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Collaborative Learning

5 Ways to Use Playing Cards for Cooperative Learning

Teachers can use a regular deck of cards to add both structure and novelty in creating random groups for classroom work.

March 13, 2024
amana images inc. / Alamy

Cooperative learning is an effective classroom strategy for increasing achievement, improving attitudes, and cultivating relationships among students. However, many teachers struggle with applying cooperative strategies in their lessons on a consistent basis. 

To add both structure and novelty to student collaboration, I use common playing cards in the classroom. These game night staples are relatively cheap, are durable, and afford a variety of cooperative tasks. Typically, one or two decks of 52 standard cards are sufficient. 

Below are simple ways to up the ante with cooperative strategies using playing cards. As you shuffle through these examples, consider your own classroom, and adjust to fit the needs of your students and curriculum. 

1. Suit Jigsaw 

This strategy builds off the Jigsaw Classroom model for small groups, where students become “experts” on a topic in one study group, then mix and reform jigsaw groups to share their expertise. With playing cards, I organize suits and numbers to correspond with how many students and questions are in the lesson. For example, in an activity with 20 students and five questions, I use the ace through the five cards from all four suits.

Each student gets a specific playing card unique to them (number and suit, such as three of spades). First, they form groups of the same number, where they study or review the matching prompt (ace cards are one). Typically, topics come in the form of various questions that require reflection on a course reading or research into additional resources, such as the following:

  • What is the main idea or takeaway you got from this reading selection?
  • What events (historical or contemporary) might have influenced the author’s writing?
  • Select one figure of speech (idiom, personification, simile, etc.) used in this selection and describe how it strengthens the writing. Or does it distract?
  • What would you like to happen in the next chapter, a sequel, or part two of this selection?

After an allotted time for the expert groups to prepare their information, the class then mixes and recombines according to suits. In these new jigsaw groups, the experts take turns sharing their topic in order of their numbers. 

During both groupings, the teacher can move about the classroom and monitor discussion. If there are key ideas you want the expert groups to consider and report, pose an additional question to guide their learning. Likewise with jigsaw groups—you can help them reflect on connections with prompts such as those previously mentioned.

2. Shuffle Draw 

Each small group of students receives a small stack of shuffled cards. This is similar to a draw pile used in many games. One difference, however, is that the teacher limits cards in each pile to numbers matching a list of prompts. Students take turns drawing from the random sequence of cards, responding to the corresponding question.

Worksheets, assessments, and textbooks are all possible question sources. Shuffle Draw is an opportunity to reinforce overarching connections in a discipline, such as historical themes or science practices. Additional subject-aligned applications range from reading comprehension of a featured text to mathematical practice problems. Particular tasks and lesson placement include preassessment, brainstorming, test review, or other key moments in a unit. The teacher can also stack the deck, so to speak, by adding multiple cards with the same numbers. As a result, several individuals respond to the same prompt, reinforcing content and giving additional students a chance to share ideas. 

Often, the draw pile has more cards than the number of small group members. This allows for multiple rounds. If a group draws through all their cards, they shuffle and restack the deck, then begin anew. As with the jigsaw activity, the teacher moves about the room to monitor discussions, observing and interacting when needed.

3. A Number Challenge for Any Content Area 

You can employ number cards to randomize and/or organize student challenges. You decide how much structure is needed based on the given class or lesson. Here are some examples:

  • Each student takes a card and uses their number in a mathematical expression or equation. Next, they find a partner with the same number. Student pairs switch, solve, and compare each other’s problems. Form new groups with a different number and repeat.
  • To practice vocabulary, students write a definition using the number of words on their card. Creativity is encouraged as they explore ways to encapsulate a concept in either few or many words. 
  • Instead of defining a term, the challenge could be coming up with a number of examples to match their card’s value. 
  • Students use the exact number of words on their card to summarize observations or inferences, or to describe a character, setting, or scene. 

Teachers can insert the face cards in unique ways here. For example, a king may require a sketch, a queen card a graph, and a jack an alternative representation such as a data table or formula. In language arts, the three face cards could entail a metaphor, simile, and personification to illustrate a selected concept. 

4. Face Card Role-Play

Teachers can use kings, queens, jacks, and more to assign jobs for students in small groups. Standard duties involve recorder, reporter, timekeeper, materials manager, and others. 

It’s also possible for students to portray different individuals or perspectives based on the card they draw. Each face card could represent a fictional character or a historical figure, either specific or general. Role-play activities afford even more options when using specialty themed decks. No matter the subject, teachers can find playing cards to highlight noteworthy people (U.S. presidents, authors, scientists) or topics (musical instruments, artwork, chemical elements, geometry, and more).

5. The Joker’s Wild 

When classroom numbers don’t split into even or equal groups, teachers may mix in joker cards for innovative solutions. Perhaps the joker student gets to be a wild card and choose which group to join. Or they could float and rotate freely among different groups. Another approach is giving the joker the status of a trump card. Any student with this title can serve as leader or moderator of a group or class, guiding discussion or providing input on lesson procedures. 

With any of these card strategies, it’s important for the teacher to be creative in finding ways to fit their classroom context. What cooperative strategies work best with your students? Like any instructional resource, playing cards are not a magic trick to fix every challenge. However, teachers can still use them as an ace in the hole when the opportunity arises—bringing students all-in on learning.

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  • Communication Skills
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  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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