The Office of Faculty Development

Sorting and Classification

Sorting and classification activities are great for helping students practice content-based skills, self-evaluate their own understanding, and engage in discourse about a particular topic.  For instructors, they provide opportunities to assess developing student understanding, to facilitate student-student and instructor-student discourse, and for students to actively engage in the learning process.

One manner in which students construct knowledge is to compare and contrast prior knowledge and new experiences or observations and develop schema to explain and understand their experiences.  Explicitly engaging students in comparison activities is a high impact teaching strategy that is supported by research (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollack 2001).

Use sorting and classification activities can be a dynamic strategy for engaging students in the act of identifying similarities and differences.  Card sorts or item sorts can be structured as open or closed sorts.  In open sorts, students are not given specific criteria to consider when sorting.  During a closed sort, students are asked to use specific criteria to sort or classify objects.

Using concrete or interactive items to sort can also be beneficial to diverse learners allowing them to interact with content through multiple modalities.  Facilitating sorting activities in groups or for the purpose of supporting student discourse will provide students with even more means through which they may explore content.

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    Examine selected research on sorting and classification. 

    Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., Pollack, J. E.  (2001).  Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. ACSD Alexandria, VA

    Marzano, R. J.  (1998).  A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on Instruction.  Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. 

    Roberston, I., Kortum, P., Oswald, F. L., Ziegler Acemyan, C.  (2020).  Novices Perform Like Experts on a Closed Card Sort but Not an Open Card SortProceedings of the 64th international annual meeting.  Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.


    Ready to incorporate sorting and classification activities into your teaching? Here are some ideas and strategies to get you started:

    1. When planning/designing a new sorting activity, consider how content could be grouped or organized as well as some ways that you would like to see students organize the cards (e.g. groups of related elements, connections between elements, existing taxonomies).
    2. Determine how much structure you would like to place on the activity and how you will clearly communicate your intent and expectations for the activity.
    3. For content that requires a substantial amount of memorization (e.g. memorizing body parts in an anatomy course) create a card sort.
    4. For a Zoom lesson, consider loading a card sort into a Jamboard(opens in new window)One benefit of Jamboards, is that you can easily copy and paste images into a jam if you have a digital copy of your sorting activity. 
    5. Have students participate in sorts collaboratively and facilitate small and whole group discussion.






Active Learning Calculus(opens in new window) (CU Boulder, Includes Matching/Sorting Activities)

Assessment Sort(opens in new window) (Pablo Ochoa Bailey, from Math Pedagogy Course)

Create Sorting Activities with Google Drawings or Slides(opens in new window) (EdTech Awesomeness)

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement(opens in new window) (Dean, Ross Hubbell, Stone)