Math Study Skills – Note Cards (Part 1)

August 24, 2010 at 8:39 am 3 comments

Let me make one statement before I begin – the path to success in a math class is through understanding, not through memorizing. However, there will be times when memorizing will be necessary as you try to understand. This blog will be the first in a series about using note cards to help memorize facts or procedures.

Note Cards for First Steps

Many students struggle to start problems, but can solve those problems quite easily once they begin. So, it is essential to be able to start problems of a certain type, and note cards are a great way to do this. Create a note card for each type of problem you cover in class one day – on the front of the card write a sample problem and on the back of the card write the first step to solve that problem. For example, you could write

Graph y = 3x – 4

on the front of the card. The first step for graphing an equation in slope-intercept form is to plot the y-intercept (0, b) and use the slope m to find other points on the line. So, you could write the following on the back side of the card.

Plot the y-intercept: (0, -4).
m = 3, move up 3 units and 1 unit to the right from the y-intercept.
Draw a straight line through the two points.

Note cards of this form are also a great tool when learning how to solve word problems. Write a problem on the front of the card, and the steps you follow to find the equation(s) related to the problem.

How to Select Problems

There are a few ways to select the problems. You could simply choose to use the problems your instructor did during the lecture. You could also choose the problems that are solved in the examples in the textbook. The advantage of selecting problems from your instructor or the textbook is that you have access to accurate solutions to use for creating your note cards.

You could also select problems from the homework. Even though you do not have access to solutions for these problems, you can use your class notes and your textbook to make sure your solutions are accurate. Choosing your problems in this fashion will probably increase your understanding.

How to Use Your Note Cards

One advantage of using note cards is that it is quite easy to cycle through a set of note cards in a short amount of time. Note cards are relatively small and easy to carry around. So, while you are sitting at the bus stop, or if you have 5 minutes of free time, you can pull out your set of note cards and review the material.

When you look at the front of a card, think about how you would start that problem. If you think you know how to get started, check the back of the card. If you are correct, do not study this card as frequently. If you are not correct, or you did not know how to get started, move this card into your “heavy rotation” and look it over as often as possible.

Exam Preparation

As you start to review for an exam you can begin with these note cards. These should refresh your mind about all of the problems that could be covered on the exam. If you struggle with a note card at first glance, this tells you that you need to spend more of your time preparing for that type of problem. Once you have completed your preparation for the exam, cycling through the note cards again is a great way to keep the material fresh in your mind.


Tomorrow I will share how I help my students to create note cards like these when I cover absolute value equations and inequalities. Next Tuesday I will blog again on other uses of note cards.

If you have any pointers on using note cards, or any questions related to using note cards in math, I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share by leaving a comment, or reaching me through the contact page at my web site –


I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. Each Tuesday I post an article related to Math Study Skills on my blog. If there’s a particular study skill you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website –


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