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There are obviously a lot of aspects that factor into academic success, the largest being the ability to understand the material. However, time and time again I come across students who understand the material perfectly, but still have low grades.

Further investigation almost always yields the same cause: missed assignments, forgotten deadlines, and lost homework. Many parents who have “forgetful” children will help to buffer the negative grade effects by constantly reminding them about due dates. However, while that may help their children survive high school, it’s not going to help in college when the kids are on their own.

When I was in Middle School, I had a science teacher with a very interesting grading scheme. She made something like 10-20% of our grades based on deadlines and organization, rather than on material understanding. It didn’t matter if you did the homework and understood it if it was left on your dining room table. And likewise, future bosses wouldn’t care if you did the project but forgot to bring it to work.

She had a no-mercy policy when it came to forgotten assignments. While this caused a lot of grumbling among the students, it was certainly effective. By the end of the year, she had us all on a very strict and organized schedule, with very few incidents of forgetfulness.

In addition to her strict deadlines, she also had a very specific way that she required our notebooks to be organized. Every student was required to have a binder with 5 dividers. The sections were to be labeled: Notes, Homework, Quizzes, Tests, and Blank Paper.

Each section was required to have a table of contents, which had the name of each assignment and the date that it was added. She would grade our notebooks every two weeks, and give us time to reorganize them before she graded them. Notes were to be in Cornell Style, and we were also graded on that.

To a class of 8th graders, it seemed pointless and annoying to have so much of our grade based on how neat our notebooks were. However, I realize now that she was trying to (and succeeded in) instilling into us a habit of sustained organization.

She knew that kids weren’t likely to keep up their organization on their own, so she gave us time to do it at regular intervals. We had an immediately positive reward after organization (in the form of a good grade and a happy sticker or stamp on our notebooks) to further reinforce the habit.

While I didn’t end up using the exact same organization method for the rest of my academic career, I did maintain a preference for well-organized notes. I stopped losing assignments, and adapted appropriate organization for my own learning style. In the end, I usually settled on using bound notebooks for my notes (it’s impossible to lose them if they’re bound), and a planner to keep track of due dates and assignments.

Having built a habit of organization really helped me be successful in college. Take a look at what my MCAT notes looked like. You can see how I used a bound, sectioned notebook with tables of contents for the different sections. I also used color-coded Cornell notes to organize my thoughts. You can read more about how to use Cornell notes here. 


Practical Applications

So while that’s a nice story from my childhood, let’s talk about how it can apply to life now.

From a young age, you should encourage your kids to organize their schoolwork (and their hobbies!) Most kids don’t have an inherent sense of what “organized” looks like, so you should work on it with them. Make it a positive experience, and if you child is stressed by organization, be sure to reward them afterwards in some way (verbal praise + small reward usually works.) I’m a big fan of stickers for a visual reminder of a job well done.

A lot of parents are busy, and prefer to just tell their child to “organize your notebook.” For some kids, that works. But many kids will get stressed by the thought of it, and will procrastinate or do a poor job. So for those cases, it’s especially important to do it with them. Be patient; don’t act annoyed with them, even if you end up doing a lot of the work at first. Just be sure to engage them in the process as much as they can handle.

            “Let’s make separate piles of your tests, homework, and quizzes. You do this stack, and I’ll do the other one. Great. Now that that’s done, let’s put these in the right sections of your binder. Great job! It looks so organized now! You’re good at this, maybe you can help me organize the junk drawer on Saturday.”

Keep in mind that children learn by example. It’s hard for kids to be organized if they see that their parents aren’t. So this is a good opportunity to examine your own habits— if you constantly find yourself forgetting what to buy at the grocery store, involve your kids in making a grocery list with you! Let them help you organize the junk drawer, the front closet, and the garage. Involve them in planning for family outings, and making “To Do” lists for chores around the house.

With consistent reinforcement, children will learn to start considering organization automatically. Homework and quizzes will get placed in the correct sections the first time, and weekly notebook touch ups won’t even be necessary anymore. And before you know it, lost and forgotten assignments will become a thing of the past.