Examining Course-Level Conceptual Connections Using a Card Sort Task: A Case Study in a First-Year, Interdisciplinary, Earth Science Laboratory Course


  • Ashley B. Davidson University of British Columbia
  • Christopher J. Addison University of British Columbia
  • James Charbonneau University of British Columbia




card sort task, conceptual connections, assessment tools, problem-based learning


Universities are recognizing the need to prepare graduates to think conceptually and have the ability to take on complex, real-world problems. Strategies to assess conceptual knowledge are limited and often require more time and effort to complete than is accessible for most undergraduate courses. Card sorting is a very broad technique for understanding how people group concepts, but in higher education has typically been used to show a student’s development towards expert-like thinking in a discipline as a whole. However, it typically does not give much insight into how we should change our teaching. In this paper, using the novel setting of two terms of a first-year, earth and ocean science lab that uses problem-based learning (PBL), we show how one can generate a card sort that is built using course learning goals and then use the analysis to make actionable improvements to course instruction. Using a card sort designed so that the expert sort corresponds to learning goals supported by the lab activities, we found that in both offerings of the course students generally moved towards expert-like sorting with a reduction in novice-like sorting. A striking feature stood out in both terms of the course, with one question scoring significantly lower than any other expert pairings, despite a change in the wording of that question between terms. This suggests that our course materials do not promote this specific conceptual connection that we had expected and gives us a clear place to look for issues in our course material. In a broader context, our results suggest that tailoring card sort questions to material at a course level, rather than at the discipline level, can provide a manageable, routine assessment of conceptual knowledge in students, while also providing feedback on the quality of course materials.


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Author Biographies

Ashley B. Davidson, University of British Columbia

Ashley B. Davidson is a PhD Candidate and the course coordinator of EOSC 111 in the Department of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia (CAN). https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2141-6710.

Christopher J. Addison, University of British Columbia

Christopher J. Addison is an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia (CAN). https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5268-8682.

James Charbonneau, University of British Columbia

James Charbonneau is an Associate Professor of Teaching and Director of the Science Gateway Programs at the University of British Columbia (CAN). https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7142-5124.


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How to Cite

Davidson, Ashley Breanne, Christopher James Addison, and James Charbonneau. 2022. “Examining Course-Level Conceptual Connections Using a Card Sort Task: A Case Study in a First-Year, Interdisciplinary, Earth Science Laboratory Course”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 10 (January). https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.10.9.