Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Nontraditional Card Sorts: Adding Critical Thinking and Inquiry to Science Classrooms

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Nontraditional Card Sorts: Adding Critical Thinking and Inquiry to Science Classrooms

Article excerpt


High school chemistry teachers who participate in our professional development programs often tell us that they have difficulty incorporating inquiry-based teaching into their courses. Teachers are worried about time and equipment constraints, safety issues, and the need for students to learn laboratory procedures before they can design and conduct experiments. Nontraditional card sorts are one way we have helped teachers address these problems. Teachers report that the activities described here provide opportunities for students to use critical-thinking skills, increase their ability to do inquiry, and develop understandings about scientific inquiry and how it is conducted. Additionally, teachers have found nontraditional card sorts easy to incorporate and to adapt to a variety of courses and teaching situations.

Traditional card sorts

A typical card sort is an activity in which students are given a set of cards with a single concept written on each card and asked to organize the cards by grouping related concepts. Card sorts can be used as both learning experiences and assessments, are inexpensive and easy to construct, and clearly demonstrate students' levels of understanding of how concepts are related. Card sorts can contain any number of cards and can be given to students as a single set of cards or as multilayered sets that fit together. Cards, once sorted, can form the basis of concept maps where connecting phrases indicate why cards are organized in the manner that they are. The nontraditional card sorts described in this article foster critical thinking and add elements of inquiry as students use card sorts to develop flowcharts for complex laboratory procedures, analyze and interpret data, and construct historical timelines.

Making a traditional lab more inquiry based

Because many teachers lack experience teaching inquiry-based chemistry, students often work through traditional laboratories by following cookbooklike instructions; however, this approach does not provide students with opportunities to think like scientists or actively participate in the inquiry process. We have developed inquiry-based approaches that use simple card sorts and are applicable to most laboratory procedures.

We use the card sorts as a component of a comprehensive lesson design that engages students as scientists. Students in groups of three to four first generate a testable question and are challenged to identify an appropriate laboratory setup that will help them answer the question. Students next develop their own procedural flowchart by organizing a set of cards in which each card contains an instruction for a single step in the procedure. Students record their flowchart in their laboratory notebooks, present their flowcharts to the whole class, and (with teacher input) decide on a final "standard" procedure that the entire class will use. The use of a standard procedure allows the comparison of results across groups. Once they have practiced the laboratory procedure, students work in groups to develop and conduct their own experiment.

An example of the card-sort approach is the laboratory we developed titled "Figuring Out Freezing Point." We based this modified lab experience on a traditional freezing-point depression laboratory (Eddy 2006) and an approach to problem-based laboratories used in a high school textbook, Chemistry: Visualizing Matter (Monnard 1996). In this learning experience, students are presented with a real-world problem in which they are asked to work in teams to help a company decide on the feasibility of using Solute X in a water-based hydraulic fluid that would work in below 0[degrees]C weather. At this point, students have had at least some experience in the chemistry lab and have had a brief introduction to solution chemistry.

Preparing for the laboratory

Student groups first brainstorm to develop a testable question relevant to the problem. …

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