RetroEdTech Review: The Index Card

Replaces: Classroom response systems; class attendance sheet Advantages: cheap, portable, tangible, paper trail, semi-computational Disadvantages: requires writing instruments, must decipher student handwriting, potential germ substrate

In the modern classroom we may not use index cards for the organizing of large amounts of information. Quite the contrary. What makes them attractive is that they feel personal, intimate even, physical and real against our ethereal computerized alternatives.

In the past decade and a bit classroom response systems have become fairly plentiful: Tophat, Squarecap, Socrative, the clickers that led the category before it was a category, or even non-education options like PollEverywhere — their are a lot of companies ready to take your money (or your student's money) to track responses. I've used a whole lot of these over the years. Here's why I don't anymore.

Tech fails. Often and regularly. No matter how many features in these systems, over the past few years I've noticed an uptick in the number of students who struggle getting these systems to work. That's time I have to spend making exceptions and allowances, directing them to tech support, following up after class. That's frustration for students. Sometimes it may just be because of spotty wifi but that sort of time suck will always get you thinking about what it might look like to put those tech tools aside and do more with less.

One of the upsides of being stuck teaching the same class over and over is that you can swap out technologies and see how it goes. At various points I've swapped the technology out completely with a paper-based workflow. At first it might seem insane to be manipulating stacks of index cards or papers for 200 or so students each class. But I found that this workflow ended up getting me to my teaching goals better than the software and made it feel more natural to ask students for higher level thinking. (It also helps to have the devices out of sight for large stretches of time.)

It feels a bit quaint to think back on debates around devices in the classroom now. Attitudes have changed significantly as students have grown up with devices in their hands from younger and younger ages. In the wake of the past months of remote or hybrid learning, where K-12 schools have had to go all-in on 1:1 device models to provide access to students in the midst of current and future disruptions to in-person schooling and higher-ed has simply shifted technological burdens to students themselves, it feels like tech critique is in bad taste. After all, here comes technology to the rescue!

But technology does not always rescue. The pandemic has made this more clear than ever. Availability of technology is uneven and tends to exaggerate the so-called “digital divide.” Even with major efforts to account for and adjust to these realities, buying more tech and shoving it into schools isn't much of a fix.

The question we should be asking is always whether we need that tech in the first place. What can we do without it and are there advantages, including less disparity, in using the most basic of tools. Can old tech offer advantages over the always on and always networked app du jour?

Re-enter The Index Card

The humble index card was at one time a pseudo-computational tool. Even if we don't use it for that anymore — though there's nothing wrong with that — old tech always finds a way to be useful. (And it's possible that no technology, once invented, ever truly goes away.)

Markus Krajewski's 2011 book Paper Machines opens with index cards 100 years ago:

Card catalogs can maintain order among tens of thousands of small and large items in the warehouse management of large industrial plants, they can structure any number of addresses in personnel departments, they can control the movement of hundreds of thousands of people in urban registration offices, they can make them- selves useful in the bookkeeping departments of commercial offices, i.e. as open account catalogs, etc. etc. Card catalogs can do anything!

Fortschritt GmbH's Zeitschrift für Organisation in 1929, quoted in Krajewski 2011: 1

That's marketing talk of course. But it is true enough that the index is the building block of all administrative systems, including digital technologies. Index cards were, for a stretch there, a highly effective way of gathering and organizing information.

In the modern classroom we may not use index cards for the organizing of large amounts of information. Quite the contrary. What makes them attractive is that they feel personal, intimate even, physical and real against our ethereal computerized alternatives.

Two ways to use index cards:

  1. For participation. Laura Beth Daws uses “the index card technique” to encourage each student to speak during class: “I'll encourage everyone to engage actively in our class discussions by choosing a handful of people each day who will be our “required speakers.” You'll know it's your turn when I give you an index card at the beginning of class. At the end of class, give me back your card with a note summarizing what you said during class.” I would go well beyond this. It can be asked of every student in the class, depending on size, and works particularly well when combined with small group work. The index card records what they did in their group and every student can use it to reflect on what they've learned.

  2. For feedback, minute papers, short answer, and attendance: Name on one side, response to a prompt either at the beginning or end of class (or both) on the other. While it may seem like a pain to collate these, I have regularly used this technique with groups of hundreds of students. Make sure there is a clear format for where they put their names and then alphabetize the cards in groups (usually takes about 10 minutes). Then you can flip through them rapidly and record completion. Technological integration ninja bonus: One of the few edtech tools I've liked in recent years has been gradescope, mainly because it does a fairly good job of handwriting recognition and it has a quick and sensible UI/UX. So you can feed your index cards through a nice scanner, upload the pdf to gradescope and then do some rapid grading there if that is your choice. This is decidedly not minimalist, but it gets the best of both worlds in many ways and, because any tech troubleshooting is at your leisure rather than while students are growing frustrated with connecting to some service during class, it tends to be fairly stress-free.

  3. Peer feedback: It is quick and easy to exchange these and build further in-class activities off of near neighbors or various configurations of students working together.


Having something physical and tangible leads to unexpected bonuses.

  1. Students tend to see this as a more personal form of interaction. The sometimes doodle or decorate. You see their personality in a way that never comes through the homogenization of a classroom response system.

  2. It's fast. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. But you can scan through these really quickly on the fly. The UX of having a stack of cards in your hand is fairly easy to manipulate. Contrast that with things flying across the screen.

  3. Constraint breeds innovation. It can be a net gain not to have the distraction of various tech features. You want to hear from students. Do you want to click through a whole lot of menus?

  4. People remember better on paper.

  5. It's cheap. I often have students buy a single pack of standard 3x5 cards at the beginning of the term. A few dollars and they're good for the whole semester.

  6. It's focused. They can close the computer. They aren't looking at sources or other things. They can talk and write and then hand it in and feel that familiar sense of being done.


This is not the kind of thing for doing long quizzes (though see gradescape for that.) If you want instead numbers that say 45% of the class got a question right and 30% selected answer B and so forth then this is not a method for that.

It is also a method where you will have to be aware of students with accessibility or disability issues. In general though I have found that the number of students impacted by that is significantly less than the number whose technology fails on them or have some computer trouble during class which prevents their use of a response app or platform.

The Physical has become measured by the digital

It wasn't that long ago that we would have defaulted to using paper for most classroom interactions. One of the strange features of the advent of classroom response systems is that they make it seem radical not to use them. To the extent that the terms have changed, for better or worse, perhaps we need to reconstruct all our analog systems as replacements for the digital rather than, as is more obvious, the other way around.

#retrotech #edtech #minimalist #minimalistedtech