Saturday, January 12, 2008

Study Skills 2: A mid-point between loose-leaf paper file folders and bound exercise books

One of the markers of being at "big school" when I first went to high school at the turn of the 1970's, was that at last one could use a "folder."

That privilege and marker of "growing up" was tied to the wearing of long pants as a part of the uniform.

Nowadays, though, primary schoolers wear long pants, and high schoolers -- at least where I am now based -- are now by and large not permitted to use file folders for fear that they will lose the loose-leaf papers in their notes or assignments.

Never mind, that in my younger days, that simply was not an issue! (A cross-check with Mrs Kairosfocus shows that it was not a problem for her or her classmates either; and at the same school in question. Maybe, generations have changed, for the worse on this point.)

[Indeed, I still have my sixth form notes, over in Jamaica; my undergraduate notes, I actually had hard-bound as books (after what they cost my family to get they were worth at least that much!). My notes as a postgrad student are still in folders; my MBA course notes are next to me as I write this. In the end, after keeping my notes prepared for courses I delivered as a lecturer in manila folders, I have now returned to storing them in cheap, flexible plastic file folders. I do note that some of my course notes were evidently stolen while I was a lecturer -- along with several valuable textbooks and magazines -- open offices have disadvantages. I particularly miss my "vanished" mechatronics notes and my instrumentation systems notes, in case someone out there has a late attack of conscience . . . ]

Now, as a parent, I am confronting the issue personally and I am seeing the major disadvantages of using hard-bound notebooks, especially when one is a sometimes forgetful teenager.

That brings us to the brainwave: hard-bound notebooks and loose-leaf file folders are ends of a spectrum, not just either-or.
I will explain (and build up to the work-in-progress "solution" I now offer for those interested in an alternative to both . . .):
  • We commonly bind items in manila files by using the good old fashioned two-hole mechanical slide fastener.
  • The mechanical wire or plastic comb-style binder is a classic -- and it looks really good too, especially if you have a nice cover. [It gives a really nice "finished" look to consultancy reports and the like.] But, it is expensive and fairly inflexible.
  • There are all sorts of simple fasteners for three-hole punched paper that can be similarly used, but again they are expensive.
  • Sometimes, those plastic slip covers and those plastic pinch-binders sold as report covers are nice for short reports. But, again, they are impractical for something as changing from day to day as notes or ordinary homework assignments. The stiff-ish price per binder out here in the Caribbean also adds up.
  • Toggle-ended treasury tags, similarly, can bind fresh pages into a manila file and it takes a very deliberate effort to remove them. (And, the light bulb goes off!)
  • Recently, to take control of the reams of downloads and my own documents I have printed off, I have taken to using three hole punches and laces [yes, shoe-laces]. To provide a cover, I have cut of cornflake boxes and used the natural fold-over to punch matching holes. Then, lace though the inner folds front and back and tie the lace. The result is nice for that rough, "recycled" look! (And, a second light bulb goes off!)
Obviously , none of these is a really good solution to the for-school, half-exercise book, half-file folder problem.

But, let's reconfigure . . .
1] First, we have the at-home, fat file folder to serve as the permanent home for notes. [This can even be a cluster of said cornflakes box-files, one each per school year.]

2] That way a light -- and weight is an important issue in these days of overly-bulging book-bags -- file folder can be taken to school, in the one- and- a - half- inch [1 -1/2" ring class that is the smallest really useful size. [I would prefer a similarly sized D-ring binder, which is superior on holding capacity and presentation, but they are rare and relatively expensive.]

3] The key trick is to create small "semi-exercise books" -- one per subject -- that neatly fit into these light file folders.

4] Manila file jackets, 8-1/2" x 11" size, are cheap. So are treasury tags, which come in a handy short size as well as the usual long one which is more familiar. So, this is the base of the experiment -- warning: a work in progress (but too promising not to share).

5] First, cut down the jackets to fit the 11" high or so that is standard for 3-ring binders. Easily done with guillotine or scissors.

6] Lay aside a couple of sacrificial jackets, they will become the frames for the semi-exercise books,and this is the easiest way to get the nice stiff card required.

7] Along the factory fold, slice or cut the required jackets into two halves, and punch the required three holes. This last is best done by using a standard office three-hole punch, but notice you can only do one or two at most at a time unless you have a special high-capacity punch. [You may want to punch then slice or slice then punch; the choice is yours.]

8] It woulds be workable to fill in the pairs of manilas with paper and string them together with short treasury tags, but that is not quite as effective as the next step.

9] Often, manilas have marked folds pre-creased, which serve as a handy way to fold in to hold large sheafs of paper. Take one of the sliced off pre-punched manila sides and use it as a template: in mine, the three holes came in the middle of the three visible ~ 1/4" stripes. Thus we have a handy gauge.

10] Slide the template up over one of the sacrificial jackets, and mark off the three-stripe point at both ends of the sacrificial jacket. Slide in one stripe further, and mark again. Go in three more stripes, and mark the third time. With a long ruler, you can now easily mark the points to fold and to cut. Cut off the "binder."

11] The same ruler is a handy tool to use for folding, so that you get a nice, flat bottomed steep-sided, crisply folded "U." [This should easily hold several dozen pages: 3 mm x 0.1 mm/sheet = 30 sheets, or 60 pages; 1/4" ~ 6 mm, or space for 120 pages. Use a "double-width U" etc, if you need more. Really, you shouldn't! Indeed, if you are going to use up to say 20 sheets per section, you can get away with simply cutting down the manila folders to 11", then punching the holes and filling with paper then threading with treasury tags. (You can even make neat, tied off U-loops of yarn or even string that you pass through the holes then over the ends, so it can tighten on itself when you pull the cut-off ends. Simply pull tight and make an overhand knot so the loop will not spontaneously slide open.) ]

12] Take the template sheet, and slide it up on the U, on one of the flat sides. Align it so that it goes just to the end, where the fold-over is. Mark the three holes with a pencil, on each side. A single-hole punch can then take them out. (I tried to use the three-hole punch to do this, but it gave trouble with alignment.)

13] Align the holes with the U on the outside. This gives a "neat" binding, and white glue -- a nice thin layer that "grabs" only please -- will soon hold the jacket together.

14] Fill with paper, number the pages, and pass through three treasury tags. The semi-exercise book, semipermanently bound subfile is complete -- apart from labelling and pasting in an indexing side-tag if you want, using any stiff card you care to; e.g. another sacrificial manila or stiff "bristol-board" or "cartridge paper."

15] Assemble the file-folder. You will see that the sub-folders will slide onto the metal rings with a little care -- i.e it is just hard enough to discourage casual taking apart.
So, we now have a semi-flexible binder for class notes, etc. [And of course maybe some enterprising printers and schools may want to get into the act . . .]

For the next step, the real trick is management and accountability.

Every week or month or term etc as appropriate, hold a notes review session [NB: teachers, I used to grade student notes . . .], where the page-numbered notes are checked against the teacher's scheme of work, then they are transferred from the flexible folders to the permanent one.

(Implication: teachers should circulate week-by week breakdowns of topics, readings and intended assignments, term by term, for both students and their parents. This, I believe is feasible, and it would greatly help in supervising the work of students. At a school management level, it would also help in co-ordinating the overall curriculum so that scoping and sequencing of concepts, activities, exercises and assignments will more and more be balanced across the overall programme of study. But that is going into curriculum reform . . . let's get back to our little project.)

When this is done, the notes can be supplemented, through creating appendices. [Internet downloads are great for that. So are summaries made from textbook sections or reference book sections as research notes.] The notes can also be organised, and indexed as necessary -- you can even make a table of contents and create a title page. (The "permanent" file kept at home can then have a super-summary and index, based on the individual summaries.)

One of my own favourite tricks was to prepare a "general notes/introduction and summary" lead section -- let's call it an executive summary, or better yet an "introsummary" --that holds an overview and excerpted key points for pre-exam review.

A few neat tricks raise their hands at the back of the class and suggest themselves for this section:
  • It is probably a lost cause in the Caribbean to shift most note-taking to the psychologically more effective points-style format, the effectiveness of which this little sub-section illustrates. [Hint: guess why multimedia slide shows are structured to guide the preparer to use bullet points . . .]
  • It is probably even more of a lost cause to try to get students to prepare a review column for their main notes. But such introductions and summaries fit right in with that -- and they are great review exercises in themselves.
  • So, for the pages of such summaries, rule a special wide margin about 1/4 of the way across the page from the left margin [to hold key words (and associated page number references) to the main notes and text- or reference- books].
  • Write key words and such references there, just opposite the points-form notes taken in the "main notes column," the other 3/4 of the introsummary pages.
  • When doing pre-exam review, use a card to cover over the main introsummary notes column, and try to recall the substance of the information from the introsummary and the main notes pages as you come to each keyword in turn.
  • Then, check and correct yourself until the information "sticks." [This is of course a form of the now classic, highly effective SQ3R study technique. Also cf. my own overall basic study skills briefing here (a slide show is available on request, and/or a one page per slide PDF file of the show).]
As a matter of fact, this sort of system looks like it would be useful for managing project records, and for setting up neatly indexed presentations and briefing files for participating in panels and debates, too.

[H'mm: organised, summarised, indexed and backed up with instantly cross-referenced key references. Now, let's get into that Boardroom full of swirling sharks . . . toting neatly concealed shark-killing bang sticks. ( I recall a TV ad that ran something like that . . .)]

I would also beg to suggest that this format would also nicely cover major assignments, too, i.e. the notorious SBAs. And ordinary homework assignments can always be slipped into the file folder, neatly stapled together. Then they get put into the home folder on having been marked, reviewed, and corrected.

(Of course, it won't hurt to cross-check such assignments against the recorded set assignments in the student's homework notebook! I was a student, teacher and lecturer too -- I know all about the classic, "I forgot to do the assignment" trick or genuine problem. So did good old Fathers Ruddy, Raftery, Ryan, Riel et al. from Boston. Homework Notebooks were mandatory at my old high school.)

I think we have a useful school-work management system here.

Okay, what do you think: fellow- students, -parents, and -teachers? END

UPDATES, Jan 12:
it's actually ~ 1/4" per stripe (I should have measured . . .). For up to about 20 sheets, you can get away without having to insert a widening U- base. Tied off yarn or string loops can substitute for treasury tags.

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