Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. Last month, we shared strategies to support student mental well-being. This month, we discussed rising anxiety among college students and how regular retrieval practice has been shown to reduce test anxiety in learners.
However, the most common form of retrieval practice (self-quizzing) may be intimidating to minds prone to anxiety. In this blog, I’d like to discuss using word puzzles as a form of retrieval practice, and how this more approachable study technique could improve both mental health and learning outcomes.
The two articles we’d like to share with you this month:
What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval practice is an education "buzzword", and for good reason. It describes the action of recalling information without the use of reference materials. Research strongly supports the effectiveness of retrieval in improving long-term learning.
Unfortunately, students overwhelmingly favor less effective strategies, such as re-reading, highlighting, and underlining material. This preference may increase with age, with the greatest proportion of college students favoring the least effective study strategies.
Re-reading increases our fluency with the material in the moment, which feels like we are mastering and learning it. However, studies have shown that these effects are short-lived, and memories fade quickly after the learner stops re-reading the material.
Retrieval practice, on the other hand, is associated with durable, long-term learning - but feels more challenging.
Agarwal et al. (2014) reported that a majority of students who engaged in regular in-class retrieval practice (typically through low-to-no stakes clicker quizzes) reported feeling less anxious during their test or exam. However, in-class quizzes require a lot of “buy-in” from the students, and may be displeasing (especially unexpected “pop” quizzes) or cause a great deal of anxiety.
So, how can we reframe retrieval practice so that it feels more approachable, and perhaps even enjoyable? Let’s look at the power of crossword puzzles.
The pros of puzzles
I begin most days with the New York Times mini crossword puzzle. Sometimes I can fill in all of my boxes in less than a minute, other days I struggle and exhaust all the hints. The best days are when I can work together with my family to answer all of the across and down clues.
Even though a crossword puzzle is at its essence a quiz, with questions and answers, it doesn’t feel like one. The format feels recreational and fun, and it allows my brain to escape the chaos of the morning with a toddler in the house, if only for a moment.
Working through challenging puzzles deeply engages the mind. Focus on the puzzle is posited to alleviate distraction and feelings of anxiety. Additionally, completing a puzzle may create a feeling of accomplishment, giving your brain a nice boost of dopamine and serotonin, and leaving you feeling happier .
The benefits and enjoyment of puzzles could be amplified when they are completed as part of a group, as working together on a challenging puzzle may potentially build rapport and support.
What does the research say?
These ideas about recreational puzzling have been supported by studies in the primary literature, where educators measured the effectiveness of using crossword puzzles as a study technique.
Results from these published studies are mixed in terms of significantly improving learning outcomes. However, students reported that they enjoyed incorporating crossword puzzles into their study routine, wanted to continue to complete puzzles after the study had finished, and reported the highest levels of satisfaction when puzzles were completed in class with their fellow learners[4,5].
So, while more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of puzzles as a tool to improve learning outcomes and anxiety, we can conclude from personal experience and student feedback that a quiz dressed up as a puzzle certainly makes learning more approachable, fun, and reduces the anxiety associated with getting an answer wrong.
Other ideas for adding mindfulness techniques into study time include using scientific coloring books (there are numerous workbooks available in the areas of anatomy, physiology, and other sciences), or writing riddles to better promote understanding of key concepts and ideas.
How to create and use puzzles
There are numerous free online resources for creating different word puzzles, including crosswords and wordsearches. Search “free puzzle maker” online and try out a few options – they are simple to set up in a matter of minutes!
If the thought of creating yet another resource for your students feels overwhelming, fret not. These tools are freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection, so you can ask eager learners to develop and share a puzzle with the entire class.
These puzzles work beautifully with other proven study techniques, such as interleaving topics (mixing clues from different study units) and providing learners with “spaced learning” experiences, by delivering puzzles a few days or weeks after the initial unit of study has been covered.
Here are a few resources to try out yourself, or with your students! We hope they strengthen neural pathways and bring a little joy and calm into your classroom. Simply click on the 'Download Printables' button below to receive a crossword, wordsearch, and multiple coloring sheets. Enjoy!
Join the discussion
Have you had any positive experiences with puzzles in your life or in your classroom? What other approachable techniques can you think of to help students study? Join us on our community pages and let us and other educators know your thoughts!
Our online community is a place to engage in discussions on important topics like these and many others related to life-science teaching practices and pedagogy. The community connects and reflects a passionate group of life-science educators from all over the world. Our hope is that the community provides a way for educators to work together, get feedback from each other, and build stronger, more meaningful relationships in real-time, whether these are across campus or across the globe.
- Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger III, H. L., McDermott, K. B., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Classroom-based programs of retrieval practice reduce middle school and high school students’ test anxiety. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3(3), 131–139.
- Brown, P.C. (2014). Make It Stick. London, England: Belknap Press.
- Gamesver team. “15 Ways Doing Crossword Puzzles Affect Your Mind And Body!” https://www.gamesver.com/15-ways-doing-crossword-puzzles-affect-your-mind-and-body/. Published March 20, 2021.
- Crossman, E. K., & Crossman, S. M. (1983). The crossword puzzle as a teaching tool. Teaching of Psychology, 10(2), 98-99. DOI: 10.1207/s15328023top1002_10
- Weisskirch, R. S. (2006). An analysis of instructorcreated crossword puzzles for student review. College Teaching, 54(1), 198-201. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.54.1.198-20
Related Talking Teaching articles: