You ever ask your students to discuss something with each other or to think-pair-share and then they um… don’t?

At the start of the year, many of my students don’t know each other and jumping into academic discussions can be a bit jarring and anxiety-inducing for many students. If I want them to be able to discuss academic content with each other, they need to feel a bit more comfortable with each other, so in the first day or first week I like to do an ice-breaker/team-building activity – one that’s not too touchy-feely, since that’s not my thing.

This activity, like most other ice breakers/team-building activities, can act as an energizer, as well as help build collaboration and serve as a background activity to discuss problem-solving strategies. It’s a pretty simple card-sorting activity introduced to me at computer science workshops on a couple occasions by Bob Luciano, computer science teacher in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.

Goal for students

Each group of students sorts a shuffled deck of cards (grouped by suit, ascending order within each suit) in as short of time as they can. (Make it a competition between groups if you’d like – regardless, students will probably infer that and get competitive.)

Example of sorted cards



Once the deck is sorted, it should be stacked, turned face-down. When the group is done, all group members put both hands in the air to signal they’re done and that nobody is touching the cards


Have students shuffle their cards. Explain the goal and the rules.

Once students understand the goal and rules, yell “Go!” and start the timer. (We’re intentionally not giving them time to plan – yet.)

Record times as groups signal they’re done. (My students have had times ranging from ~50 seconds to ~4 minutes.)

Tell students some groups may have felt frustrated but there will be a round 2. This time tell them they get a minute to strategize.

Have students shuffle their cards again, then yell “Go!” and start the timer. Record times. Generally the class does better as a whole the second time.

Want the directions on a PowerPoint? Click here.

Connections and Reflection questions

  • Connect it to growth mindset – understanding the rules better the second time around, the benefits of more practice, learning from mistakes, etc.
  • Connect it to problem-solving – strategizing, trial-and-error, planning, learning from mistakes, etc.
  • Connect it to teamwork – splitting up roles, helping each other, leveraging each person’s strengths, etc.
  • Connect it to actual strategies if that’s relevant to your content (ex: algorithms) and you feel it’s an appropriate time to connect it to content
  • I wouldn’t try connecting it to all of the above in much detail, since that’s a bit much.
  • “Why did the class do better the second round? (Or why did your group do better the second round?)”
  • “How might this relate to school? Other aspects of your life?”
  • “What was your group’s strategy? Did your strategy change?”


  • Some students are not familiar with playing cards and might not know how the aces and face cards are ordered. You might consider writing the order on the board (A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K), or first having students remove all non-numbered cards.
  • It may help to circulate and encourage participation. I’ve had students sitting on the sidelines watching, possibly because they’re shy or don’t know what to do. I might coax them by saying “I’m sure your group could do this faster with your help!” or tell the group “I see not everyone has a job. I’m sure you can get this done faster if you include everyone. If someone doesn’t have a job, let them know how they can help!”
  • At the end of each round, you may wish to check the fastest groups for accuracy by picking up their decks and (dramatically) reviewing them out loud (“Ace 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Jack… King, Queen???” – with the purpose of humor and encouragement, not actual humiliation)
  • If you’re concerned about groups under-shuffling their decks, have groups shuffle the deck for other groups (swap groups’ decks with each other after they shuffle them)
  • In the first round some groups might have misinterpreted the instructions – that’s okay to point out since it gives them more reason to welcome round 2

However you run it, keep in mind your purpose – to build positive interactions between your students (students-to-students but also teacher-to-students), plus whatever other learning objective(s) you intended (problem-solving skills, growth mindset, etc.).

Beginning of school ice breaker: Card Sort Challenge

One thought on “Beginning of school ice breaker: Card Sort Challenge

  • August 29, 2021 at 5:08 pm

    You could also rotate shuffled decks so that if they were under-shuffled, they will go to another group. They will be sure to shuffle them thoroughly.

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