How to Use 3-by-5 Cards for Note Taking

Color-coding your note cards helps you organize references and ideas.
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The simple 3-by-5 index card can be a remarkable note taking solution for students. Cheap and portable, students can use them to keep all their study material in one place. Whether you choose blank or lined, white or multicolored, you'll find that properly using index cards will keep you scholastically organized.

1 Developing a Note Taking System

The benefit of using index cards for note taking is that they're easy to arrange according to your purpose. While studying, you can set aside the cards with information you've mastered, focusing only on those needing more review. When writing a paper, you can easily order and reorder the cards to create an topical outline. To make this work, you must develop a system of what information you write on the cards. For example, you might keep things very simple by making a single note or quotation on each card. If your research notes are fairly brief, however, this might seem wasteful. Instead, you could include all your notes on a single topic on one card, grouping cards related to similar ideas together. Writing unrelated notes on the same card defeats the purpose of using index cards.

2 Creating Study Aids

By using both the front and back of note cards, you can create flash cards that will help you prepare for a big exam. This works particularly well for memorizing vocabulary words for a foreign language class or the SAT. When making review cards for a science class, you might write a formula or theory on one side, with an explanation on the other. For an English class, you might write a book's name on one side of the card and highlight the key topics or plot points on the other side.

3 Outlining Your Research

When using note cards for a research project, separate the cards by topic and order them in a way that makes sense for your project, thus effectively creating an outline. For example, if you are writing a position paper, your "topics" include points that support your argument. As you write the paper, you might discover a note card originally intended for the paper's conclusion fits better with the introduction, and you can easily swap out cards from your note card outline. If you're writing at home or in your dorm room, you can spread out the cards on the floor and leave them there are you write. While working in a public space like the library, simply stack the cards together and move a card to the back after using it.

4 Organizing Bibliography Sources

When using index cards for research, it's smart to create a coding system to help you know remember where your information came from. The Hunter College Reading/Writing Center suggests creating bibliography cards that include all the information needed to write a bibliography or works cited reference, then making a note of author and reference work on each card as you write a note. When you write your paper, you can easily make a reference to the author as necessary. Color-coding the cards -- either by purchasing colored note cards or drawing a small colored dot or symbol in the corner -- can also work if you don't want to write the author information on each card. You simply create your bibliography cards, color-code them, then use the corresponding color markings on the note taking cards as appropriate.

Maggie McCormick is a freelance writer. She lived in Japan for three years teaching preschool to young children and currently lives in Honolulu with her family. She received a B.A. in women's studies from Wellesley College.