Science Notebooks! Or Binders! Which One?

A decorated Science Notebook cover – 5 science related images and 5 personal images from magazine clippings make for a unique and creative class project!
A Unit Organizer is similar to a Table of Contents for a Science Binder.

Notebooks or Binders?

Notebooks, binders, Google Drive, every teacher and every class needs an organization system for note taking and keeping track of work. My first year student teaching my master teacher used notebooks for the first half of the year, and then binders for the second half of the year. In my classroom, I’ve used spiral notebooks for 5 years and binders for 2. While I see benefits to both notebooks and binders, there’s something about having that complete notebook at the end of the year. So if notebooks are so great, then why did I ever switch to using binders? Well, there were some things about using notebooks that were getting to me over the years. In this blog post, I’ll share my experiences using both organization systems and write about some of the benefits and shortcomings of each.

Upsides of Using Notebooks

Something I love about using notebooks is that we start with a bunch of blank pages, and during the year it transforms into a unique portfolio of student work. At the end of the year we can look back on everything we did and remember all of our neat learning experiences. Everything is in one place, and with an updated Table of Contents, it is so easy to go back and look at previous work (unless it falls out!). I love the creativity and personal ownership that students feel when using notebooks. Students can write, draw, and take notes in their notebooks, and all they need is a pencil!

Notebooks are lightweight and are easy for students to take back and forth to class. Alternatively, I can clear out a few cabinets in my classroom and students can store them in class. One of my favorite beginning of the year activities is to decorate science notebook covers. It’s fun, I get to know more about my students’ interests, and they get to be creative and express themselves. If you want to see how I decorate notebook covers with students, check out my blog post Beginning of the Year Activity: Decorating Science Notebook Covers.

Downsides of Using Notebooks

The biggest downside of using notebooks is that grading them is logistically challenging. I can’t take more than a handful home because a class set of notebooks is super heavy and cumbersome. Even if I have students leave their notebooks open to a certain page so I can check, I have to stay late at school, which I do enough of as it is. Grading notebooks requires flipping through pages and hunting for assignments that aren’t on the page I expect them to be. Another big downside is the glue. I wish you could hear the tone of exasperation in my voice. Gluing is just annoying to do on a daily basis. The students take too long, and glue is super tempting to play with (yes, even for high school students). 

Another downside is that I feel bad when we complete a worksheet and glue it on a blank notebook page. It feels like a waste of paper. I think notebooks work great when you want students to do a lot of their own writing and creating inside. In all my years of teaching I use worksheets on a weekly basis, and I feel wasteful when we glue them in. You can check out interactive notebook ideas online, where there are left and right page activities that you do on the notebook paper. But that was always too prescriptive for me and I prefer to have more flexibility and just put stuff on the next available page.

I like that half sheets are easy to secure in a notebook (they are easy to grade, too!) One of my favorite creative assignments in a notebook is a Dividing Page. I provide a list of vocabulary words, and students draw images and color the entire page!

Upsides of Using Binders

By far the biggest upside of using binders is no glue! Glue, tape, doesn’t matter, it’s a hassle and it takes extra time. Binders are super simple in that way. Students only need to open and close their binders in order to organize their work. I appreciate the organization and simplicity of using a binder. We can do a worksheet, or write on lined paper, and just put it inside. When I used binders, I definitely saved class time by eliminating the gluing. I also don’t need to provide as many class supplies like glue, scissors, and tape.

Binders seem a little easier to grade than the notebooks. Students can staple a unit’s worth of work together for a binder check. I can actually take several period’s worth of these “binders” home to grade. I’m not stuck at school and I can actually eat dinner at a decent hour. Binders also give me a little more flexibility than with notebooks. With binders there’s nothing permanent about putting work in. It’s easier to keep related work and activities together because you can move stuff around. But with notebooks, once it’s in, it’s in. If it takes me a week to grade something and hand it back, it won’t be next to the other stuff we did on a particular topic that day. (I could instruct students to create a placeholder in their notebook to avoid that problem, but students get confused and I guess I’m just not that on top of things).

Downsides of Using Binders

Not a big deal, but I need to remember to 3-hole punch everything. The copier has a setting that can do it for me, but I forget sometimes. It helps to have a heavy duty 3-hole punch for this reason. Another minor downside is that binder clips are loud! If a student wants something out of their binder during class, it can be disruptive. A bigger downside is that students need to have lined paper as one of their class supplies. Every year I have dozens of students who need to “borrow” a piece of lined paper every single time we do an assignment. It helps if there’s a designated place in the classroom, and students can just help themselves. Downside to that? When there’s a sub, I come back to paper airplanes all over the place.

The biggest downside to using binders is that students don’t feel the same sense of ownership, like they do with their notebooks. Students can put work for multiple classes in one binder, so it’s not their dedicated science binder. When I hand back a graded binder check (a few week’s worth of work in a particular unit), I find some of them in the trash at the end of the day. Even when I remind them that this stuff will be on the final and they will need their binder to review, they still just throw it away. And even when they do keep their work, another problem is that it falls out more easily than with a notebook. The holes wear down over time, and binder paper and worksheets hang out of the side and fall out.

Binders are flexible in that you can take work out and move it around. I can mix it up easily between worksheets and work on notebook paper.

Both Notebooks and Binders Work in the Classroom, but Which One is Better?

As any good teacher does, I am reflecting on the year I had and contemplating what to do for next year. There are positives to using binders. They are simple, clean, and straightforward. They require less class time for organization. But I will go back to using notebooks. I love that students want to keep their notebook and take it home at the end of the year. I love when students thank me for helping them learn organization skills when we use notebooks. I love to see my students make extra effort to make their notebook neat, thorough, and creative. I love that they create their own science resource, that represents an entire year’s worth of work. My students cherish their science notebooks. I can’t say the same thing about binders.

Both systems work in the classroom, but which one is better? I think it comes down to a personal preference. I know plenty of teachers who are very firm about one system over another. My advice is to continue making improvements on what you’re already doing, and don’t be afraid to try new things. If you feel like something isn’t working, change it! As my master teacher showed me in that first year, there are no rules! You can even change your mind halfway through the year.

What is your favorite organization system that you use in your classroom? What other systems and routines do you use that work really well for you? Let me know by leaving a comment. I would love to hear from you! If you are looking for ideas to streamline your classroom and make each day a little easier, check out my blog posts below!

Looking at both options in this photo, I can just feel all of the extra effort and creativity that goes into the science notebook. Between the two, it is my favorite organization system.

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

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