A Little Organization Goes a Long Way

I recently helped a friend who was struggling in her undergraduate classes. Her writing is excellent; she’s brilliant. But her organization was a mess. As soon as we sat down to begin working, she sheepishly admitted that her organization is terrible, and apologized profusely as she struggled to find the assignment sheet in her email, on Blackboard, on her computer, in her Google Drive…

As I watched her navigate through the various files, I sympathized. Yes, she needed some advice on how to keep her own files organized. But it wasn’t entirely her fault that she couldn’t find the documents – every professor’s Blackboard site was organized differently, and every professor’s file-naming system was different. One professor’s system was so sloppy that two folders had the identical name! She had to open each folder to see what files were in there, and she had to open each file to see what text was in there! It was a nightmare.

And it got me thinking – how many times do we fail our students by assuming they have skills like this? What if we took the time to very carefully guide them through our own organization systems and teach them how to create their own?

Obviously, we can’t standardize a single organization system that every professor would be required to use. But we can give our students skills so that when they’re taking four or five classes a semester, they can easily navigate through four or five different professors’ organization systems.

The first thing my friend and I did was talk about how she can download and organize every file in her own system. This is useful, because it eliminates the need to remember multiple different organization systems. It’s also useful for students without access to a laptop or a home computer, because every file can be downloaded to a school computer, and then uploaded to the cloud. CUNY schools now offer free access to OneDrive and Microsoft Word, so students can create their own folders and host all their class materials in one spot.

The system I use, and taught my friend:

  1. Create a new folder for each semester.
  2. Within that folder, create a new folder for each class.
  3. Within that folder, save the syllabus and any miscellaneous items.
  4. Create another folder for each assignment in each class, for easy organization of potential sources. Download each source rather than simply reading it online!
  5. Rename every document as soon as you download it.
    1. For research sources: “AuthorLastName_Title_Year.” If you discover that a source is not actually going to be helpful to you, rename it by adding another tag: “Author_Title_Year_IRRELEVANT.” Make that last tag all-caps so it catches your eye and you can easily tell that you should skip it.
    2. For documents like syllabi and assignment sheets, and for the documents you create on your own: “YYYY-MM-DD_YourLastName_Title_Class#_ClassName.” All the info you need is there for easy finding, your name is there for when you submit to your professor, and if you put the date first your folder will be sorted chronologically.

Some tips for professors:

  1. Separate out assignments from the syllabus. One of the things I noticed while watching my friend navigate three different styles was that some professors include assignments directly in the syllabus and some include a separate sheet. I myself have done both in the past, but it hadn’t really occurred to me how confusing that can be. From now on, even if I include full instructions for each assignment in the syllabus, I will add a separate document for each as well – not only for the major papers but for things like a reading log as well. It helps if a student knows exactly where to find the instructions for the task they’re sitting down to complete, rather than having to scroll through the whole syllabus to find it. When I used a class blog, I had separate tabs for each section of the syllabus (requirements and grading, reading and writing schedule, resources, etc). It’s a bit more work on my part to do that on Blackboard, creating separate Word docs or PDFs and uploading each separately – but worth it in the long run.
  2. Rename each folder in Blackboard/Canvas/etc. The folder names that Blackboard and Canvas provide tend to be generic things like “Course Materials” and “Information.” Some professors put the syllabus in Course Materials, and some put it in Information. Each one makes sense to different people for different reasons. But if you rename them, students will know exactly what is in each one. I tend to rename mine to “Syllabus” (which includes only one file at the beginning of the semester, and any updates or revisions to the schedule as the semester progresses); “Reading Assignments” (which includes PDFs or links to any non-textbook reading); “Writing Assignments” (which includes all assignment sheets as well as links through which to submit them). You can also rename the Discussion Board / Forum to reflect whatever you call it on your syllabus and in assignments. For example, in my composition classes this semester, that tab is titled “Writing to Discover” because I’m using that feature from the assigned textbook. In my literature class, that tab is titled “Reading Log” because that’s what I call the weekly response in my syllabus. It’s a small thing with monumental effects on a student’s ability to quickly and easily find it for each class.
  3. Keep your files in chronological order! Take the extra time to move your files around after you’ve uploaded them to Blackboard, putting the first week’s reading / writing assignments first, and keeping them all in order. It will make it so much easier for students to find the correct file if they can just scroll past the ones they’ve already done until they hit the new one.
  4. Walk your students through your Blackboard on the first day of class. Don’t assume that it’s self-explanatory, even after making your organization as clear as possible. Remember that your students may not be familiar with digital files – yes, even now, not everyone has access to a computer as often as you think! And if they usually use their phones to write papers (not ideal, but it happens – so roll with it!) they really do need to be taught how to navigate folders etc.
  5. Spend time with your students setting up their own files and folders. If you have a computer classroom, you can do this on the first day of class. If you’re teaching first-semester composition or the freshman seminar, this is especially helpful. If you don’t have a computer classroom, you can still show them how to set it up and assign that as homework, or you can request to use the computer lab for one class session and do it then.

My main point here: Students struggle enough with the work itself. With minimal effort on our part, we can eliminate the hurdle of getting to the work in the first place, and allow them to devote all their energy to doing the work itself!

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