The best school notebooks

The best school notebooks

September 10, 2020
  • Although onsite learning is an uncertainty for many students this fall, we've rounded up the best school supplies, many of which are useful for virtual learning as well.
  • From kindergarten through college, students go through a lot of paper and notebooks — key components in mastering handwriting, taking notes, and learning. 
  • We put 12 popular notebooks through the paces to bring you our top picks for this guide.
  • The best school notebook overall is the Five Star Advance Wirebound Notebook 3 Subject — it's durable, versatile, and offers a lot of bang for your buck.

With a master's degree in education and years of teaching under my belt, I've seen and bought my fair share of notebooks.

Some students, school districts, and colleges have made the switch away from paper and gone completely digital. However, research has shown that students who write their notes down — as opposed to typing them — perform better on tests.

As a teacher, I've seen this firsthand. Students may not internalize their notes as well when they don't write them out by hand. It's also easier for them to get distracted when using a device — it's almost impossible for them to ignore a notification.

You don't need to splurge to get a good notebook, but there are some things to consider when shopping for this ubiquitous school supply. Andy Beauchamp, a second grade teacher in Minnesota, advises parents to wait until they hear from their child's teacher before purchasing notebooks. Always keep in mind that different teachers may have different requirements.   

To find the best notebooks, I conducted research, talked to current teachers, and tested 12 popular options, which were provided as editorial review samples by their manufacturers. My testing included writing, ripping out pages, spilling water on them, and more — which you can read about at the end of this guide.

Here are the best school notebooks you can buy:

  • Best school notebook overall: Five Star Advance 3 Subject Notebook, College Ruled
  • Best notebook for elementary school: AmazonBasics Wide-Ruled Composition Notebook
  • Best notebook for middle and high school: Five Star Wirebound 1 Subject Notebook
  • Best notebook for college: Hamelin 1 Subject Notebook
  • Best school notebook for lefties: Moleskine Classic Notebook, Hard Cover, XL
  • Best budget school notebook: Mead 1 Subject Spiral Notebook

Prices and links are current as of 9/10/20. We selected new picks based on research and testing and added slides that include our testing methodology, what else we considered, and note-taking tips.

The best overall

The Five Star Advance 3 Subject Notebook with moveable pocket dividers keeps notes in great shape through the school year and beyond.

In my experience as a teacher, the two main reasons notebooks get ruined are ripped covers and snagged wires. The college-ruled Five Star Advance Notebook takes care of both of these problems with a durable plastic cover and a fabric wire guard.

With room for three subjects and protective coverings, this notebook will last through an entire school year and even longer. In our tests, the cover protected the pages from water damage, and it was difficult to pull the wires out from under the fabric guard. 

Its durability makes it ideal for saving notes from higher-level courses to refer back to later. The moveable dividers add versatility as well. Maybe one class only uses 50 pages while another uses 75 — you won't waste pages like you would with a fixed divider. I found the pages ripped out cleanly and didn't leave any jagged edges. A nice added feature is the pen/pencil holder. 

When compared to some of our other picks, writing utensils didn't glide quite as smoothly over the paper. However, this isn't a big deal for the average student. The only age group this notebook might not be ideal for is lower-elementary school due to its size. 

If for some reason this notebook doesn't last, it also has Five Star's one-year guarantee (misuse and abuse are not covered).

Pros: Cloth cover protects coils, moveable pocket dividers, extremely durable plastic cover

Cons: Some resistance when writing, might not be ideal for young students

The best for elementary school

The AmazonBasics Wide-Ruled Composition Notebook helps kids perfect their handwriting and the sewn binding eliminates the danger of wires for younger kids. 

While I typically recommend notebooks with more durable covers, I like the AmazonBasics Composition Notebook specifically for elementary school kids because it has wide spacing between lines. This is ideal for writers who are still perfecting their technique. The sewn binding also prevents problems spiral notebooks can cause for young kids.

Beauchamp agrees that young children benefit from a sewn binding. "Spiral notebooks make practicing writing mechanics and using a full line challenging for students," he said. "About halfway through the year the spiral begins to come undone if not taken care of, and can be harmful to students as it is quite sharp. Composition notebooks eliminate those problems." 

In our tests, the cardboard cover tore easily, but there was no wire to pull loose. The cover held up well to the spill test; it showed water damage, but it didn't seep through to the paper. Like most composition notebooks, there aren't any perforations to tear pages out, so the edges ripped unevenly when I tried to pull them out. Ease of writing was average — slightly rough but what you'd expect from a notebook at this price point.

The notebook is available in solid or marbled covers in blue, yellow, green, red, and black. While these colors are nice, young kids might be disappointed that there aren't fun designs. 

A handy conversion chart and a space to write a schedule are included on the inside covers. The schedule space can help young kids learn to tell time and follow routines. 

Pros: Pages securely sewn in, wide-ruled paper is ideal for perfecting handwriting, includes schedule and conversion chart

Cons: Cover is plain, can't tear pages out

The best for middle and high school

The Five Star Wirebound 1 Subject Notebook is simple, versatile, and exceptionally durable with a water-resistant plastic cover.

As both a student and a teacher, the Five Star Wirebound 1 Subject was my favorite notebook. While some other notebooks quickly succumb to wear and tear as the year goes on, many Five Star notebooks look good as new even on the last day of school. 

The durability of this notebook is largely due to its water-resistant cover. "Notebooks with stronger, thicker covers seem to survive the everyday wear and tear of being thrown in backpacks and lockers," according to Alissa Martin, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania. "Often, buying a more expensive notebook will save money in the end because it won't need to be replaced due to a cover falling apart or ripping, or the wiring coming apart." 

In our tests, the cover of this notebook did not rip and it protected the pages from spilled water. The edges of the wire loop back on itself to prevent snagging. There are also two interior pockets for storing handouts, worksheets, and loose paper. While I like this feature, the pockets are made of cardboard that is not very durable. The ink bleed-resistant paper has perforations, and the pages ripped out well in our testing. Out of all of our top picks, this was the roughest to write on but not unusual for this type of notebook.

A 100-page one-subject notebook is usually enough for one class. Teachers may request wide-or college-ruled paper. If they don't give a preference, middle school students might prefer wide-ruled while high school students might gravitate toward a college-ruled notebook.  Five Star offers both options. It also comes in many different colors, ideal for organizing classes by color, and it's sold in discounted packs of three or six at Amazon. 

Pros: Durable, water-resistant cover; built-in pockets; colorful covers are easy to organize; loops on wires prevent snagging

Cons: Interior pockets aren't very durable

The best for college

The Hamelin 1 Subject has 150 pages of college-ruled paper to accommodate notes-intensive courses, and it comes with access to a note management app. 

Of all the notebooks I've used throughout my life — from elementary to grad school — the ones I've held onto the most are the ones from my undergrad years. That's why the Hamelin 1 Subject notebook with its sturdy cover is our pick for best college notebook. Not only will the notebook itself last, but electronic versions of your notes can last forever if you take advantage of the Scribzee app. 

According to Meghan Huber, assistant professor in mechanical and industrial engineering at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, "Choosing the right notebook paper is critical, now more than ever, since most classes are taught online. Especially in STEM courses, students might be required to upload their homework and exam problems to show their work."

This is where students will really appreciate the Scribzee app that serves as a companion to the notebook. Students can take pictures of their notes and turn them into PDFs, send them to other people, organize them into folders, and add additional content like images. Uploading homework and exam problems to send to professors is a breeze. 

For further organization, the included peel-and-stick labels can be used to create dividers, label sections, and add bookmarks. Papers can be stored in one double-sided pocket in the front, which is somewhat flimsy card stock like that of the Five Star. The notebook comes in blue, red, white, black, purple, green, and yellow. 

The thick cover protected the pages well in our water test. The paper was very smooth to write on, and the pages tore out easily. The only test this notebook didn't do well on was the wire pull test — the spiral wire that binds the notebook pulled out very easily. Traditionally, this is more of a problem with middle and high school students who get the wire stuck on their lockers. However, the pros of this notebook outweigh that one con, especially for college students.

Pros: Durable, works with Scribzee app to manage and send notes, includes organizational stickers, writing utensils glide smoothly on paper

Cons: Wire pulls out easily, cost adds up if you need to purchase multiple notebooks

The best for lefties

The Moleskine Classic Notebook, Hard Cover, XL is ideal for lefties because the pages lie flat and ink doesn't smudge. 

Moleskine notebooks are known for their high quality and the brand has many loyal followers. This was my first time trying a Moleskine, and I was sold. 

To determine the best school notebook for lefties, however, my left-handed husband helped me test and make the final decision. This notebook came out on top in his testing for two reasons. First, the paper lies flat, so it wasn't uncomfortable and he didn't have to waste half the page. Second, ink and pencil smudged the least out of all the notebooks we tested. After decades of having ink smudged all over his hands, my husband was thoroughly impressed. 

These two factors, while great for lefties, aren't the only reasons this is an excellent notebook. In our tests, the hardcover protected the pages from water, and pens and pencils glided smoothly over the paper. Additional features include a bookmark ribbon, an elastic closure, and a durable expandable folder inside the rear cover. Although the pages do not have perforations, they tore out the best of all the nonperforated notebooks we tested. They come out evenly as long as you take your time.

The Moleskine classic has a very sleek look, and it's easy to customize: There are 10 color options, six sizes, four paper types, and two cover options (note that I did not test the soft cover). These options make this a great pick for lefties at any life stage — from elementary school all the way through professional life. 

Pros: Paper lies flat, minimal smudging, bookmark and folder included, many size and color options 

Cons: Expensive 

The best budget

The simple Mead 1 Subject Spiral Notebook does the job at half the price of similar notebooks.

Is the Mead 1 Subject the best notebook out there? No. Can you beat $2 or less for a school notebook? Also no. This notebook almost always can be found for $2 and often goes on sale for prices under $1. It certainly has its drawbacks, but as a teacher, it was one of the most popular notebooks I saw in the classroom simply because you can't beat the price. 

It comes in a variety of colors for students to choose from and is a typical wire-bound notebook with a cardstock cover. The pages include perforations and three-ring holes, so students can rip them out for graded assignments or put them in a binder. 

With such a low price comes some drawbacks, however. The cover is thin and was easily ripped in our tests. It also allowed water to seep through in our water test. The wire coil can get snagged easily, and I've seen this ruin Mead notebooks in my classroom. 

Ease of writing is average, similar to the AmazonBasics Composition Notebook. The perforated pages tear out evenly, but if you don't take your time, you might get the jagged edges that go around the wire.

There are certainly better notebook options out there, but the cost of school supplies can add up very quickly. If your budget is tight and you're looking for ways to save, the Mead 1 Subject Spiral Notebook can do the job. 

Pros: Inexpensive, multiple color options, page perforations and binder holes  

Cons: Coil can get snagged, cover rips easily

What else we considered

  • Mead Composition ($7): This notebook is very similar to the AmazonBasics Composition Notebook. It came in slightly more expensive than the Amazon option, which is why it didn't make the cut. 
  • Staples ($2) and Mead ($3) Primary Composition Notebooks: These are both good options for very young kids. They use the red baseline ruled lines to help kids learn how to write. Because most kids would outgrow them by second grade, we went with a wide ruled composition notebook pick for elementary school instead. 
  • Rocketbook Core ($31): This is a unique eco-conscious notebook. Students can write on the reusable paper with FriXion pens, then use the Rocketbook app to store a digital copy of their notes and erase the page with a damp cloth. This technology worked well when I tried it, but it may not be the best option for students. For one, it's not cheap for a notebook that might get destroyed or lost, and if students lose their FriXion pen, the notebook is useless. They also won't be able to tear any pages out to hand to a teacher. It would be a better fit in classrooms with 1:1 technology than those without. 
  • Black n Red Ruled Hardcover ($9): This notebook had high-quality paper and the hardcover protected the pages very well. However, the cover was so hard and the binding so tight that it was difficult to get the notebook to lie flat. 
  • Cambridge Professional ($16): This was a nice notebook that I found to be similar to the Hamelin. The very thick paper made it difficult to rip off along the perforated line, however. The Hamelin also edged this notebook out because of its compatibility with Scribzee.  

How we tested

After researching and selecting the top contenders for this guide, I received samples of each one on my short list and put them through the following testing criteria: 

  • Writing test: I wrote in each notebook with various writing utensils to make sure there was no bleeding through pages. None of the pages bled with typical pencils and pens. I did not test with markers, highlighters, or Sharpies. 
  • Rip test: I tore pages out of each notebook to test how cleanly and easily they came out. Teachers often ask students to rip pages out to hand in, and many teachers don't like when pages are uneven and have jagged edges. 
  • Typical student test: I threw them, stepped on them, tried to rip them by pulling on the cover, and tried to pull the coil off of notebooks that had one.
  • Water test: I spilled water on the cover of each notebook and let it sit for 15 minutes before assessing damage. 

Note-taking tips

Efficient note-takers successfully create a balance between trying to write down every word their teacher says and not writing enough. Here are a few note-taking tips: 

  • Keep notes organized with dates, titles, and sections. "Different sections of a notebook can help students learn to organize, especially if it's notes within one subject area," according to Martin.
  • Having multiple notebooks can help keep students organized. "Keep a notebook for each class plus a catch-all notebook," Huber said. "This additional notebook should be with the student at all times and can be used for anything from scratch paper to making a shopping list to a stand-in for that forgotten notebook."
  • Try using highlighters or colored pens to color-code notes. 
  • Use shorthand and abbreviations. This helps you write your notes quickly so you can spend more time listening. It also helps ensure you'll be able to understand your notes later. 
  • Underline or otherwise mark important or key notes. 

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Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partners. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising sales team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at [email protected]

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