5 Problems with Interactive Notebooks & How to Solve Them
Interactive notebooks are a note-taking system that teachers either love or hate.
I think every teacher has a system they like using – and that is fine.
Teachers do best when they have a system that works well with their style.
When I read posts or comments by teachers who don’t like interactive notebooks, they usually have a few of the same complaints.
I’m going to address those problems here and explain how teachers can solve them to make interactive notebooks work for both them and their students.
Problem 1: Classes Are Too Short, and There Isn’t Enough Time
In middle school classrooms, this seems to be the number one drawback of using interactive notebooks. Honestly, it can be challenging to utilize many teaching strategies when the class is only 40 minutes long.
I would argue that adding a new system to any class takes time for students to adapt and learn – like any other method, students have to be taught how to prepare interactive notebooks and the class expectations.
Interactive notebooks take some students time to understand. (These students usually need fine motor practice, as so much of it has been removed in elementary and at home.)
One strategy that cuts prep time significantly is to organize a week’s worth of templates on one page and have them flush. Students save time because they are cutting multiple templates at once – and cutting them with fewer snips.
When I design an interactive notebook, I stick to shapes that have straight cuts for almost every template. Straight cuts are easier and faster for your less-crafty students to cut out and fold.
The second strategy goes with the first: cut a week’s worth of templates and glue them at one time. Students only need to get supplies, cut, glue, and clean up once instead of every day.
Depending on the class’s needs, the teacher can be either cutting out a set of templates for an absent student (or for a student that needs help with fine motor skills) or doing a class activity while students get finished.
For example, teachers could be introducing a unit with a story hook or reading a class read aloud.
Problem 2: Lack of Supplies
For interactive notebooks, you need notebooks, scissors, copy paper, and a way to attach the templates (glue, tape, etc.)
I stock up on supplies at Back to School, when notebooks and glue are the cheapest. I use white glue, and teachers need to train students not to soak their templates. “Dot, dot – not a lot” needs to be demonstrated and enforced.
However, I know some secondary teachers who use tape – the expense is worth the time saved, especially if the school will provide the tape.
I found it easier to have supply baskets and assign one for every 4-5 students. These baskets prevented kids from not bringing supplies or taking 10 minutes to locate their supplies.
Each table, row, or area of students should have a supply basket. Assign a student to be in charge of collecting all the supplies at the end and asking for new supplies as needed.
If teachers have a copy limit, they should use templates strategically. Not every single note needs to be written on a template.
If I had to select some templates over others, I would use copied templates for mapping and guided notes of the most difficult or important sections of the unit.
Problem 3: Cutting and Gluing Take Far Too Long
I know I have already hinted at how to solve this problem, but this problem is probably the most common complaint teachers have about interactive notebooks. Several strategies can cut down the amount of time students take to get ready.
- Make a teacher notebook and show students how the templates should look when they are finished. Many students need to see a visual to understand what they need to do. Having the model makes a big difference – and absent students can also use it to catch up. (I had a notebook for every class section – I made the notes with each class rather than have one that they all copied.)
- Keep notebooks in an easy to access location in the classroom. Do not store an entire class’s notebooks in one place, or the students will all swarm to the same spot to get their notebooks. It is easier to store them by table group, last name, etc. Spread the bins to different locations, so students are not all trying to reach the same area.
- Decide what type of template works best for the material. Sometimes a simple chart is best, and it just needs to be trimmed. When using a folded template, teachers should select shapes that are easy to cut – and continue to use those shapes throughout the year, so students get used to folding and gluing them.
- Set a timer and enforce it. In the beginning, teachers will need to give more time for students to get finished, but they will get faster with practice. Teachers can also save time by identifying which students need support cutting and getting finished. I determine which students are “crafty” and finish early, then ask them to help the kids who are not. I also usually cut a set of templates while the kids do, then glue them into an absent student’s notebook. However, use the timer and enforce it once you have a good idea of how long it should take to get done. If I found 5 minutes was reasonable for most students to get done and cleaned up, I started the lesson when the timer went off. Kids who are just playing around learn to stay focused fast.
Problem 4: It Is Too Hard for Absent Students to Catch Up
I found it easier for absent students to get the notes when I used interactive notebooks. Students could come and ask for the example notebook, then copy the notes they were missing.
Since the notes were in one place, I didn’t have to worry about saving my notes for students to copy them – or finding a student that took excellent notes and would share.
When teachers prep the templates for absent students, it helps them get caught up as well.
I usually had time to cut a set of templates, and there are always a few students who finish early and are willing to help prep notebooks for absent students.
Problem 5: There Isn’t Enough Benefit to Using Interactive Notebooks
I saved the best for last – this is the most common teacher and parent complaint I have seen. And, actually, sometimes they are right.
Often when I heard this complaint, teachers were using blank templates for students’ notes. In those situations, I would agree that the time prepping isn’t worth it.
Also, in some classes, teachers may need to teach students a higher-level note-taking skill. After all, no one will be handing them premade templates when they are adults.
However, for elementary and middle school students or students that need reading support, interactive notebooks can be a fantastic tool.
My interactive notebooks are set up as guided notes – perfect for helping students identify and find the important points in a textbook.
I remember copying nearly everything out of the textbook as a student – and I was a strong reader. No one had ever really explained to me how to identify essential information in a textbook. Note-taking is a skill that all students need to be taught, usually in upper elementary or middle school.
In my classes, I found test scores improved after I started using interactive notebooks. Research has linked taking notes by hand with an increased recall of information (Science Daily, 2014).
With me checking the notebooks, students had to take the notes. Students also enjoyed seeing how big their notebooks were – I had boys that would measure their thickness and weight! Students that hadn’t been very academically oriented began taking more ownership of their notebooks.
Also, many students struggle with executive functions. How many students do you have that do homework but can’t find it? Or take notes but have no idea where they are?
Lack of organizational skills is a serious problem for many students, and interactive notebooks can solve that problem. All the notes get glued in, so they can’t get lost.
Pro Tip: Be sure to check those students to make sure they are gluing the templates in the notebook in order and on consecutive pages. I learned that the hard way!
I found that the interactive notebooks helped me to be more organized. Because I had planned out the guided reading questions, I knew what points I wanted to discuss, and I could gauge how much information we could complete in one day.
I also had my notes in one location, so if students need to borrow them, I didn’t have to search for the pages in the piles on my desk.
Again, interactive notebooks are not the best tool for every class, but they do have many benefits.
Hopefully, these tips will help you use them effectively with your students.
If you have other issues with using them, please send me a message – perhaps I can help you with some strategies.