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© Lee Harvey 2018, 2019, page updated 23 January, 2019

A novel of twists and surprises

The original card sort on this site was one developed by Val Butcher for the LTSN Generic Centre. This was migrated to the new Higher Education Aacdemy site but then has subsequently disappeared.

There are some pages about card sorts on the Higher Education Acdemy site and also on two of the subject centre sites, see below

What is the Card Sort?

This section aims to explain what the card sort is through a generic description of the tool, hallmarks of a good tool and the audiences the tool is for.

Generic description of the tool

The principle of card sorts is that it is all about bringing sense and organisation to the various elements (ideas, variables etc) of a complex problem or system. This makes them ideal tools in examining real world problems and issues where there is no 'correct answer' or clear model to apply and where there is a host of variables to contend with.

There are at least three types of card sort in use: the one which is appropriate for you will depend on the learning outcome you desire

1. For organising ideas: prompt cards can be grouped or organised to model a complex system and demonstrate the links between variables.

2. For prioritising ideas: prompt cards can be used to identify an individual's values, priorities and response to a problem use a different colour for 'cateogry heading' cards.

3. For discussion: prompt cards can be used simply as a stimulus for clarifying, and exploration, each card is turned over and becomes a topic for discussion

At a time when employability in the academic curriculum is being delivered by a increasing range of curricular innovation, the card sort offers a flexible approach over a wide range of components of employability learning, from individual career development to articulation of personal attributes; PDP to the formulation of learning outcomes from work placements.

The card sort tool is used to help staff think about what employability means. A card sort consists of variable numbers of cards, each bearing information, opinion, visual material or whatever the focus of the learning might be. Often 'Header' Cards are designed to structure the thinking, and learners are invited to sort the cards against these headings, either individually or in pairs or groups.

Card sorts by their flexible nature, stimulate employability learning through:

• Reflection on choices and issues
• Discussion with peers on divergent and similar views
• Ownership of an informed viewpoint, and understanding that other key stakeholders may have different views
• Action planning and prioritising on the basis of reflection and discussion including the formulation of negotiated learning outcomes
• Reviewing of opinions and priorities in the light of further experience

Using the original LTSN card sort approach

The card sort exercise has three stages, which may be carried out sequentially or in separate sessions.


Employability is . ......The first question staff are asked is 'what does employability mean?' Staff are given a selection of cards with definitions of what employability could mean and are asked to place them into the following categories:

Employability is very much about this
Employability is partly about this
Employability might or might not be about this
Employability is definitely not about this
This is irrelevant to employability


Employability outcomes ....staff then identify what they think are the important outcomes of employability and what measures should be employed to ensure these are achieved


Techniques .....
That raise awareness of a wide range of techniques and learning approaches currently practised, which may be used to achieve the desired employability outcomes (stage 3)

There were variants of the LTSN sort on the Higher Education Academy web site but the original pages are no longer available. Hoiwever, the ESCALATE site remains:

Card sort exercise, ESCalate: The Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Education, available at, accessed 15 April 2011, still available 13 January 2017.

Hallmarks of a good tool

As with any other activity that is used for teaching purposes, it is important to identify your intended learning outcome from the activity and check how they fit with the rest of your teaching programme.

In an ideal world, participants would create all their own cards/prompts for discussion. However, each individual participant is likely to have only a few of the appropriate concepts needed for the exercise (hence the need for cards/prompts for starting the discussion!). So in practice prompts will be based on the broad experience brought to the exercise by the designer and others consulted during the course of the design. If you are selecting existing card sorts the relevance of the material in content, style and language is paramount.

Having gathered your ideas for prompt cards, or found the right thing 'off the shelf', always provide some blank cards so that individuals can add extra prompts. It is important to make participants feel that they can bring their own ideas to a discussion using a card sort. Some people don't like to be constrained by the ways that other people express things. Over time and use these new ideas will, if incorporated, improve your card sort.

Audiences citing or developing examples of this tool

For two decades, card sorts have been developed in higher education as support for student's individual decision making about their progression through learning and work, and currently versions of the Lifeskills Associates 'Interests, Skills and Values' card sorts are in use in higher education careers services in a number of UK institutions.

More recently, card sorts have been developed to promote wider employability learning and discussion.

The majority of card sorts in use in UK universities are for direct student learning but they also have a role in enabling staff to explore and articulate more fully what may have hitherto been unreflective reactions to employability in the curriculum.

The following are useful resources:

Card Sorting available at, accessed 15 April 2011, still available 13 January 2017

Card Sorting: Introduction available at, accessed 15 April 2011, still available 13 January 2017

The following raises concerns about card sorting:
Card Sorting Doesn’t Cut the Custard avialable at, accessed 15 April 2011, still available 13 January 2017


Target Audience
Tool Type
Visual Cards
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