Cards Against Environmental History: Rethinking Undergraduate Review Exercises

Hailey Venn

This post has been cross-posted with the Network in Canadian History & Environment

Jeopardy is a popular request from students who want an in-class review activity, but Jeopardy has some critical drawbacks. First and foremost, it asserts that there are right and wrong answers which can be condensed into minimal words. Jeopardy, by its very foundation, discourages nuance and critical thinking. It also prioritizes knowledge which is traditionally pale, male, and stale. Second, from a labour stand point, the game demands a tremendous amount of work from the professor or TA who creates it, while those who answer the questions are not compelled to demonstrate significant knowledge. There must be a better way.

Cards Against Humanity pile
The original Cards Against Humanity game is simple. Each round, one player asks a question from a black card, and everyone else answers with their funniest white card. Cards Against Environmental History (CAEH) follows this same format.


A few years ago, Leah Wiener, a PhD candidate of SFU’s Department of History, assigned Cards Against Environmental History (CAEH) to the third year class she TA’d. The basic rules exactly followed those of the original Cards Against Humanity.

As a student in that course, I really appreciated the creativity of the exercise and how the structure demanded that students go back and look over their materials. Wiener’s format demanded that we all contribute [x] number of black and white cards on cue cards. To this day, that is one of the few review exercises of my undergrad which I distinctly remember, and quite fondly at that.

During my first TAship in fall of 2017, I was assigned to the same course. Naturally, CAEH seemed like a perfect fit. To modify that version, I assigned each student to review the readings and lecture from one week of the course. While it narrowed the focus of each students’ review, it did ensure that there was little to no repetition of the cards and that the tutorial’s collective batch covered the range of reading and lecture materials. I did not conduct a survey at that point, though students seemed to appreciate the exercise and they performed well on the final exam.

Close up of game cards

Latest Edition

For the latest application, I needed to customize it to a first year environmental history course, centred on commodities. The week before their second midterm, I surprised the students with my own drafted cards, pictured. It was fun to create the batch, though also a fair amount of work. I sought to present key terms and actors (both human and non-human). The black cards were formed using a few spoof prompts but predominantly direct quotations from their readings and analyses we had reviewed in lectures and tutorials. I consulted with the original game in order to include similar sounding cards, such as “A perfectly bleached batch of coral,” “A gentle caress of the oolong leaves,” or “Polluting things to claim them as…not your own?” For some cards, one can maintain the original spirit of the game but dig a little deeper, for example “Forced to forage, all while dealing with rich folks bitching about ‘nutrition’” or (in relation to the class’ examination of so-called “authentic cuisine”) “Calling out the Mexican burrito for what it really is.”

Black Cards

Black Cards

In-Class Process

In tutorials, I gave the students the option of CAEH or the ‘more serious’ mind-mapping exercise. (Only one group out of all the tutorials chose not to conduct the game, but I felt it was important that I offer a couple of options to accommodate for different learning styles and preferences.) After handing out the card packets, students took off into groups of three to six. The most ideal number, in my experience, was four. Three limited the amount of discussion and variety of voices. Six seemed to produce a more hastened pace, allow some students to speak very little, and use up the white cards quicker.

Along the way, the exercise demanded that students debate with one another as to what was the most applicable answer to the black card. One example was when a student submitted “Racism” in response to “A key factor in the evolution of the chair was _.” When the judge was questioning the applicability of the card, the submitter reviewed how the history of slavery was foundational in the production of Jamaican mahogany. That, right there, is exactly what I hoped to get out of the game.

Students often asked me or their peers where a specific term was from, and, because the readings are electronic, they could (and should) instantly search for an answer. Further, I noted to all of them that many of the cards (such as the “Hindu caste wedding” black card) were quotes from the readings, content which could be used as evidence in the exam essays. In the process, students recognized when there was material they needed to know better. To help, I left one batch of cards as uncut sheets and spread them out on the side table so that students could photograph those sheets at the end of class.

I’ll also note that there was the one outlier group of four who decided not to play the game. Instead, they took the cards and ‘answered them.’ In theory, this might have been a questionable approach for a first year course, but for them, it worked. They pulled out their readings and directly engaged with the themes of the material. In a survey the week before, students had said they wanted “key terms and concepts,” and it would appear that the cards were enough of a jump point for those students to customize their learning experience.

Pile of Cards

Looking Forward

As hoped, I had students expressing a desire to make their own cards. For any instructor wishing to conduct the game, I recommend a second session within the semester if it fits within the schedule of the course as it continues the learning trajectory. For the next course where I assign CAEH, I plan to get students to draft their own cards, at the latest, by the second review session. Needless to say, forming the content-based cards takes a decent amount of engagement with the readings so I might provide the “fluff cards” (ones related to external material) while students are to only bring ones directly tied to the readings. The cards based on course material, after all, can be just as funny.

I recently asked the latest students what elements of CAEH they liked and which ones could be improved. The responses were generally quite positive, with only one student stating that the exercise did not meet their learning needs. Students thought the game was “more fun and engaging” than the Taboo! I had made for the previous review session. (This was not surprising as I had included too many essay-type questions into a game that is structurally at odds with long answers. Consequently, as phrased by a student, “Taboo! became taboo.) Other students found CAEH to “encourage discussion” and provide key terms/concepts that they could use as long-term study tools. One student was thrilled as they “ended up retaining lots!”

Suggestions for improvement were varied. A few students wanted more “gag” cards while the same number more wanted “more serious cards.” A couple of responses asked me to provide “correct answers” or explain the people referenced on the cards. In line with my pedagogical approach, I am not inclined to spoon-feed content but I am more than happy to discuss with them what they think is the right answer and we go from there. Depending on the nature of future course material, I may indicate which black cards are course-based versus gag ones, but with the latest bunch the differences seem rather evident.

Overall, I am excited continue to refine CAEH over the coming TAships and I look forward to working with colleagues to further develop pedagogical tactics which encourage nuanced and enthusiastic engagement with course concepts.

This post is part of the ongoing Beyond the Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History series edited by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken. Inquiries, proposals, and submissions can be sent to the editors via unwrittenhistories [at]gmail[dot]com.

Hailey Venn is an MA candidate at Simon Fraser University. Her thesis, centred on the Vancouver landfill situated in Delta, is tentatively titled “Dumping like a State: The High Modernist Project of the Delta Landfill, 1958-1981.”

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