I recently realized that I had been using learning cards like these for many years, both in my own learning and in my teaching.
Working with these self-made cards in my one-to-one tutoring in the past few weeks, it suddenly dawned on me what potential they offer. They are handy both in small and in large groups.
In this post, I will tell you how to make them and share my experiences of how to use them in class.
A Short History of the Learning Card
First, let me explain how I developed the idea to those cards so you get a good understanding of what they are about. Each stage provided me with one important piece of the puzzle.
When I went on to university, I found that reading through my notes was no longer enough to get all the important stuff into my head that I needed to learn for exams. It was just too much. So I started the habit of summarizing the subject matter on index cards. I found that summarizing already helps your understanding immensely. You only truly understood something if you’re able to summarize it in few easy words.
Shortly before I graduated, I was offered to run a tutorial for one of my professors. I was intrigued, but also a bit scared. There were about 20 people in my tutorial course and I had never taught such a large group before. My previous teaching experience also had not included having to teach so much content in such a short time.
Remembering that lecturing with cramped PowerPoint slides is boring and wanting to engage my students into discussions of the material, I spent lengthy hours preparing PowerPoint presentations that were, in retrospect, like little index cards: One slide with a question, one slide with the answers.
The question slide was for class discussions, which worked perfectly, and the answer slide was more for myself. There was so much material and I didn’t want to forget anything. They loved me for the slides anyway because they could use them in studying for their exams.
Quite recently, I was asked to help a 12-year-old with two school subjects (English and Math), and I found the school books they use not very helpful. I got really frustrated having to explain the subject matter to him with this material. So I borrowed the books, switched on my computer, and created PowerPoint slides summarizing the material VERY concisely and with easy words. It helped both me and my student to really get it. The important thing is to boil down a point to the maximum so you get the basics. One simple rule per slide is best.
Making the Cards
Let’s get started, then! To make these cards is probably the hardest and most laborious part. But it is worth it, because once you have them, you can re-use them in various ways.
From an educational perspective, it would of course be best to create such cards together with the student, or if the students themselves would create cards like these and you would mainly check if everything is correct. Teaching students the skills to summarize their material in this way and to create learning cards for themselves, from my perspective, would be much more important than to teach them one more detail of the subject.
However, from a practical perspective, this is not always possible. As a tutor, you are expected to reiterate the subject matter of the class so the student will pass the exam. If you can teach the student some self-study skills along the way, that is cool (and I do all I can to do so), but there rarely is time for this if you want to get through all the topics covered in school.
Step #1: Research
Firstly, you need a list of the things that are to be learned. Then you need to find material on these topics.
If you are a tutor, it is helpful to get the books that the students are using in school so you can check exactly what they are supposed to know about the topic and how they are supposed to go about certain things. In Math, for example, there are sometimes numerous ways to arrive at the same solution, but the teacher might want to see one specific method.
Step #2: Making PowerPoint Slides
Secondly, you think about very small sub-topics and create PowerPoint slides about them. The important thing is to really break things down to their basic level.
To give an example: The grammar section of the school book I got from the 12-year-old had lengthy paragraphs about when to use “the” and when to leave it out. There were rules for abstract concepts and rules for public transport and rules for meals …
Why the fuss? This only confuses students. The simple rule, if you break it down, is that if we talk about a specific thing we use “the,” if we speak about the concept in general, we don’t. Period. Why make such a big deal out of it?
In creating those slides, the first slide is always a question and/or a topic name.
If you can find fitting images, it is good to illustrate. Include little comics or funny drawings that make the students smile and at the same time help them to visualize and memorize the content.
Or, as in the example below, include images that depict the object in question. Addressing more than one sense aids learning immensely. It also makes learning more fun and thus more successful.
The second slide then provides the answer to the question.
If you find that a sub-topic requires so much information that you would need more than one slide for the answer, then you have probably not broken it down enough. Break it down even more. If this is not possible because there really is so much to say about it, divide the question. Make two or more questions out of it, each with their own set of slides.
Remember: For working with these cards later, it is vital that you follow this rule. Always just one question and one answer slide. It will later be printed, one way or the other. Either by you or by your students. Create a PDF in the style shown in the images above, always with the question on the left and the answer on the right. It’s the easiest way.
If you don’t have PowerPoint, of course you can use other programs to get this effect. But PowerPoint (or similar programs like the Open Office equivalent) is really the best and most easy-to-use tool for this purpose.
As a bonus, should you move from one-to-one to group teaching, you can use the cards as a presentation, and vice versa. You already have both possibilities handy in just one file and you don’t need to make any changes while moving from one setting to the other.
Creating the slides/cards is the most creative part of the process. It can be really fun to play around with wordings and layouts and images …
Step #3: Preparing the Cards for Class Use
Thirdly, you need to make the cards ready for use.
For a bigger class where the slides will actually be shown as a presentation, I just print them out for myself on letter-size paper to guide me. I usually just leave them like that, but if you want to, you can, of course, cut them to size.
For one-to-one tutoring, I cut them in half and then fold them in half, so that I have a real kind of index card with the question on one side and the answer on the other.
Step #4: Using the Cards in Teaching
No matter whether you are a teacher or a tutor, it is vital for your students to get a thorough understanding of what they are doing in class, then repeat what they have learned and build on that knowledge.
When I look at the school books with their endless text explanations and lengthy examples and exercises, I don’t see how the students are supposed to understand what they are doing. They get a vague idea of what the topic is about, but they don’t get a short, concise explanation they can go by. And even if there are sections in the books telling you the how, they don’t really invite practice and repetition. This is where the cards come in.
With one-to-one students or smaller groups, I use printed cards. With larger groups, the slides are shown as an actual PowerPoint presentation. The technique, though, is always basically the same: The question is used to initiate discussion about the topic. The discussion goes on until all aspects written on the backside/the next slide have been mentioned, either by the students or added by the teacher if necessary.
If all has been mentioned, you can basically skip the second slide. At this point, it is mostly there to guide you in the discussion so you know exactly what has to be mentioned without giving your audience the feeling you’re just reading from your presentation. The students don’t actually have to look at it.
But if the students don’t know enough yet about one question, you can go through the answer slide and explain it to them.
Once I have gone through a card (or set of cards on the same topic), I like to do exercises with the students to practice what they have just learned and to see whether they really understood everything.
If they didn’t get something, you can go back to one particular card/slide and explain it again.
Step #5: Self-Study
After class, I send or upload the slides so the students can print and use them for their self-study and repetition of what they have learned.
I advise to use them like index cards. Once the material is understood, students can check themselves by looking at the question and trying to answer it without looking at the answers.
For this purpose, it is important that each card is self-explanatory and that all important information is on it, with words and images that are easy to understand and easy to memorize.
Learning cards are handy both for the teacher and for the students. They take some time and effort to make, but they are so worth it. Done correctly, they can be real fun to make and to use.
Since topics on the cards are so much boiled down to the basics and thus contain information that every student learning this subject has to master, it is easy to use them with different students and in different settings.
Learning cards have the potential to enhance your teaching by giving you a better understanding of the material and schooling your ability to explain the topic. At the same time, they provide effective learning material for the students’ self-study at home.
There are only two rules: 1) always just one question and one answer slide and 2) boil things down to the very basics. Don’t just copy what you read somewhere. Say it briefly and in easy, understandable words.
This way, using your own unique style and a lot of creativity, you can create slides/cards that are fun to look at and aid learning by summarizing and visualizing.