How do we learn? – Index card method

During the last two days, I wrote about the process of how we learn and what we need and can do to learn in an effective and efficient way. With this entry, I want to conclude this mini-series on how we learn. I want to present you a method, which I’d liked to know earlier, but which helped me a lot during the last exams of my study.

Let’s have a look at the two processes which constitutes the learning process again:




The index card method starts at the processing step and is used all the way to the playback step, which makes it a perfect tool to support our learning process. But how is it done? Basically, you work with three levels, although the level in the middle can have multiple sub-levels. At the top level, you start with an overview of the subject that you want to learn. I created the following example (keep in mind that it is not an exhaustive overview and just serves to illustrate the different levels).

Overview front     Overview back

On the front, you write the overarching subject, and, on the back, you create an overview of all the categories that are linked to this subject.

Now, we create business landscapes (Fachlandkarten). Let’s see how this looks in an example.

1st order business landscape front     1st order business landscape back

I took one of the categories from the overview card and wrote on the front the name. On the back, I made another illustration of sub-categories. You don’t need to write text only. Actually, it is better, if you use pictures or icons, because it is easier to remember. If you are really good you can even create a small story. You create as many business landscapes as you there are sub-levels. For example, here I could create another level which I would label 2nd order business landscape. Naming the level, you are at, helps to keep your cards in order and helps your brain to orient.

2nd order business landscape front     2nd order business landscape back

If you reached the lowest level, you can create learning islands.

Learning island front     Learning island back

This is the level where you add the information. The benefit of the cards is that you have to limit yourself. Only use one card per category. I also recommend to use din A7-sized cards. I know it is harder, but it is so much better to learn with them. And, you can take them with you and learn on the go. Again, try to use symbols, pictures, and stories to structure the content.

This method helps to structure the content which makes it easier for the brain. Also, thinking in levels is like creating a file system in our brains which is indexed and therefore easy to access if need be. Moreover, you can portion your learning easily.

Once, I used this method for learning for an exam. The exam was structured into a multiple-choice part, a case (we could choose between two different cases) and another task at the end. I never felt as prepared for an 60exam before. I knew almost everything, and I was quick in answering the questions. At the end I was done after 60 minutes and had another 30 minutes time. I could have done the other case as well, that is how much time I had left. However, I left the room and went home. The result was very good. I got 95 out of 100 points and had the best exam of about 100 students.

The method is work-intensive, but when you start early and try to only use those index cards during class, then you are on a very promising path =).


Love and hugs, Stephan


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