Faculty Focus


Using Playing Cards to Encourage Student Participation and Engagement

Playing cards are sprawled out in person's hand

Like many faculty, it has been no easy feat to keep students engaged during class, especially in a physical geography course in which many undergraduate students take to fulfill a general education science requirement. Despite COVID-19 protocols and numerous other hurdles, we have found success with student engagement by using a simple deck of playing cards to encourage participation and manage the classroom more effectively.

The card technique and classroom management

In fall of 2021, Jennifer Rahn, associate professor of geography at Samford University, integrated a simple technique to keep students engaged during class and help keep track of who participated.

First, Rahn bought two packs of standard playing cards. Her classes typically have 25 students, so having 100 cards allowed her to award four cards to each student (the amount of cards needed will depend on the class size). Next, she brought the cards to class and explained the rules. She told students that they could earn a participation card every time they asked or answered a question, or if they contributed to the class discussion. The card would be placed on their desk where both the instructor and student could see it.

Additionally, distributing cards helped her to determine each student’s daily participation grade. Students could earn up to 100 points; one card was worth 25 points. Students could earn points for bringing notes on homework or completing worksheets in class. Students could earn up to two cards, or 50 points, for asking and answering questions and contributing to the classroom discussion. She varied the card technique slightly each day to encourage different kinds of participation.

Similarly, the students could lose cards. For example, Rahn told the students that she could take away cards if she saw them using their laptop inappropriately, texting on their cell phone, or not following established COVID-19 safety protocols in the classroom. The cards could also be used to discourage other inappropriate classroom behaviors defined by an institution.

Near the end of class, she scanned the room to quickly see who needed more cards to get full credit for the day and asked those students questions, giving them an opportunity to participate. This technique also allowed her to see who participated more frequently than others, and provided a good reminder to students to let everyone have a voice and opportunity at the discussion. At the end of class, students left their cards at their desk, and Rahn recorded their grades by hand or in the university’s learning management system.

This technique engaged students in a way that was fun and novel. Students expressed that they liked the cards because it reminded them of how much they were participating each day. Some of the students had additional fun with this technique, for example, looking at their cards and comparing who had the highest hand. Faculty can customize this activity and award points for activities that make sense for their own course. For example, Rahn’s colleague, Lisa McNeal, might award cards to students who bring a rough draft to class for a peer review activity.

Encouraging participation

McNeal, who teaches interdisciplinary classes and is an expert in pedagogy and faculty development, shares her thoughts about the value of the card technique.

As an instructor who is passionate about engaging students with the course material, this technique reminds us of the importance of leaving the front of the room lecturer pose and becoming the guide on the side rather than “the sage on the stage” (King 1993, 30). As King (1993) points out in her classic article about undergraduate teaching, students grow into active learners and problem-solvers when the professors incorporate dynamic learning activities into their lecture. Rahn’s card technique is a simple way to interact with the students and help them to engage with the content. To award cards, she approaches each desk and places the card on it. Then, she looks at the student and says something such as, “Thanks, Angela, that’s a great point. You really showed me that you understand how plate tectonics work.” Simply stating the student’s name and looking them in the eye is another way to build classroom community as described by Kohler-Evans (2019). Kohler-Evans (2019) emphasizes that building a community of learners that reflects “mutual respect” is the responsibility of the professor. She states, “When I teach, it is incumbent on me to assume responsibility for establishing and maintaining a safe and secure learning environment where all students are encouraged to ask questions, make observations, express themselves without fear of reprisal, and make sense of what they are learning” (2019). Similarly, thanking the students for participating is an effective way for educators to focus on gratitude and help students feel more connected to their classroom community (National Society of High School Scholars, 2021).

Chickering and Gamson (1987) tout the importance of participation in the undergraduate classroom. They state, “Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives” (1987). The card technique is a low-stakes, fun way to get the students talking about geography. For example, when students talk about different landforms, like the Grand Canyon, Rahn may ask, has anyone been to the Grand Canyon? Then, she calls on students who raise their hand and asks them to share what they remember. Additionally, McNeal sees how the card technique could be used in different settings. For example, the director of a center for teaching and learning could use this technique to ramp up discussion during a faculty development workshop. This simple technique could also be used to monitor participation in a K-12 setting or a graduate seminar. McNeal plans to use the technique at an upcoming workshop to lead faculty in a discussion about engaging students using asynchronous videos.

Although the playing cards were used as an informal way to engage students, they have helped monitor class participation, managed the classroom, and given students an incentive to participate. More importantly, the students have responded positively. As one student casually remarked, “The playing cards were helpful. They required me to focus on the material being presented and they motivated me to participate in class in an enjoyable way.”

Jennifer Rahn is an associate professor of geography at Samford University. Lisa McNeal teaches interdisciplinary classes and serves as the director of elearning at the College of Coastal Georgia.


Chickering, Arthur and Zelda Gamson. (1987). “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” AAHE Bulletin, 39, no. 7: 3-7.

King, Alison. (1993). “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” College Teaching 41, no. 1: 30-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27558571

Kohler-Evans, Patty. (2019). “Creating a Community of Learners that Reflects Mutual Respect.” Faculty Focus. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/creating-community-of-learners-that-reflects-respect/

National Society of High School Scholars. (2020). “Five Strategies for Building Community in the Classroom.” Accessed November 24, 2021.