Connect-the-Cards: Making Academia Exciting while Fostering Critical Thinking Skills and Meaningful Conversation

By Sabrina Völz

Question and answer. Question and answer. Question and answer. And then silence. Lasting silence. It happens to the best of us. The routine of working with texts can be an excruciating experience for both learner and instructor. But it doesn’t have to be.

A while back I came across a must-do activity that works in a variety of educational settings from middle schools to undergraduate seminars. Connect-the-cards may have a painfully dull name, but this text-based exercise can lead to deep learning and engage students so much so that they lose track of time and leave their smartphones in their pocket. So if you want to know how connect-the-cards works, you are only one click away.

Credit: Based on Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s exercise “Connect-the-Cards”in Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understanding, Portland: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011. 106-107.

As you can see from the credit for the diagram above, I stumbled across connect-the-cards in the book Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford. Their collection of best-practice ideas foster meaningful exchanges and hone various skills, such as supporting ideas with evidence, reading critically, and synthesizing information.

The goal of the connect-the-card exercise is to have students identify a central term in a section of the assigned reading and find other key phrases or words in the text associated with it. The central term is written on the card in the middle – in this case “People of Color.” The related terms or key phrases used in the text are then written on the oval cards as shown in the diagram. The students now try to meaningfully connect the terms on the oval cards – for example skin color and one-drop rule – while explaining how they relate to the central term. Zwiers and Crawford recommend that the students then reorganize the oval cards and redo the exercise or switch cards with another group. If time allows, students should write a summary.

I have created my own variant in which the instructor fills out both the central and oval cards in order to save some time and ensure that the exercise is challenging. The key words in this example were taken from the entry “People of Color” in Carlos E. Cortés’s Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia (2011) from SAGE. Instructors can use terms from different texts in order to create other levels of difficulty. I have paired the text “People of Color” with entries on the “N-word” and “Colored.” Afterwards, students discuss their answers. Once they agree on their answers, they write a key word or phrase on the diamond-shaped cards, thus connecting the words on two oval cards. Then they explain their answer on the back of the diamond card. When the groups are finished, the entire group moves to another table and looks at that group’s work. They try to guess how the term relates to the explanation on the back of the diamond-shaped cards. Everyone will have the same cards in the same order, but they will not link terms on the oval cards in the same way. In the plenum, students can respond to, affirm, or question the other groups’ answers.

It takes some time to prepare connect-the-cards as I usually have three sets of cards per group for a 90-minute lesson. However, it is worth the effort and brings variety to the classroom. It is time to put question-and-answer ping pong to rest.