The Magic of Using Index Cards

Jeffrey Keefer

Image via Pixabay on Pexels.

In our near-complete digital world where we tell our tools what to put on our to-do list and which music to play while we program our lights to go on at different times while also alerting us to weather emergencies, I propose that the best note-taking invention of the last however-many-years is the basic index card.

A better tool for note-taking, self-studying, and flashcard usage has never been invented!

Paper index cards are nothing new, yet the simple 3x5 card (I prefer blank ones on both sides, often in soothing, muted, pastel colors) is the hands-down best note-taking and study tool ever invented.

Before you scroll on by or swipe left, right, up, or down, hear me out!

Why Use Index Cards?

The notion of taking index cards and writing the main idea or thought on one side with the definition or a practical example on the other is brilliant. We have the answers on the very tip of our fingers, yet cannot cheat by glancing at them unless we intentionally turn them over ourselves (and thus we catch ourselves cheatin!).

In fact, if you use index cards to summarize books or chapters by writing the main idea for every section heading or chapter portion, then you will likely not have too many while also summarizing the main ideas of whatever author or text you are trying to recall.

Index cards have often been abused, but using them for any old notes (compared to only the main ideas) or for trying to write complicated thoughts instead of just main ideas is what you want to avoid. Simple, thin, main ideas are all there is room for, and in this way basic is best. Main ideas are not really main ideas if they take an entire notebook to communicate, right?

You want to focus on the main point of a chapter, and not try to write every last thought or idea? Voila, that is what index cards excel at, and why sometimes simple is best.

Index Cards as KISS

Index cards for notes follow the KISS approach — Keep It Simple, Stupid!!. They fail to be useful when writing too much information beyond the main idea you want to remember and practice.

This is really where index cards take on power — when they are used to capture or restate main points, and not only the ideas that seem pithy but vapor less.

Even online index cards, and there are many vendors and applications that seek to mimic the simplicity of paper, still do basically the same thing--they have a simple front and a simple back, with the functionality to flip around and remove from the stack those words or ideas that you feel you have mastered and no longer need to review and focus upon.

It is really not that complicated, but if you have never tried to use these to study, or somehow used them in the past though have not needed them for some time, then let me help ease you into this again.

Using Index Cards Is a Three-Step Process:

  1. On the front of the card, look for the one main idea you want to focus upon or take away. Restate it exactly as you want to focus upon it, or otherwise in your own words so it can then be studied. If it is a definition, then write the term to be defined. If it is a word in a foreign language, make sure to write it correctly, including any accents or capitalizations that are key to your focusing upon it. You may want to select a color to write it in, center it, or otherwise decorate it to help you maintain your focus. If you are doing this using some program, then your selections may already be defined for you, though the fundamental approach is the same.
  2. On the back, write a simple summary of the concept, or in the case of a definition, the words themselves “in quotes” so you can visualize this being the formal element. Do not write a paragraph or full sentences here — remember that the intention is for this to be enough for you to be able to speak to the main idea of the front of the card. It is not intended that you know every single thing about the topic you are trying to learn, as if that is the case, then spend the time reading the chapter or materials and not just a summary. Alternatively, you may need multiple cards, such as if you are studying medical terms or things related to processes or complex relationships. These index cards should create the focal point of your studying, and not become something that is otherwise better read within context, paragraphs, and chapters!
  3. Index cards to study should be short and simple, as that will allow them to be cycled through, with those that are learned removed from the pile, to allow for the focus on the main pile to be learned. Repeat the cycle, looking at the front, thinking about the key idea you have for it on the back, and then flip over to confirm you have mastered it.

The handwriting or physical printing of these cards is especially helpful, as online cards are quick and easy, though they do not really help with the physical process of writing, and thus remembering, them. Of course, if applications or online connections (or perhaps downloaded ones to your mobile device) are best, then go with what works for you. The process is the same, though many find the physical act of writing to be a valuable part of the learning and remembering process.

I personally find I do not remember as well when I type online cards, not to mention I cannot flip through them as I do with physical cards when am moving about the day, in/out of mobile service areas, or in a location where other distractors on my phone will tempt me awy from study and into checking in on something else.

If you have fond memories of using index cards to study during college, I invite you to dust off the pile and try them again. You may be surprised by how helpful they still can be.

While I have my educational and talent development coaching clients regularly use index cards to help improve study habits, I am eager to hear about your successes or challenges working with cards.

What else have you found especially helpful?

Comments / 0

Published by

Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY

More from Jeffrey Keefer

Comments / 0