In Defence of Card Sorts: 6 ways they can aid learning

Over the years I have heard countless colleagues criticise card sorts. Some of this is pedagogical, in that there are better ways to retrieve knowledge and check understanding, and some of this is practical, especially as making card sorts is so time consuming. 

Despite the above, I believe card sorts are an excellent way to recall core knowledge and further pupils’ understanding of taught content through analysis and evaluation. Moreover, they can be applied to various pedagogical strategies, including retrieval practice, the generation effect, dual coding, elaborative interrogation, modelling and as a mechanism for checking learning. These are discussed in detail below.

Types of card sort

Boyle and Jackson (2009) suggest there are at least three types of card sort commonly used by teachers. They include those used for:

  1. Organising ideas – cards can be paired, grouped or organised to model complex systems as well as demonstrate links between variables, such as causes, effects and similar associations. This type of card sort could also include sequencing. 
  2. Prioritising ideas – card sorts can be used to identify an individual’s values, priorities and responses to an issue or problem.
  3. Discussion – card sorts can be used as a stimulus for clarifying, discursive exploration and to prompt debate. 

Most of the examples in this blog relate to the first type of card sort, however, all allow elements of type two and three – it very much depends on what a teacher wants to do with the activity – and it is obvious that these three types can overlap. Nevertheless, what follows is an attempt to marry current trends in pedagogical best practice – largely derived from cognitive science – with the use of card sorts. Some may like these ideas, others may not, but here are 6 ways to get the most out of card sorts:

  1. Retrieval practice 

As everyone knows, regularly recalling information improves long term retention of knowledge. As Rosenshine suggests, “Daily review can strengthen previous learning and can lead to fluent recall” (2012, p.13). Of course, there are many easy ways to do this, such as closed questions, low stakes tests and flashcards. However, Rosenhinne, in his review of impactful instruction, goes on to state that, “The most effective teachers ensured that students efficiently acquired, rehearsed, and connected knowledge”. Here, card sorts facilitate the rehearsal of connecting concepts – whether it be basic key words to definitions or more abstract concepts to concrete examples – in a way that is both literally and perceptually tangible. 

Not only can words be paired or grouped by general association, but wider “connected knowledge” can be explored by grouping concepts together in a specific order that is needed to fully understand a previously taught process, chronological narrative or theoretical framework. For instance, the example below – used in Religious Education (RE) – centres on pupils grouping the transliterated Arabic terms for the 6 Articles of Fath in Sunni Islam, the 5 Roots of Religion in Shia Islam, the 5 Pillars of Islam and the 10 Obligatory Acts in the right order. (Pupils struggle learning these overlapping beliefs and practices, but they need to be able to distinguish between them in an exam and recall them – ideally – in the correct order.) 

  1. The generation effect 

Cognitive scientist Robert Bjork (n.d.) argues that tasks requiring pupils to generate words rather than merely reading them have a longer lasting and more robust impact on learning. For instance, Bjork cites Slamecka and Graf (1978) who found that this effect is often achieved through the use of a letter-stem cue (i.e. “fl____” for “flower”) or by unscrambling an anagram (i.e “rolwfe” for “flower”). In a similar vein, card sorts could be used to get pupils to generate particular words or parts of speech etc. The example below is based on a year 5 spelling, punctuation and grammar activity completed by my son and involves combining a prefix to a word root and – then to add a desirable difficulty –  the correct part of speech. (Hint – using separate colours allows the ‘a’ based prefix cards and parts of speech cards to be separated at the end of the task and reused with different root words etc.) 

Another way to apply the generation effect to card sorts is through the alignment of opposites. For example, if seeking to expand pupils’ vocabulary, the adjectives in green below, which are used to describe human emotions, can be juxtaposed to the possible antonyms in red. 

The generation effect could also include word-cue pairs. A word-cue hints at the correct answer of a paired word and could relate to rhyme, categories, synonyms and any combination of associated words, including the matching of scrambled and unscrambled anagrams. 

  1. Dual Coding

Sumeracki (2019) suggests dual coding is simply combining words and visuals. The point is to provide two different representations of the information, both visual and verbal, to help pupils better understand the information being conveyed. As Sumeracki says, “Adding visuals to a verbal description can make the presented ideas more concrete, and provides two ways of understanding the presented ideas”.

Most taught content can be visually represented in many ways such as pictures, diagrams, graphic organisers, flow charts, cartoon strips, editable timeline and infographics. So long as they are not too long or overly complicated in terms of quantity, most of these representations can be turned into card sorts. For example, in RE I use selected pictures from Branden Powell Smith’s Brick Testament illustrating the last days of Jesus Christ as a card sort, which pupils must arrange into a chronological timeline from Palm Sunday to the resurrection. 

Moreover, in order to embed the idea that the Weapons of Mass Destruction – taught in a RE unit on conflict and peace – extends beyond nuclear weapons, I get pupils to use this very simple card sort as a recall exercise before an exam. After the card sort, only the symbols are left on the desk as a prompt as pupils complete an extended piece of written work. 

  1. Scaffolding elaborative-interrogation

Weinstein and Sumeracki (2017) say that elaborative-interrogation, despite being a somewhat broad concept, is really about connecting or adding information that the learner already knows in order to solve “how” and “why” questions. Pupils can do this independently, with the help of a teacher or in pairs or groups. Here, card sorts can be used to prompt pupils with appropriate questions or even give cues for possible answers. Importantly, elaborative-interrogation is seen as even more effective if it prompts cognitive processing of similarities and differences between related information. As Dunlosky et al. (2013) argue, “‘most elaborative-interrogation prompts explicitly or implicitly invite processing of both similarities and differences between related entities (e.g., why a fact would be true of one province versus other provinces)”.  

The below example prompts RE pupils to explore the similarities and differences of the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2. This forms part of a sequence of lessons on the relationship between religion and science. By elaborating, via discussion, on these prompts, pupils should be better placed to articulate or help each other construct an evaluation of the Biblical text, which is needed to attain higher grades in their GCSE exams. Cards can be arranged in various ways too. For instance, the prompts leading onto the most critical elaborations could be ranked or prompts relating to biological questions could be separated for those associated with physics. This example also exemplifies Boyle and Jackson’s third type of card sort – those that stimulate explorative discussion and prompt debate.

Another use of card sorts is using them as prompts for elaboration in extended pieces of work. For example, I use the card sort below, which uses various paraphrased Bible quotations, when preparing pupils for an evaluative assessment on capital punishment (the death penalty) in RE lessons. The quotations are read and then discussed in pairs or thought about silently, before the pupil divides them into arguments for and against the death penalty. These prompts are then left on the desk so that pupils can elaborate on their meaning, relevance to the death penalty and link to possible examples in their answers. Of course, as with any scaffolding, in later practice answers, these cards are not used. 

  1. Modelling 

At its most basic, modelling is when a teacher demonstrates or gives resources that easily instruct pupils how to complete a piece of work, action or approach to learning successfully. Tharby (2015) suggests that one successful strategy for modelling is to use multiple examples. This gives pupils different examples to illustrate how – in some subjects – questions can be answered in various ways. Here, a card sort can be used for shorter answers as pupils discuss, compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of each answer in turn, before ranking or selecting those they feel are better or need clarification by the teacher. Some answers contain mistakes. As with the elaborative-interrogation prompts above, these card sorts really aim to get pupils discussing model answers (as in Boyle and Jackson’s third type of card sort), however, it still allows for some organisation of ideas. 

I also cut up longer modelled essays into parts. These ‘card sorts’ can then be mixed up and then rearranged by pupils to fit the expected structure of a key stage 4 or 5 model answer. The completed card sort – when arranged in the correct order – then becomes a “worked example”, which “… is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem” (Clark, Nguyen & Sweller, 2006, p. 190). The “step-by-step” demonstration can be based on the segregated cards and how they build into the final piece of work. Furthermore, sometimes one segment of the essay will be missing. Essentially, pupils will need to complete the missing section. In this sense, the card sort acts as a scaffold for an “incomplete example”. 

  1. Checking learning

Rosenshine’s sixth principle of instruction is checking pupil understanding. He argues that, “The more effective teachers frequently checked to see if all of the students were learning the new material” (2012, p. 16). Again, the connections made in card sorts and possible sequences of procedure they may represent is conducive to asking “… students to elaborate on the material they have learned and augment connections to other learning” by reference to the arrangement of cards. Justifications can be sought for particular orders and pupils can be asked if there is unanimous agreement if working in pairs; if not, why not? The differences could be marked or indicate reasons why some have understood and others have not. Also, a quick overview of the organising of cards can alert “… the teacher to when parts of the material need to be retaught”. 

Of course, there are other ways of doing this, but the occasional use of card sorts cannot be made completely redundant here. In combination with targeted questioning, hinge questions, responses on white boards, quick online quizzes, they are just another way to quickly ascertain general trends in knowledge acquisition and understanding in your classroom. They also add diversity to pupils’ learning, which is no bad thing.  

Last thoughts

I don’t use card sorts every lesson and probably only include two to three sets in a 10 to 12 sequence of lessons. However, I find they break up my often didactic lessons and give pupils some respite from my voice. Moreover, pupils seem to like them and, in relation to the subjects I teach, they do allow for discussion and can be a conduit for focused “think-pair-share” activities. Nonetheless, I get that most people reading this will see the creation of card sorts as a chore, but I think they can aid learning, progress and attainment – if given a chance. 

Practical tips for making card sorts

1. Use card, not paper
2. Use different coloured card for sets – this means you can cut up various sets at the same time and then separate (saves a lot of time). It also means pupils are less likely to mix sets up. 
3. Think about making cards you can use in various lessons. This means you get the most out of them. Keep text to a minimum (despite some of the examples above). 
4. Use envelopes to keep the cards in, not elastic bands.
5. Cut the seals of the envelopes (otherwise pupils seal them).
6. Make sure you label the envelope with the name of the card sort, the lesson and sequence or unit of work.  

References

Boyle, M. and Jackson, P. (2009). Using Card Sorts. Available online: https://bit.ly/3x6Je9J [accessed April 2021].

Bjork, R. (n.d.). Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice. Available online: https://bit.ly/3Kjb2eO [accessed April 2021].

Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Dunlosky J., Rawson K.A., Marsh EJ, Nathan M.J. & Willingham, D.T. (2013) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1):4-58.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, 36(1),  12-39. 

Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The Generation Effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4(6), 592–604.

Sumeracki, M. (2019). Dual Coding and Learning Styles. Learning Scientists. Available online: https://bit.ly/3DM6vPq (accessed April 2021). 

Tharby, A. (2015). How to use modelling successfully in the classroom. TES. Available online: https://bit.ly/3Kgc5fy (accessed April 2022). 

Weinstein and Sumeracki (2017). Dual Coding and Learning Styles. Learning Scientists. Available online: https://bit.ly/3j9y63C (accessed April 2021).

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