How to Help Students Prepare for Group Work Using Card Castles and Puzzles

card castle how to prepare students for group work

Break up your lecture with one of these activities to help students prepare for group work.

If you teach using active learning strategies or any student-centered learning model, your students are probably working in groups at some point during the course.

It may be a simple in-class small group discussion for one part of a lecture or it may involve a semester-long intensive group project. In either case, successful group work depends on students understanding the purpose of the activity, how working collaboratively will help them achieve the goal, and what guidelines they need to follow.

But, successful group work also depends on knowing how groups function, how ideas evolve, and what roles members play within the group. Is there a leader? How are tasks delegated? How do group members manage themselves? Who sets deadlines? Who is the record keeper? Who is the presenter? How are decisions made within the group? What happens when a group member is not upholding his/her/their responsibilities? How are conflicts resolved? These are just a few questions new groups need to address as they begin working together.

If your students will be working together in groups throughout the semester or for long term projects, it is essential to help them understand the five stages of group performance so they can have a more successful group learning experience.

Tuckman (1965) introduced the four stages of group performance: forming, storming, norming, and performing. He later added “adjourning” to create five stages. For a quick summary of all five stages, see this article from MindTools.

As the group members move through each stage, they face different challenges. If they aren’t aware of the group formation process, they may get overwhelmed or frustrated before they see the value of the group work.

If you are considering using groups in your course, I recommend introducing students o the five stages and giving them examples and tools to help them navigate each of the stages.

In this article, I’d like to share two activities you can use to briefly introduce students to the five stages of group work and group dynamics.

Instead of lecturing about the five stages, try breaking up your lecture with one of these activities to give students a preview of what they might experience when they are working on their “real” group project throughout the semester.

These two activities can be done in 15-20 minutes during class. That may seem like a significant amount of time, but the value students get from these activities is worth it. They’re easy to do and they don’t require a significant amount of time to set up.

At first, these may seem trivial, but once you connect the five stages of group performance and your learning outcomes to the activity, both you and your students will see how powerful these simple activities can be.

(Oh, and they’re also fun! We all need a little more fun in our classrooms!)

Activity #1:  The Card Castle

What is the Card Castle Activity and How Do I Do It?

The card castle activity is best used during in-person or face-to-face part of your course. It can be adapted and used to illustrate a variety of concepts related to group work, problem-solving, assessment, communication, etc. and can be used in classes, labs, and professional development workshops. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on how to use it for group work.

Set up:

  1. Divide students into groups. If you already know the groups students will be working in throughout a particular project, then put students into those same groups. If you just want to use the Card Castle Activity to introduce group work in general, then students can work with any of their peers to form a group. The activity works well in both situations.

  2. Give each group a stack of 30-50 index cards (keep a stack of extra cards just in case your students get ambitious when they build their castle!)

  3. Then, ask students to choose 2-3 “builders” in their group. The other group members will be “observers.”

  4. When everyone is ready, tell the builders to “build a card castle.” Give them 15 minutes. Tell the observers to take notes on what they see and hear as they observe this process. (Note: If you think your students need more structure, or if you want to direct their attention, you can give the observers discussion prompts or an observation sheet to help them focus.)

         Note: Be prepared for these questions. I get most of these questions
         EVERY TIME I use this activity:

  • Can observers help build the castle? (It’s up to you as the instructor. I usually say no.)
  • Can we use tape or stickers or paper clips? (I say no. It seems to be more fun and challenging without tools.)
  • How tall does the castle have to be? (I say it’s up to them. They can decide.)
  • Do we have to use all of the cards? (I say no.)
  • Can we get more cards? (I say yes and give them extra cards as needed.)
  • Can we fold the cards? (I say yes. They can fold them, tear them, and manipulate them any way they want as long as they don’t use tools or tape.)
  • Is the group with the tallest castle the winner? (I usually say it’s not a competition with other groups. Just focus on your castle.)
  • What if it falls down while we’re building it? (I ask them: What if I said you were going to be graded on your castle? What would you do? Then they decide.)
  • Does the castle need to have [insert details: a moat, a drawbridge, a tower, a dragon, etc.]? (I tell them it’s their castle. They can decide.)
  1. Give builders a 1-minute warning when time is almost up. Then, call “time!”

  2. Debrief it (see next section).

Debriefing the Card Castle Activity

You MUST debrief this activity with students. Many of the observers will immediately see the connections between the card castle activity and the five stages, but it may be more difficult for the builders who were focused on building the castle, solving problems, and working through the five stages.

There are several strategies you can use to debrief this activity and help the students understand the purpose of playing with index cards.

First, you may want to give students time to walk around and see the other castles. They are always curious about this and want to share their awesome castle building skills with each other. Give them time to take pictures, share their experience, and laugh with each other.

Once you have everyone’s attention, start the debriefing process. Here are some of the debriefing questions I like to use, depending on time, what happened in the groups, and what the purpose of the activity is. Modify as needed:

Questions for the observers:

  1. How was it decided you would be an observer?
  2. What was the first thing that happened when I said to “build a card castle”?
  3. Did you notice a leader? What made you think that person was the leader? What did he/she do?
  4. What did you see / hear when they started building the castle? Did someone have a plan? Did they start building it together or alone separately?
  5. Did you notice any conflict? How was that conflict resolved?
  6. What did you notice when the castle fell?
  7. How did you feel when they asked you for help?
  8. What did they do when I told them they couldn’t use tape/tools?

 Questions for the Builders:

  1. How was it decided you would be a builder?
  2. What was the first thing you thought of when I said to “build a card castle”?
  3. Did you notice if you (or someone else) was the leader? Were you comfortable with that person being the leader? Why did that person step up to be the leader (did they have previous experience building card castles?)
  4. How did you decide to bend the cards to make a sturdier structure?
  5. Did you create a story to go with your castle? Tell us about it. (Note: Some groups get VERY excited about this and they will create wonderfully elaborate stories to go along with their castle. Love it!)
  6. What happened when your castle fell?
  7. How did you decide to take a different approach to building your castle?
  8. How do you feel about your castle building skills now that you’ve seen the other groups’ castles?

Questions for everyone:

  1. What was the purpose of the card castle activity?
  2. What part of the activity do you think illustrated [forming, storming, norming, performing]?
  3. What could I have done as the teacher to help you be more successful with this task?
  4. Did you notice how decisions were made? Why does that matter when thinking about the longer-term group project you will complete in this course this semester?
  5. Where did you feel most stressed (or the most pressure) during this activity? How does that relate to the group project for this course?

Activity #2:  The Puzzle Activity

What is the Puzzle Activity and How Do I Do It?

If you don’t want to use index cards, but you still want to introduce students to the five stages of group performance, try this puzzle activity. It is also best used during in-person or face-to-face part of your course.

Like the card castle activity, it can also be adapted and used to illustrate a variety of concepts related to group work, problem-solving, assessment, communication, etc. and can be used in classes, labs, and professional development workshops. The difference is you’re using puzzles instead of stacks of index cards.

Set Up:

  1. Same as card castle activity.

  2. Give each group a children’s puzzle. I like puzzles that are between 24-36 pieces, just so the process doesn’t take as long and the students are still challenged.

  3. Then, ask students to choose 2-3 people in their group to put the puzzle together. The other group members will be “observers” (same as card castle activity).

  4. When everyone is ready, tell the students to put their puzzle together. Give them 10 minutes. Tell the observers to take notes on what they see and hear as they observe this process.

  5. Keep the groups on time and let them know when time is almost up.

  6. Debrief it (see next section).

Debriefing the Puzzle Activity

As with the card castle activity, you MUST also debrief this activity with students. The observers will notice things much more quickly than those who put the puzzle together since their focus was on solving the problem and not reflecting on the process. Reflection questions to consider (revise as needed):

Questions for the groups:

  1. How was it decided who would put the puzzle together? Was it based on prior experience? Are you an expert in putting puzzles together? Did you volunteer?

  2. Was there a leader? What made you think that person was the leader? What did he/she/they do?

  3. How did you decide to solve this problem of putting this puzzle together? Did you have a strategy (ie: sorting by color, starting with edges, looking for corners, etc.)?

  4. Did the students putting the puzzle together discuss their strategy before putting it together? Or, did they work on separate sections? Or did they just jump in without a plan?

  5. Did you notice any conflict? Any disagreements about how to finish the puzzle? How was that conflict resolved?

  6. What was the purpose of the puzzle activity?

  7. What part of the activity do you think illustrated [forming, storming, norming,
    performing]?

  8. What could I have done as the teacher to help you be more successful with this task?

  9. Did you notice how decisions were made? Why does that matter when thinking about the longer-term group project you will complete in this course this semester?

As the instructor, you can also make observations between and among groups based on what you noticed as you walked around the room. The students will only have the perspective of their group, but you will be able to bring it all together and help students reflect on which strategies were more successful than others and tips to help the groups be more successful when they are working on their actual group projects.

One adaptation I like to make in the puzzle activity is to mix up one piece of each of the group’s puzzle prior to class. I take one piece out of each box and mix it in with another box. This introduces an additional problem for students to solve, and they realize they might need to reach out to others beyond their own group to find resources or solutions to help them succeed (insert evil laugh here…).

If you decide to use the card castle or puzzle activity, let me know! Share how you adapted it for your course, how it went, and what types of debriefing questions you used. I always enjoy hearing your ideas and seeing what you create.


References:


MindTools (undated). Forming, storming, norming, and performing: Understanding the stages of team formation. Available online at: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_86.htm

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399. Permalink: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0022100

 

 

1 comment

  • I so agree that facilitating students’ abilities to work in a group is an essential part of using groups effectively.
    Thank you for this resource.

    Mary Compton

Leave a comment

Name .
.
Message .

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published