Index Cards by Leslie Haines

As I scrambled around one morning trying to pull together the materials I needed for the next class, it occurred to me how lost I would be without index cards.  Ever try to do a “quick” activity that starts with “please write down…?”

From the time you say “get out a sheet of paper” to the time every student actually has said piece of paper, you could have done 12 activities and enjoyed a nice snack.  George didn’t hear you, and Georgette has spent the whole time looking for the English homework she needs to get finished for her next class.  Rather than wait for the kids, I start with handing them an index card—sometimes as they’re walking in the room.

Index cards are my friends.  What do I ask the kids to put on the cards?  Maybe: three vocabulary words from yesterday.  Maybe: a question about the three vocabulary words. Maybe: an explanation of a demo or video we watch at the beginning of class.

Those are quick activities, but index cards also have more extensive uses. I’ll often put pictures on cards.  For example, here’s an effective way to start a lesson on cells, relating structure to function. Put pictures of different kinds of cells on cards, and a description of what that cell does on the back.  Each student is handed a card, and asked just to look at the picture and think about what the cell looks like.  Ask them: which one do you think might be a nerve cell?  Why? And so on.  Then the students, in small groups, read the back of the cards, and share the different types.

Sure, we have all kinds of technology that would easily allow me to show these pictures electronically on the magic smart board.  But somehow, holding the card in their hands is a different experience, and I find that students remember the cells they look at in this way.

Of course there are hundreds of other uses of index cards in a science classroom, including their original function, sorting and organizing big blocks of information.  Did you know that Linnaeus is credited with inventing the index card?  Neither did I, but I was enchanted to find out that the great naturalist also found them invaluable.  Apparently, he developed index cards to solve the problem of needing to record information in a fixed manner while still having the flexibility to shuffle that information around, allowing him to constantly compare and rework his classifications.

From the desk of Linnaeus to the desks of my students, the index card has more than proven its worth.  Thank you, Mr. Linnaeus!  What’s your favorite use of index cards?  Please share!

Carl Linnaeus Invented the Index Card

Leslie Haines is a NBCT-AYA Science teacher in Burlington, North Carolina. She teaches all levels of biology including AP and is the coach of her school’s Ocean Sciences Bowl team. She is a regular contributor and wrote Plant Blindness among other Science Muse posts. 

2 Responses to “Index Cards by Leslie Haines”

  1. Leslie Sams says:

    Ms. Haines,
    I just wanted to affirm you in your astute observation that your students remember the cells that you put on index cards for them to study. I teach middle school life science at a K-8 school that uses techniques from a 19th century educator named Charlotte Mason. One of our favorite ideas of hers that we use is called picture study. We typically use it for studying the paintings of artists from Renoir to Rockwell. After learning about the artist, each child receives a large full color copy of the painting to be studied. They spend 3 minutes in quiet study of the painting, then turn it face down. The teacher facilitates a discussion of what each student noticed, what they think the painting is about, etc. They do this a couple more times. Finally, everyone closes their eyes and “looks” at the painting in their mind. This cements the picture in their minds. (I still remember the first painting I studied 4 years ago by this method!)
    Your idea gave ME the idea to try a picture study with anatomy drawings, cells, etc. Maybe you could too!
    Thanks for sharing,
    Leslie Sams

  2. Leslie Haines says:

    “Picture study” sounds like a great technique—I like the idea of having students close their eyes and “cement” the image. For cell pictures, I think it’s difficult for students to understand what they are looking at initially. Choose really colorful, engaging pictures of real cells (not drawings); you may need to circle or use an arrow to show which part of the picture is the actual cell. Good choices to show how cell structure relates to function: nerve, muscle, egg, white blood cell (macrophage), red blood cell, skin, goblet cell. Next time I’ll try your picture study approach!

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