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In a former job as a program director for two online master’s degrees, I was required to write a weekly blog post for students on a topic related to the program or school. These postings were designed to create a sense of attachment to the institution, which is often lacking among online students. I believe it more than paid dividends for the institution in that the online students became our ambassadors, pitching the school to friends and family, as well as on listservs, as a great place to get a degree. I also believe that the connection improved student motivation, performance, and persistence.

To further the connection, I decided to add a simple game to my blog. Each week I would end my post with a “puzzler” about the institution or Vermont, where it is situated. I would do my best to pick a question whose answer students could not easily google—for instance, “Where did Norwich University’s founder teach before founding the school?” This would require students to read about the history of the institution and learn why it was founded (to protect the US from invasion by the British from Canada). I would give students a week to submit their answers to me by email and announce the right answer in the next blog, as well as publish a leaderboard. The puzzler rapidly gained student interest, further strengthening student ties to the program and institution.

The experience taught me the value of self-motivated, informal learning beyond the graded assignments of a classroom. Since then, I found a variety of ways that faculty, as well as their departments and schools, can implement similar puzzlers to generate student engagement and learning.

Grammar puzzler

We generally think of good writing as a broad skill that students should pick up as part of their studies but don’t explicitly teach it in our subject areas. One easy way to teach writing while at the same time getting student’s attention at the beginning of a lesson is by opening with a grammar puzzler. The lesson itself need not be on grammar; it can be a history, math, or engineering lesson. The puzzler is meant to gain student attention while teaching writing skills.

The instructor opens by presenting students with a passage that contains a writing error and asking who can spot it. Sleepy students will immediately wake up to find it. This can be a face-to-face lesson or the beginning of an online module. For instance, I might ask:

The Wikipedia entry for the band The Go-Go’s begins with “The Go-Go’s [sic].” Why is “sic” included?

The answer is that Go-Go’s should not have an apostrophe, as it is plural, not possessive. Then I explain that this is a common error made with both names and dates (e.g., “the 1940’s”). In this way the simple error segued into a general principle.

Importantly, I am not just opening with a grammar lesson. Not many people are intrinsically interested in grammar. But we are interested in spotting errors. Think of what you do if a passenger in your car says, “Hey, there’s a spelling error on that billboard!” Puzzlers elicit our curiosity, and we retain information better when we receive it in response to a question than when we are simply given it. If we have a guess, we want to learn whether we are right and so are invested in the answer. It is remarkable how well students retain information from these puzzlers.

Subject puzzlers

Faculty (and their departments) can use puzzlers to improve student understanding of subject matter content by connecting it with real-life examples.

For instance, a civil engineering instructor might ask students at the beginning of a lesson to submit a short answer to the question: “Why did the Citicorp Center Tower in NYC require extensive renovations the year after it was built?” The answer: a student discovered that if the wind of a certain speed at a certain angle hit the skyscraper, it could fall over. This fact in itself would interest civil engineering students, especially as a student discovered the problem, and could be used to illustrate issues in professional engineering. Similarly, a faculty member could ask current event questions in their field to help students start thinking like a practitioner of the craft.

These informal learning moments also foster a sense of learning for learning’s sake rather than to fulfill a requirement. As an undergraduate, I took a philosophy of art class in which the instructor opened each session by asking students to share “aesthetic announcements,” including upcoming art events or interesting happenings in the world of art. This simple exercise established a tone of mutual exploration of art and led me to attend art shows that I would not have otherwise seen. It felt like an invitation from the instructor to join his world, which heightened my connection to the course.

Reinforcement puzzlers

Instructors can also ask a question each week related to the prior week’s content to extend or reinforce learning. For instance, an art appreciation instructor who just covered sculpture composition could ask how Michelangelo solved the composition issue that plagued his first two versions of the Pietà in his third and most famous version. While this could be an essay prompt, making it a simple question that students can answer with minimal research on their smartphone is far more appealing to students.

A good source of course puzzlers are common student errors. As instructors we inevitably find one or more common errors in student work while grading assignments. These can be turned into teaching moments. For instance, after a unit on the stake- and shareholder theories of corporate responsibility, I might give students a sample text passage that misapplies one of the theories and ask students to identify the problem. This reinforces the distinction for those who understand it and helps correct those students who do not understand it.

Regardless of the puzzlers you use, if they are part of a live event, I recommend having students submit their responses with a polling system—such as Kahoot, SurveyMonkey, or Google Forms—rather than just raise their hands and call on people. Calling on people allows only one person to answer. Plus, polling systems can tabulate and update a leaderboard, which creates some friendly competition between students when there is no grade involved. But no matter how you host it, a puzzler activity is a great way to engage, motivate, and teach students.