Instructional Design, the Card Game

Concurrent Session 8

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Brief Abstract

The Instructional Design Card Game incorporates the concepts of gamification and storytelling into the process of collaborative course design. In this hands-on lab you will get a chance to try out the card game. We will also discuss the context for this innovation and the faculty response on our campus.


Qin Li is a Senior Instructional Designer of the Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Utah. Qin has more than a decade of experience in working with faculty and designing and developing courses in higher education. She earned an Ph.D. in Instructional Technology at Utah State University. She conducted research on exploring and developing new models of instructional design. She is interested in innovative teaching methods, and is passionate about facilitating life-long learning efforts for instructional designers, teachers, and students alike.
Jon Thomas is the Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Utah. Jon has a long history working with education technologies including his previous work at enPraxis/COSL, helping to develop the Open Courseware platform, eduCommons. He earned a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at Utah State University. His interests include agile course development, the influence of technology on higher education culture, and community engagement in online environments.

Extended Abstract


Context of the Problem and Solution

During the last five years, the University of Utah has been engaged in an effort to improve the quality of our online course offerings. During design sessions, we’ve seen that the communication of design ideas between faculty members and instructional designers is critical to the success of design projects. Issues can sometimes arise when either the instructional designer does not convey design ideas properly or when the faculty member is unable to participate in a design discussion at a sufficient level.

To address these issues, we’ve recently focused our efforts on helping faculty to align course objectives by engaging in a card game activity. Our design efforts have led us to view objective alignment as the primary “threshold concept” of course design (Cousin, 2010). We also designed the Instructional Design Card Game to leverage the affordances provided by gamification (Botra, Rerselman, & Ford, 2014) and storytelling (Shank, 2006) to help encourage a more engaging and memorable experience.

Description of Instructional Design Card Game Activity

The Instructional Design Card Game is comprised of a pad of sticky notes and a deck of cards. The card deck includes three categories of cards:

  • Objectives Cards (5 cards): Objectives cards are initially blank. A dotted rectangle indicates the location where course objectives are placed (via a sticky note).
  • Taxonomy Cards (7 cards): Taxonomy cards each identify a particular level/type of learning within either Fink’s or Bloom’s taxonomies of learning outcomes.
  • Course Activity Cards (40 cards): Each activity card describes a course activity that is considered a best practice (e.g., asynchronous discussions, think-pair-share, reflection paper).

Each type of learning on a taxonomy card is associated with a meaningful icon and color code. The same icon and color code are printed on the course activity cards to signify that an activity is considered best practice in supporting a type of learning.

Players take on two different roles during the game: one player is the instructor, the other is the facilitator. To start the game the facilitator places a blank objective card on the table. The facilitator asks the instructor to write down a course objective on a sticky note and place it on the card. Next, the facilitator presents the taxonomy cards and asks the instructor to select which type of learning best aligns with the selected objective. A description of the type of learning is detailed on each taxonomy card. Once selected, the instructor places down the taxonomy card. Finally, the facilitator presents the activity cards. The instructor matches the icon and color code on the activity cards with the icon and color that appear on the taxonomy card. When the instructor chooses an activity card that doesn’t have the same icon and color code with the taxonomy card, he or she provides a justification for the decision.

Once the alignment has been completed, the facilitator leads the instructor through a reflection exercise as they collaboratively review the card placement. Using a storytelling structure, the facilitator verbalizes the journey or learning path that the student will take in completing the course activity. To encourage deeper reflection, the facilitator might use words similar to “let me explain what I am seeing to you and see if I get it right” or ask questions for clarification. At any time, the instructor can volunteer additional information and details. These details should be noted for later review. This process is repeated for each of the course objectives.

Lab Session Plan

The Instructional Design Card Game is seen as an ideal activity for faculty development opportunities and workshops. During this OLC lab session we will give participants a chance to experience the Instructional Design Card Game and will lead a group discussion on how we can better utilize the activity in collaborative course design. The session will proceed as follows:

  • Attention Activity. Participants will be given an impossible task that is misaligned. (e.g., explain what salt tastes like to the person sitting next to you.) Participants will discuss the problems of course misalignment. (5 mins)
  • Context. Presenters will give brief background on motivations for building the cards and how we designed the game. (5 mins)
  • Demo. Presenters will demonstrate the process for using the cards. (10 mins)
  • Scenario Learning. Participants will be divided into groups of 2-3 members. Participants will have a chance to use the cards in two different scenarios (20 mins)
    • Scenario #1 - Audience members are given a paragraph description which is an excerpt of a professor telling an instructional designer about a course he or she wants to create. From the description, the audience uses the cards to come up with an alignment.
    • Scenario #2 - Participants identify a project they are working on or are familiar with. They use the cards with the intent of solving this unique situation
  • Discussion. The audience will be led through a discussion about their experience in using the cards for design and reflect on the potential application at their own institution. (5 mins)

How the Card Game was Designed

We used a design thinking approach to iteratively develop the game (Brown, 2009). This process was characterized by a series of prototypes that informed the design. For example, we had initially started with a deck of poker size cards that could be filled out using erasable color markers for both objectives and activities. However, we found it difficult to write on smaller cards with available pens, and the cards quickly became smudged and difficult to write on. For our next iteration, we used tarot size cards to allow texts to fit better on the cards and decided to include a box where a small sticky note could be placed.

Another change in the design process related to the layout of the activity cards. We used arrows initially and then the pipe metaphor to signify the alignment points; however, over time we changed to using icon and color code sets. We also changed the content layout of the activity cards. Instead of cramming the title, description, and examples, we used both sides of the card so that the players could read in depth on one side, but see a summarized view on the other. Through these, and many other smaller changes, we arrived at a course design activity that fits naturally in a game-like format.

Experiences in Piloting the Game

The pilot phase was conducted after we reached a functional product. Two instructional designers introduced the game to the faculty that they were working with. These faculty seemed intrigued by the approach and found it a useful as an alternative to the alignment grid (a spreadsheet approach to documenting course objectives that we use at our university). We also introduced the tool in a workshop and later did a table session at our Faculty Forum during Fall semester 2018. During January of 2019, we presented the activity to the Teaching and Learning Portfolio, a faculty governance committee that focuses on technology to support teaching and learning across campus at the University of Utah. The game was well received with positive feedback from attendees.

Our future plans are to further develop the game through a series of focus groups. We plan to have some faculty focus groups in March of 2019. In each faculty focus group, we will be asking for feedback via a survey. The survey results will help us to identify further areas for improvements. Once the tool gains traction at our university, we plan to conduct a longitudinal study to determine what impact it has on faculty perspectives, their work, and possibly student learning.


We are very excited about the response we have received from our initial introduction of the tool to faculty at our institution, and are eager to share this resource with a larger audience. In this course design lab, OLC attendees will learn to further appreciate the importance of course alignment and will see how this process could be conducted in a more engaging way.  We are confident that the process will allow participants to reflect on course structure and logic, justify the decisions made during this process, and better relate course design to their teaching and/or support roles.


Cousin, G. (2010). Neither teacher-centred nor student-centred: threshold concepts and research partnerships. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, (2).

Botra, A., Rerselman, M., & Ford, M. (2014). Gamification beyond badges. In IST-Africa Conference Proceedings, 2014(pp. 1-10). IEEE.

Shank, M. J. (2006). Teacher storytelling: A means for creating and learning within a collaborative space. Teaching and Teacher education, 22(6), 711-721.

Brown, T., & Katz, Barry. (2009). Change by design : How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation (1st ed.).