All Systems Go: Student Organization Made Easy

Most students start off the school year with a resolution to be better organized and stay on top of their assignments, but if they’ve struggled with this in the past it doesn’t take long to fall behind again and feel defeated. That’s because those plans for getting organized usually involve changing behaviors and routines without changing the thinking about what it is being organized.

If this sounds familiar to you, try considering the way you navigate each school day as an exercise in information management, because that’s really what you’re doing. The data may be presented to you by different people, and it may take different forms, but at a basic level it is all information with which you need to do three things:

  1. Categorize
  2. Review
  3. Interact


Your average student has between 7-8 classes a day. That’s a lot of information to manage and process by the end of it. This blog post will focus on boiling it all down to the most basic level, but for many students this is all that’s needed. In fact, the less organized you tend to be, the more basic your system of organization should be. Students often get this backwards, thinking that the more chaotic their academic lives have become in the past means a more elaborate strategy is needed than that student who stays on top of assignments and always gets home knowing what needs to be done. Not necessarily – in fact, the latter student already has a system that probably is an elaborate one they’ve refined over the years and can maneuver through like clockwork; you just aren’t aware of it.  Look at it this way: if you were capable of following a detailed and elaborate form of information management, wouldn’t you be doing it already? Of course you would.

In fact, it’s not just okay to keep it simple, it’s necessary that you do so. Once you’ve established a foundation of organization, you can build on it in any way that feels right to you (I have suggestions for that, too, but I’m not getting into it here). The good news is this: As far as what information you need to manage, I can break the organization of your school day down to two basic categories:

  • Incoming Information
  • Outgoing Information

You need to collect the information you receive throughout the day (Incoming), and you need to compile the information you will give to others throughout the day (Outgoing). And for now, these are the only two categories you need.

If you’ve never broken your school day down into these two components, doing this simple step will give you a better grip on what’s happening in your classes. Sure, these categories are very broad, and you can generate many subcategories under each one of them, but for now I’m going to do as little of that as possible to make it easy for you. And for some of you, this might be as deep as you ever go. Others will create subcategories on their own once they’ve got the basics down. But here are a few simple subcategories, just to identify the difference between the two:

  • Incoming Information
    • Handouts from teachers
    • Graded/returned work
    • Class notes

Each class will have information that varies from this a little, but you get the idea. Notice that Incoming Information is not just pieces of paper a teacher passes out in class or hands back to you, it’s also the intangible information he or she gives you in the form of lectures or class discussions. So some of your Incoming Information will be written down by you – but it’s still information you received from that teacher.

What about Outgoing Information?

  • Outgoing Information
    • Completed assignments to turn in
    • Important documents or forms to return

On your end, this is basically it. Not bad, right? Notice again I’ve kept it general; within the completed assignments category, for example, there could be subcategories such as homeworkessays, or late work, but again, I don’t recommend getting too detailed with this until you’re sure it’s something you can maintain. Take it too far, and you’ll lose track and get discouraged. Just keeping in mind that you have these two basic types of Outgoing Information to manage is a perfect start.

So, you’ve now got your two categories, but how are you going to use them to organize information throughout the day? Once again, let’s keep it simple – how about having one folder for all Incoming Information, and another folder for Outgoing Info? You don’t even have to separate the information out by subject. Just carry an Incoming folder and an Outgoing one all day, every day. The Incoming folder will get loaded up with all the things we mentioned being in this category – notes, handouts from teachers, returned work, and so on. And the Outgoing folder will have within it everything you need to turn in that day, so you can simply pull it out and check it at the start of each class to find whatever it is you need.*

So we’ve taken care of step one – categorize – let’s turn now to step two.


Step two is the tricky bit for students with Executive Functioning issues or ADHD; just remembering to gets things into the proper folder or written down in a planner (which is another area where I can help – planners are important, too) is so far out of the norm for them, and requires so much effort for them to do, that it feels like they’ve done far more work than they actually have. Then the impulsivity kicks in – if it feels like I got everything done, there’s no need to check and be sure; I must be done with everything because it feels like I am.  It’s important to understand that this is not laziness, absent-mindedness, or rebellion; many kids’ brains work much harder to focus amidst the chaos of  that crucial time in class when papers are being handed back, homework is being assigned, and class discussions are underway, to get their own work turned in and their handouts filed properly.

So, keep the responsibility throughout the school day focused simply on getting things filed into one folder, or removed from the other one. That’s all you have to do. Then go home and review what’s in the Incoming Information folder when nothing else is going on around you. This is your time to think about what each piece of information is, and what you need to do with it. Having to stop during class and decide where each piece of paper should go is too much – if it all goes into the one simple place, you have a much better chance of  getting it home and getting it done. Just stick it all into the same folder and deal with it later.

And while we’re on the subject, please don’t think that shoving everything into an open backpack is the same thing as placing information in a folder. Cramming papers into your backpack may be easy at the time, but later on you’ve got a crumpled mess that is harder to sort through and cannot be mended. Your teachers work hard on the handouts and documents they give you, so respect that enough to treat them with care and keep them neat. The same goes for respecting the work you do, too, by the way – the work you produce is NOT garbage, and should NEVER look like it is.

So what does it mean to review information anyway? It works like this:

  • Take out anything from the Incoming folder that is for homework, and move it into the Outgoing Information folder to be worked on that night
  • Review every other piece of paper and create one “pile” for each subject
  • File all this information by subject in a manner that works for you

As you can see, you do need somewhere to keep information by subject, but it doesn’t have to be carried with you everywhere you go. You can keep it all at home – in separate binders or one big one, in stacks located somewhere in the room, in an accordion file – whatever you decide works for you (or whatever we decide together, if you’re working with me). But the idea is, you don’t need to carry an elaborate system with you every day, and you don’t have to think about that system during the bustle of each class. You can go through and organize things later during a quieter time. It’s much less stressful and far more productive for those of us that struggle to keep things straight in the midst of chaos (and I say us here because I’m one of them).

So, all homework you pull out of the day’s Incoming folder goes straight into the Outgoing one. After you’ve filed everything else away, that Outgoing folder is essentially your homework one – just make sure it’s all done before it goes back to school the next day.

But what about the handouts you receive from teachers that you are supposed to carry with you at all times (it could be a formula sheet you’re working on in math or a handout of notes you will be working with in English class)? You can still keep it simple: for any piece of information you are unsure how to categorize, ask yourself, is this Incoming or Outgoing? If it’s something that at some point you are going to turn in to someone, it’s Outgoing. If it is never going to be turned in, but used in class for a while, it’s Incoming. Make sense? This works because anything you are to eventually turn in will be in a folder where you see it every day during review time, as a reminder that it still needs to be done. And if it’s something you need to take with you to class every day, keeping it in the Incoming folder will ensure you actually have it when you need it.

This is where a lot of students say to me, can’t I have a third folder for information that’s ongoing, and title it as such? To which I say, sure – great idea! That’s how a student starts to take ownership of this system and make it his or her own. But don’t feel like you have to do that now, or ever – keeping it limited to two folders of information will always work.


You’ve probably already noticed that Step Two (reviewing) involved interacting with the information already. And that is correct. Reviewing is a form of interacting with the information, but so is utilizing your two folders throughout the school day appropriately. It’s important for you to check both folders in every class at least once; to be sure to put anything new into the Incoming one and to retrieve anything you need to turn in from the Outgoing folder. This has to be done in every class, as well as during other periods of the day – you may have things to turn in within the Outgoing folder that aren’t going to be called for in a class, such as application forms for a special program or a permission form for a field trip that needs to be turned in to the proper office. Therefore, it’s not enough to wait for a teacher to trigger your interactions with your information; you have to prompt yourself to do it too.

Make it a habit of checking each folder either at the beginning or at the end of each class, whichever works best for you. Certain teachers may call for homework every day at a certain time, and that might dictate your interactions in those classes. But it’s best not to wait for prompting. You also need to check both folders before the school day starts, somewhere that is calm and peaceful so you can pay attention. That might be at home before you leave, or it might be in an area at school where you hang out before the first bell rings – as long as it gets done.  You also need to check them mid-day, either at lunch or during a study hall. And of course, check them again once you get home for your Review session.

It sounds like a lot of interacting, but look at it this way: no matter how comfortable with this system you become, things happen throughout the day that will shake up your routine – special assemblies, pop quizzes, and fire drills, just to name a few. Checking mid-day during lunch or study hall will make up for those times you get thrown off track in a class, and by doing so you can catch something like a homework assignment you forgot to turn in. You can also use your information management system to help out any friends you have who aren’t yet as organized as you are – checking it during lunch can remind others they have assignments to turn in, too.

So let’s sum this blog post up: We now know that in order to stay on top of your assignments and class work you must learn to manage information that comes to you in two basic forms: Incoming Information and Outgoing InformationIncoming Information is all the data you receive throughout the day from your teachers. Outgoing Information is all the data you must turn in to teachers and other educators throughout the day. In order to ensure that you are managing these two types of information effectively, you must categorize it (determine if it is Incoming or Outgoing), review it (go over both folders at the end of each school day), and interact with it (check each folder regularly throughout the day, including after school, during lunch, and/or study hall). And by the way,  don’t get disheartened if it takes some time getting used to, or if you stumble every once in a while. No system is foolproof, and things happen. Just commit to doing better the next time, and move on.

Here’s some more good news for you: No student is ever as on top of things as on the first day of school; it’s the one time everyone shows up to all their classes completely caught up with everything (I’m ignoring summer reading assignments for the sake of argument). So take advantage of that clean slate to change your thinking about organization, and stay one step ahead for the rest of the year.

*Some teachers will require you to keep a binder in their class that is organized in a specific way, and when that’s the case, there’s generally a grade involved. Don’t let that throw you off. Carry that binder with you every day – chances are the teacher references it on a regular basis – but you can still put all NEW information you are given during class into the Incoming folder. When you review the folder after school, you can then file away the materials for that class into the binder the teacher requires you to keep. 

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