Binder Checks

In Algebra II, I am trying something that I find is working pretty darn successfully that I’m going to replicate it in all my classes next year. One of the things that aggrieves me more than anything is asking a student to take out a recent worksheet or assessment, and they reach in their backpacks and dig around — their hand burrowing and further crumpling piles of papers from all subjects. It’s always miraculous when they do find what they were looking for, but you all know what it looks like.

Crumpled. Torn. Smudged.

In other words, terrible.

What’s clear is that students haven’t yet learned the skills to keep themselves organized. So this year I thought I would integrate that explicitly into the course. In the process of doing this, I’ve also found a way for kids to do homework and test corrections as part of their routine. No longer is homework something that students do at home, come to class and ask questions, and then forget about. Let me explain.

BINDER CHECKS

Materials: Each student is required to have a binder and a folder. The folder is to be brought to and from each class, while the binder can stay in their lockers unless instructed to bring them to class. The binder has one divider in it, to separate “homework” and “assessments.”

Implementation: Each day, students keep their homework in their folder, organized chronologically. They date everything — textbook homework, worksheet homework — with the date these things were assigned. We make sure to be very consistent with our labeling — especially because we only meet 4 days a week because of our rotating schedule. I also post the homework (and daily notes) on something called a course conference (for those of you familiar with first class) — also organized by the date assigned.

Each night that homework is assigned, students are expected to work assiduously on it. And if it is from the textbook, they are required to check the odd answers in the back — and mark the right answers on their papers if they get something wrong. At the start of class, I always display the even answers to textbook problems (or the answers to any worksheet we did), and I go over questions. At this time, students are expected to correct their work on their homework. They are expected to write down the correct answer. They are expected to ask me (or their colleagues) questions. And if they don’t have enough time to finish all their corrections (I expect them to show work to get the right answer, not just the right answer), they have to finish it at home.

In other words, there is no reason that my kids should have anything less than perfectly completed and corrected homework assignments. (And similarly, when they get tests back, they are required to correct them too.)

For this to happen, I had to talk about this a lot at the beginning of the year. I reminded them constantly about correcting their homework. About dating their work religiously. About writing down the correct answers if they’re getting something wrong — and figuring out why they got something wrong.

And at the end of each unit, students file away all the homework and all the assessments in their binders. They start fresh with an empty folder.

Why would they do all this for me?

Because half of their homework grade is based on this. On binder checks. I sell it to them by letting them know there is one certainty in this course: it is totally ridiculous if they don’t get 100% on the binder checks — it’s me giving them free points, in essence. Just for being organized and checking their work. That’s all!

When

We scheduled 2 binder checks in the first quarter, and then we only have 1 at the end of each of the three remaining quarters. We wanted to do 2 in the first quarter, so students could learn from the first one. We assumed (pretty rightly) that some kids would just bomb the first one because they wouldn’t take it as seriously as they needed to.

What they look like

On announced binder check days, students come into the classroom with their binders, and see a note on the board saying to have only their binders on their desk… Nothing else, no writing utensils, no papers, nothing [1]. When all their compatriots arrive and are set, I hand everyone a red pen. I also hand them the binder check which might look like this [2]:

They are given 5-10 minutes to flip through their binders, and circle their work and answer for the problems asked for. That’s all. It doesn’t take very long at all, especially since their binders are organized chronologically.

I collect them, and we go on with our lesson.

How I Grade Them

Each time I collect them, I get a nice stack of binders that I store under my desk, like I had today:

I pick up a binder, and look for all the circled questions. If the student was neat, and had the correct answer originally, they get full credit for that problem (5 points). If the student messed up but had the corrections (and new correct work), they get full credit for that problem (5 points). However, if the student messes up and has a wrong answer, the student only earns 1 point (or none, if they aren’t neat). I go through the whole binder this way.

Clearly I care about students getting things right. And I love this binder check because it can do so much work for me. I don’t have the time to collect and grade homework everyday. I don’t want homework to be graded for correctness the day after a student learns new material. (They could go home and be totally lost!) However, I do want students to eventually have things right. To work on correcting what they don’t get. Be proactive about what they don’t know. Ask questions. Figure things out.

The stack of binders above looks daunting, right? But let me tell you, I can get through a stack of binders for my class in 2 hours. It surprises me how quickly grading those goes. Seriously!

How I Pick the Questions

It’s no secret here. I pick questions for the binder quiz that span a number of homework assignments, and require some deeper thought and written work. I usually try to pick questions that students get wrong, or asked about in class.

What I’ve Noticed?

My kids now check their odd answers in the back of the book, they are really attentive at the beginning of class checking their even answers (or their worksheet answers), they ask questions so they can make the corrections, and they are much, much, much, much more organized.

You can see the learning curve my kids had with this. On the first binder check, the average grade was in the 70s. On the second binder check, the average grade was in the mid 80s. (And the standard deviation went from 18 to 11.) Almost every student improved, some drastically. Which is all the more impressive because I graded more harshly on the second one because students knew exactly what to expect.

Other Benefits

There are three major other benefits I see from these binders.First, I can collect the binders before parent teacher conferences, so I can show parents the totality of their child’s work.Second, when I write narrative comments on my students, I can use these as a reference to be more specific. Third, when it comes time for cumulative assessments (e.g. midterms, finals), my students will have all their tests organized in one place, to study from.

Overall, I see this initiative as a TOTAL SUCCESS.

P.S. Things to note:

There needs to be a place for students to write the “Date Assigned” on each homework assignment. If it is something from their textbook, they need to write a clear and consistent header. If it is a worksheet I create, I always make sure to put a “Date” section.

Everything handed out needs to be hold punched. You can’t expect students to use the binder if you don’t make it super easy for them to use.

[1] The reason for this is that I don’t want students using pencil to fix up answers to questions they didn’t correct. What they come to class with in their binder is what they get.

[2] For the 2 binder checks in the first quarter, there were about 8-10 things students needed to circle, including not only problems from homework, but also problems from assessments.

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32 comments

  1. Hi Sam. I love reading your blog. I’ve never commented before (on any blog) but I like this system and it’s similar to what I have in place already…just better. I was wondering where the other half of their homework grade comes in. Do you collect assignments sometimes?

    1. Diana! Hooray for commenting on blogs! You’re going to see it gets totally addictive. And then… you’ll start your own!

      I *rarely* collect assignments. It’s partly because I don’t like to grade homework because the kids are *just* learning the material, and they often will still have questions.

      The way I do homework is simply that I walk around and look at each kid’s homework for completion (when kids are checking their homework which I project on the SmartBoard). They get 3 points if it is totally completed, 0 points if it is missing, and 1 or 2 points if they skipped some problems or aren’t showing enough work or something.

      To be totally honest, I’m actually really not very careful at differentiating among homework, and what happens is unless there is something egregious, most kids get 3 points on homework.

    1. Wow, thanks for the link. The system looks *really* complicated (each binder has sections A-H?!), but if a school gets it off the ground and is consistent, I don’t doubt that it is really powerful.

  2. I used to do something similar, but I didn’t collect entire binders. I’d insist the kids check HW and correct mistakes, just like you do. But instead of having them circle certain questions and hand in their binders, I’d give them a sheet that asked them to copy solutions to various problems from their binders onto the sheet. For example, I’d say, “Please turn to the work you did on September 24 and put your solution to problem #10 in the space below.” Students would only be allowed to use their binders – not their text books. That way they had to have it completely done in their notebooks, and couldn’t use the text and try figure it out fast. Then all I had to collect from them was some sheets, rather than entire binders. It had to be quicker than flipping through a bunch of pages in a binder. It was more of a homework check than a binder check, though, because I never looked at the state of their binders.

    1. That’s what my calculus teacher did when I was in high school! The binder has its pros and cons, and your system is great for the homework stuff. The binder is bulkier, but also helps with the organizational stuff.

  3. Another one here who follows your blog but hasn’t ever commented. :) This looks like a very efficient and effective method for keeping students organized AND helping them review the concepts they didn’t get on the first try.

    One thing I was not quite understanding as I read this – is the 4-point correctness grade an all-or-nothing deal? Or do you give partial credit if, say, they got the answer correct but missed some of the steps in showing their work?

    1. Hi Amanda,

      Most of the questions I assign in this class don’t require *too* much work, so if they don’t have *any* work I give them a 0. But if they have a reasonable amount of work to show me they worked the problem and didn’t simply copy the answer, they get a 4. Very few times have I assigned a 1 or 2 or 3 — because this is more about teaching them to correct their work. It’s not about an attempt.

      I am consistent, though, among binders, when I give partial credit.

      Sam

  4. This system sounds great. One year I did something like it, closer to what John described, and it shocked me causing a far greater number of people to do their homework than I expected.

    Slight differences:

    1. When they came in I had them go over the assignment with each other in groups of 4, rather than correct the homework as a class; like you walked around and checked people for completeness.

    2. Like John I periodically gave a “homework quiz” where I had them copy specific problems from their notebook (I had them keep everything, notes and homework, in a notebook) in a short time.

    3. If more than 4 people hadn’t done, or had done only a negligible amount, of the homework, I interrupted the homework-going-over and immediately gave everyone a homework quiz based on that assignment.

    #3 was awesome. I think it’s the primary reason the homework numbers went up. I had actually worried they’d go down, because I wasn’t collecting homework regularly (for the first time); but it turned out to s*ck much more for them for there to be a chance they’d have to sit there for 5 minutes staring at a blank sheet of paper because they didn’t do the homework, and have everyone else be kind of mad at them because it was their fault that everyone had to take the quiz, than it did in previous years when it had a certainty of hurting their grade but no immediate public accountability besides the chance of me being frustrated with them.

    1. “3. If more than 4 people hadn’t done, or had done only a negligible amount, of the homework, I interrupted the homework-going-over and immediately gave everyone a homework quiz based on that assignment.

      #3 was awesome. I think it’s the primary reason the homework numbers went up. I had actually worried they’d go down, because I wasn’t collecting homework regularly (for the first time); but it turned out to s*ck much more for them for there to be a chance they’d have to sit there for 5 minutes staring at a blank sheet of paper because they didn’t do the homework, and have everyone else be kind of mad at them because it was their fault that everyone had to take the quiz, than it did in previous years when it had a certainty of hurting their grade but no immediate public accountability besides the chance of me being frustrated with them.”

      Just need a clarification…you used grades to punish a student, or to pit students against each other?

      1. This is such a hard question, right? Is it fair to use peer pressure and a dose of humiliation to get kids to do what you think it’s important for them to do? Is your math class the right spot for kids to learn that slacking off and letting others carry weight is not going to fly in any kind of professional environment later in life?

        Steve, you could ask a similarly biting question about any kind of group evaluation. If four kids are working on a project together, and the kid that was supposed to print out all the pictures for the poster doesn’t do it, can you hold the other students in the team accountable? In real life, of course, the presentation is ruined and these four kids are shown the door while another firm gets the contract (or whatever). Do you want to give the students who did their work a break, and only grade them on their own contributions, or is that teaching them that they don’t need to worry about it when a teammate is slacking? When does a kid really learn leadership?

  5. Great idea. I started doing something like this at the beginning of this year, but didn’t have the structure you did, and grading was unmanageable. I definitely want to remember this for next year! Thanks for the thorough description.

  6. Sam are notes a part of this system? Or is it on them to keep notes somewhere separately? Just curious.

    I would really like to do something like this for Algebra 2. I think it would really help. I wonder if it would make sense to start it in the middle of the year, since a new marking period is starting soon. I think with the homework quiz sheets I would also pass out some post-its so they could mark the pages with the circled problems so I wouldn’t have to flip so much.

    1. Hi Kate-

      I feel dictating how notes are taken are too personal, and kids have their own systems. I tell them they can take notes however they want. Most keep a (messy) notebook. I have ideas on how to clean that up next year, but I’m not sure I want to do them yet because I don’t want to have “too many systems.”

      As for starting the binder checks in the middle of the year, I think it is DEFINITELY doable – if it is a new marking period. The things to do:

      1. Talk about it BEFOREHAND, a lot. Show examples of what your binder check will look like. Mention it in class almost every day. Again and again. Until you feel you are the most annoying person ever. Make sure everything you hand out has hole punches and has a space for them to write dates. Make sure they write dates on their homework every day. And make sure you’re consistent about dating (I suggest the day assigned, not the day due).

      You know my mantra: give clear, consistent, and fair expectations along with the tools to achieve them.

      2. I suggest also breaking the 3rd quarter into having 2 binder checks — so they can get a sense of what to expect and how much more they have to be on top of stuff after the first one.

      I too also was going to do the post it thing too, but it seemed cumbersome. Since everything is already organized by date, it turns out to be REALLY easy to grade the binders and flip through the pages. I tend to ask 1 question per homework assignment (sometimes two), so I have to flip through all the pages already.

      Best,
      Sam

  7. Thank God for the internet. I’m a student teacher and posts like this one avoid so much reinvention – and the students benefit.

  8. I promised Sam I would do a follow-up blog post on doing Binder Checks. So here is part 1 of my reflection.

    I’m doing Binder Checks with two very different classes — my Algebra 2 class, who are students at the top of their game, and my Algebra 1 class, which is more than 50% Special Ed (diagnosed with specific learning differences) and more than 60% Algebra 1 repeaters (i.e., students who failed Algebra 1 in eighth grade or later). Both classes are mostly 9th graders with a light dusting of sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

    This is a summary of how things worked with Algebra 2.

    My Algebra 2 students are very on top of things. Give them a new tool and they’ll grab hold and start using it well. Within a day or two, they’ll have excellent suggestions on how to improve it. They’re just that good.

    Still, as Sam kept warning me, they totally flubbed Binder Check 1. I’m talking #epicfail . Some kids didn’t have a dedicated binder as required, some didn’t have five labeled divider tabs, many were missing one or more of the three HW assignments from which the Binder Check questions were drawn.

    In other words, it was a blood bath.

    The fact that I am using an SBG assessment model raised a thorny question for me: should I give them the chance to remediate and reassess — or not?

    This was a true test of faith. It forced me to question my values. Should I maintain the purity and integrity of my new Binder Check system and let the kids suffer the slings and arrows of an eternal stain on their transcripts? Or should I risk my newfound reputation as a mathematical hard-ass and give them a chance to remediate and reassess?

    I wrestled with this question that first weekend. Many of these students, while strong students in general, are pretty traumatized math learners. And most are first-generation college-bound. So on the one hand, I didn’t want to discourage them further.

    On the other hand, I have seen the power of the SBG model, and in the end, my trust in SBG won out. I decided it was more important for them to learn how to organize and use their notes as a learning tool than for me to make my point for its own sake.

    So I declared a universal do-over.

    This was probably for the best, as my first aid and CPR skills are not extensive enough to keep 30 achievement-oriented adolescents from having a collective nervous breakdown.

    However, they were not going to get off so easily. On Monday morning, I opened my lecture with a declaration of Binder Check #1 as an #EPICFAIL. In my Keynote slides, I showed them photo after photo of epically-failing Binder Check Crimes, including:

    • The Binder With No Tabs
    • The Binder With an Empty Homework Section
    • The Homework Paper With No Date
    and
    • The Homework That Looked As If It Had Narrowly Escaped From a Colony of Feral Pigs

    I blacked out all the names and incriminating details, but there was plenty of guilt to go around. What was more, the photographic evidence allowed me to turn the episode into a teachable moment, namely, “Do you HONESTLY BELIEVE this is ‘A’ quality work?” And because the evidence was so extreme, laughter eventually won out over horror.

    I told them I would let the bad grades stand until Binder Check #2, at which time I would reevaluate whether or not they had taken my criticisms to heart or had dismissed me as yet another “wonk wonk wonk”-speaking clueless grown-up.

    I waited two more weeks for Binder Check #2, long enough to let them stew in their suffering, but not long enough to have to defend myself against a barrage of parent complaints to my principal.

    During those two weeks, my reputation as a hard-ass spread across the school. Teachers I hardly knew were coming up to me in the lounge to shake my hand and give me props for holding the kids to such a high standard. 

    I started to wonder if I was committing career suicide. But I decided to suspend judgment until Binder Check #2.

    In the meantime, I took advantage of the fact that I had really gotten their attention. Every note-taking moment or worksheet became an opportunity to ask the musical question, “What section of your binder do you think this paper should be filed under?”

    And to their eternal credit, they got the hint. They began to use their binder as a valuable learning tool.

    Validation arrived in the form of Binder Check #2. The lowest grade in the class was a 91%. And I wiped out their grades from Binder Check #1.

    SBG had triumphed once again.

    In our next episode, how things went in Algebra 1.

    -Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

  9. Elizabeth, this is awesome. I can’t believe it. You’ve done better than me, for sure! I haven’t gotten an average of 91%!

    As for the do-over, actually I did something similar in my non-SBG Algebra 2 class. We have 2 binder checks in the first quarter, and of course, the first one of the year is always awful. But most of my kids improved on the second one… since I was grading organization, and their correcting their work, if they improved, I took the second binder check as their quarter binder score.

    However, this will not happen again, since now my expectations have been clear and I’ve done enough to coach them.

    And finally, I love “The Homework That Looked As If It Had Narrowly Escaped From a Colony of Feral Pigs”

    Sam

    1. My Algebra 1 class was a whole ‘nother kettle of fish with their first Binder Checks. This class consists of the extremely discouraged math learners along with a very high percentage of students with diagnosed learning differences, including ADD and ADHD.

      When I say these kids are discouraged, I mean they are *extremely* discouraged. Many of them failed Algebra 1 once already in the eighth or ninth grade. Many of them are repeaters. Psychologically speaking, a large number are hunkered down into a defensive crouch. They’ve never had any success in their math studies, so why should they expect anything different in this class? Their goal is simply to endure it.

      What’s frustrating is that these same kids are all superb artists in their artistic disciplines. Admission to our school is by audition only, and the competition for spots in the freshman class is fierce.

      And therein lies the paradox. These kids undergo a reverse-Superman transformation when they enter our classroom, going from superhero to supplicant as they pass through the open door. They leave their confidence in the hallway.

      As both an artist and a math teacher, I find this painful.

      The net result is that they have given up before they’ve even had a chance to begin. They’ve quit, not because they are quitters, but because they are conditioned to believe they *cannot* succeed in a math class, and so why even both wasting the energy it would take to try.

      This is the classic posture of the discouraged child, as outlined by Rudolf Dreikurs. Fro this reason, I have to take a totally different approach to the binder checks with these students. I believe Dreikurs when he says the only antidote to discouragement is to encourage their courage. And so that is my sole emphasis with binder checks in this class.

      I did as much advertising and previewing of the Binder Check requirements in Algebra 1 as I did in Algebra 2. I constantly grilled them about which section each paper belonged in. They would mumble half-hearted responses and shrug in their seats. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that only half the students actually even turned in a binder. But I was a little bummed out.

      In hindsight, I can see that they couldn’t even hear me giving Sam’s speech about how Binder Checks are really just “free points” for them. They had cloaked themsleves in so many protective layers against further shaming and failure that nothing could have penetrated through their defenses to reach their ears.

      There was only one thing to do — and that was to not accept opting out as an answer.

      I graded all the binders I received — which were all moderately terrible, as I expected. But with these students and with others, I held mini-conferences to discuss remediation (or doing, in most cases). We looked over everything they had in their backpacks and “binders” — most of which looked horrible — and I made each student a starter list of what they still needed to assemble for me to remediate and reassess. I broke things down into recipe-level detail. I made it clear that the goal here was to learn how to do this so that they would be better equipped to succeed in this class, but that it was OK with me if they needed a little more support at the beginning to achieve lift-off.

      This produced a lot of cognitive dissonance for them. Most of them are conditioned to believe that they can get the teacher off their backs if they simply fail to perform the assigned task. Then they can simply sit through a shaming “wonk wonk wonk” lecture before they pull the covers back over their heads and return to their preferred state of invisibility until the end of the year.

      They were not prepared for patience.

      If they failed again, I worked with them on improving their own lists of needed deliverables. I have done this three or four times so far with some students. But they’re starting to come around.

      What I want them to understand is that in *this* class, it will actually be easier for them to simply *DO* the Binder Check and get it over with. Otherwise they are going to have to continue to deal with me and my possibly mental-patient level of patience. I am as sticky as gum on the bottom of their shoe, and I am building alliances with parents, with paras, and with the Special Ed team. The Special Ed teachers are especially enthusiastic about getting on board with the binder checks because these students really need it. Plus they are well-armed with binder supplies in their resource rooms.

      Basically, we have them surrounded.

      – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

  10. Hi Sam,
    I’m a first year teacher who is looking at different systems to put in place next year, as this year I was definitely NOT very organized myself. I was just wondering if you still use this system? If so, what have you found worked/didn’t work about the system you described originally?

    1. Hi LeeAnn,

      I used it for the standard Algebra II course I taught, because the kids really were disorganized, and I didn’t really use a textbook — mainly a lot of handouts we worked on that I created. So I felt the need to use it. I overall thought it was beneficial.

      This year I’m teaching an Advanced Precalc class instead of Algebra II, and I thought I’d not do binder checks for them unless I saw they were super disorganized. They aren’t, so I’m not doing them. Also, I am collecting and marking their homework, which I wasn’t doing for the Algebra II classes. So it’s just a different course, where my needs are different.

      Sam

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