Using Index Cards in the Classroom

Using Index Cards in the Classroom

Photo by Justin See on Flickr. CC-BY licensed.

I was recently asked to give a short teaching presentation of a teaching technique or tool for our Faculty Teaching and Learning Lunch series here at Linfield. I imagine folks are going to be somewhat surprised that I’m not presenting on something that involves technology; instead, I’m going to talk about my many uses of index cards — low tech but effective!

I think my students have come to find my multipurpose uses of index cards somewhat amusing. After having purchased many index cards myself, I finally asked this semester’s students in each of my classes to purchase a pack of 3″ x 5″ cards along with their textbooks, and to bring some to every class session. Because I use lots of active learning techniques in my classes, it’s nice to have every student equipped with these cards for whatever activity I dream up, especially for spontaneous decisions to use one of the techniques below in class.

Why use 3″ x 5″ index cards specifically?

  • They’re small and easy to handle. I can sort and flip through them quickly to look at students’ responses.
  • They’re easier to make into rows and piles than sheets of paper.
  • Their size limits the length of student responses to quiz-type questions or quick writes, making these more focused and easier to read and/or grade.
  • They communicate “low-stakes activity” to students in a way that the instruction “Take out a sheet of paper” does not, reducing the anxiety caused by asking students to write on the spot in class.
  • Cards used for planned activities are easier to reuse each semester because they are more durable than slips of paper and don’t have to be reprinted and recut every time.

Here’s a list of the various ways I’ve used index cards in the classroom. Many of these I’ve adapted from teaching books, colleagues, online activities, etc., so I hesitate to claim that any is entirely original — but they have all worked for me in different contexts and courses.

Some possibilities:

  • Drawing student names or group numbers at random for participation in discussion, activities, presentations, etc.;
  • Answering questions, including:
    • “Daily questions” or brief quizzes at the beginning of class that can then be clarified and discussed (or simply graded);
    • “Quick writes” during class that can be easily shared with me, a classmate, a small group, or the whole class, either by turning them in, exchanging them with each other, and/or discussing them at the time (similar to a think-pair-share); and
    • End-of-class questions about things that were still unclear and/or that should be discussed next class;
    • (all of these can be anonymously submitted, if that’s preferable for the desired outcome);
  • Completing anonymous mid-semester or post-activity feedback questions (I often ask for “something going well in our class” and “something that could be improved” on each side of the card), which are easy to sort into piles to identify common student concerns;
  • Creating games where teams have to write a correct answer on a card (e.g., for grammar games in my writing class);
  • Assigning topics to specific small groups during a class activity (works well in a big class where cards can be passed out quickly, rather than talking to each group about which topic they should address);
  • Having students construct models of things (e.g., in my Research Methods class, making crosstabulations by hand, laying out experimental designs); and
  • Having students arrange ideas/examples/topics/events/steps in a process into appropriate groupings or orders.

Another advantage: Students’ responses to various tasks, if written on cards in this way, are easy to display on a document camera for quick comparison and contrast. For example, I’ve had students in my writing class write out drafts of news story leads on index cards, and then I arrange them below the document camera for side-by-side comparison and discussion of students’ different approaches to the task. This is easier than comparing text they’ve written on our lab computers or (at least until better collaboration/display apps are developed) on our iPads. Many of the classroom games I’ve developed also result in the class’s discussion of their responses with the help of the document camera.

In this activity, students made a crosstabulation that reflected the results of a brief in-class content analysis of our campus newspaper.
In this activity, students made a crosstabulation that reflected the results of a brief in-class content analysis of our campus newspaper. (We used stickies, too!)

Constructing sets of cards for these different activities can be time-consuming or easy, depending on the complexity of the activity. (The sets I created for experimental design were some of the more complicated ones, for example.)

Most of the sets of cards I’ve created have been fairly easy to make by hand, usually using nice bold markers, but it would also be possible — particularly for large classes — to print labels to stick onto cards, or to try these printable index cards (though they’re expensive, so you’d definitely want those to be reusable). You could also have the students create the cards themselves in class, if time permits. After we finish an activity, I ask students to carefully reassemble whatever cards I’ve provided them so we don’t lose parts of the sets. I keep the sets together in envelopes.

And, for the office supply fans among us: You can even get creative with colored index cards! Use colors to indicate different small group assignments or topics. Colored cards are useful to guide group formation and re-formation in a jigsaw activity (write numbers on the cards to form the first groups, then re-form the groups by card color for the second round).

Do you have other creative ways to use index cards in the classroom? Please share them in the comments!

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