file.
Your action pocket/folder will contain homework to be completed, homework to be turned in, returned work to file, documents to read, etc. Basically, anything related to class that requires some type of action on your part should go here.
The action pocket/folder is a very important part of this college binder organization system. That’s why I’ve used a sheet protector with a red edge for my action folder. It’s a little color psychology, since red often signals important or urgent.
You can use a sheet protector, as I’ve done here, or a document pocket or a paper folder made to fit 3 ring binders for your action section. The most important thing is to include an action section and to put it at the front of your binder.
Step 4: Add Your Syllabus
The course syllabus is a hugely important document, so it goes near the front in my college binder organization system. I put the syllabus in a sheet protector, so that I don’t have to open the rings on my binder every time I wish to use it. And I refer to my syllabus often…as you should, too.
Step 5: Add Reference Material (optional)
Behind the syllabus I’ve created a reference section. This is where I put helpful materials that aren’t part of my course notes.
Since this binder is for a geography class, I’ve added an atlas here. For a math class, you may include a laminated sheet with common equations. For a language class, you may put a reference guide for regular and irregular verb conjugation.
You don’t have to have a reference section in each of your binders. But, if you keep looking up the same material in your textbook/notes over and over, you should consider creating a reference sheet to put near the front of your binder.
Step 6: Add a DIY Dashboard (optional)
After the reference section, I put a piece of card stock. You can find 8.5 x 11″ card stock for less than $2 at most craft stores. The card stock is blue, in keeping with my color theme, and separates the materials in the front of my binder from the notes sections in back.
On the back of the card stock, I’ve created a DIY sticky note dashboard. I don’t use a lot of sticky notes, but like to have them handy when I do need them. So, I’ve attached a few sticky notes of various sizes to the back of my card stock.
This isn’t as fancy as the sticky note sets made for 3 ring binders, but it suits my needs fine. Plus, I have a lot more sticky note size options than you usually get with a premade set.
Step 7: Current Notes Section
When it comes to notes, your binder really serves two functions: to hold the notes you’re currently working on, and to store the notes you’ve already taken. Since these are two different things, they should have two different sections in your binder.
Closer to the front is your current notes section. This is where you keep notes that you’re currently working with in class. You should keep all the notes for a particular topic or learning unit/module in the current notes section until the class is completely done with that topic/module. Once you’ve moved on the a new topic/module, then you’ll put these notes in the filed notes section.
Step 8: Filed Notes Section
This is where you store notes you’re no longer actively working with. I’ve used a divider to section off filed notes within my binder. As you go through the semester, filed notes will probably make up most of the material in your binder, so they deserve their own section.
You can also see here that I’ve used repositionable labels for subsections within my filed notes. In this case, I have labels for “atmosphere” and “landforms,” since these are major topics we discuss in class. Adding these labels is optional, but makes it much easier to find material when studying for an exam.
You can get an idea of how to subsection your filed notes from the course syllabus. The syllabus should list the major topics discussed in class; each of these will probably end up as a subsection in your binder.
Step 9: Add Additional Sections
After the filed notes section, you should add dividers for other important sections of your binder. Again, this will vary by class. If you’re in a science class and have to submit lab reports each week, you should have a separate section in your binder for these. In an English class, you may want to create a section for papers you’re in the process of writing.
I used dividers to create “readings” and “returned work” sections in my binder. The “readings” section contains supplemental readings that are either handed out in class or downloaded from our course site.
We don’t have a lot of homework in this class, so I created a general “returned work” section for homework, quizzes, assignments and tests. If you’re in class that has lots of homework, you may want to create one section just for that, and another for quizzes and exams.
You should refer to the course syllabus when deciding which major sections to include in your binder. And, as I mentioned earlier, you may want to wait a week or two into the semester to fully organize your binder. This will give you time to figure out the types of materials used most in each class and the best way to organize them in your binder.
Step 10: Add Miscellaneous Pocket (optional)
I always include a “miscellaneous” pocket in the back of each of my binders. This pocket holds items that I may not use regularly, but like to keep on hand.
Here I’ve added some dot grid and blank paper to my miscellaneous pocket. I keep dot grid paper on hand because sometimes lined paper isn’t the best choice when taking notes.
For example, you can see that I used dot grid paper in my post on the boxing method of note taking; lined paper just wouldn’t work as well for that. And when I brainstorm, I like to use blank paper.
A miscellaneous pocket is optional, but handy. For example, in many college classes, you’ll have to bring your own scantron or blue book (sometimes called a green book) to exams. It’s worth keeping a few of these in your binder, so you don’t have to remember to buy one before class. You’ll already have enough to worry about before the test.
So, that’s my comprehensive school binder organization system. But, organizing your binder and keeping your binder organized are two different things, right? To keep your binder organized, you have to commit to a process.
How to Keep an Organized Binder
You should check the action folder in your binder on a daily basis. Remember, this where you keep stuff that requires you to do something, like homework. If you don’t have time to do it right then, add it to your to do list or schedule it in your planner. Assigning it to your list or schedule makes you more likely to follow up and actually complete the assignment.
Then, set aside time at least once a week to keep your binder organized. This could be done as part of a regular Sunday routine, but committing to doing it is more important than when you do it. During this weekly organization session, you should:
- Review and file notes as needed
- Hole punch and file handouts as needed
- Review and file returned/graded work
- Discard no longer needed materials (e.g. old paper drafts)
- Replenish paper and other binder supplies
Even if you have binders for four or five classes, your binder organization sessions shouldn’t take long – if you commit to doing them regularly. Trying to organize half a semesters’ worth of notes the day before your midterm isn’t helpful. You have to make staying organized regular habit.
The most important thing to remember here is to keep your college binder organization system fairly simple. This is especially true if you tend to struggle with organization issues in general. The easier a system is to maintain, the more likely you are to do so.
Be sure the content you put into your binder has a real purpose. You can add calendars, bookmarks and other things to your binder. But if those things don’t actually help you stay organized or study better, you don’t need really need them.
It may take awhile to figure out a binder organization system that works for you and that’s okay. You may find that what works well in one class doesn’t really work in another. Don’t be afraid to try different binder setups. Once you find the best binder organization system for you, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to stay organized.
Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,