Erin Metz McDonnell
University of Notre Dame
As researchers, we often speak of a “puzzle” in the symbolic sense of a theoretical puzzle – something as-yet unexplained by existing theories. By contrast, I will argue that, as teachers, employing the metaphor and material form of a jigsaw puzzle can be an effective teaching tool, enabling students to engage in visual and experiential learning to master theoretical arguments. The form of this pedagogical tool is easily transposable to a wide variety of different theoretical content. I will describe how I run the exercise, discuss pedagogical virtues of this approach, and conclude with specific tips to keep in mind if you decide to run a similar exercise in your courses.
“Puzzling” Through Theory
As my undergraduates walk in, I hand each a set of 5-6 index cards. They look through them as they pass time before class officially starts, reading the fragments on their cards. Each of them holds several random pieces summarizing parts of Theda Skocpol’s (1979) masterful argument about the conditions for the French Revolution. Over the next hour-and-a-half, they will work as a team, using the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle to guide them into thinking about how to reassemble the logical pieces of a theoretical argument into a comprehensive whole.
To start, I describe the exercise and ask them: Why do this? Why are we reconstructing the steps of the author’s argument? Eventually they decide that it will help them learn the content of the material in greater depth, and that unpacking the logic of the argument will make them more sophisticated readers and more able writers. We talk about how reading academic articles can be challenging, but understanding the underlying logic of them can both help make that particular argument easier to understand, help spot areas to critique, and make future reading of academic work easier.
Before students begin assembling, we unpack how the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle helps reason through an academic argument. I ask them what strategies they would use to solve a jigsaw puzzle. Their suggestions inevitably include looking at the box’s cover picture, finding edge pieces, and grouping by color. Reading the article in advance is analogous to looking at the box’s cover. Important ideas (identifying the outcome explained) and difficult concepts (exogenous starting conditions) can be rendered approachable through the metaphor of edge pieces. If you were doing a jigsaw puzzle of a farm scene, you might start by grouping pieces by color, gathering together the red pieces of the barn, the blue of the sky, and the green of the grass. If you group the pieces of this argument, what categories would you use?
They begin. As they work, I circulate around observing, giving encouragement, or gently helping them reason through when I see they are stuck on a problem.
A hands-on collaboration that visually reconstructs a theoretical argument is considerably different from a standard lecture approach to teaching theory. Theory often carries a strong association with abstraction, and unsurprisingly many common classroom techniques for teaching theory also ask students to interact with theory at an abstract level. But we know from pedagogical studies of education that learning styles vary, and that many students are kinetic or visual learners who learn by doing and seeing (Reid 1995). Indeed, hands-on ways of learning are frequently more effective than abstract lecture for gaining a deeper understanding of a theoretical concept, with better ability to retain and apply that knowledge (Kolb 2014; Nelson et al. 1993).
Unpacking theory as a reassembled puzzle is a strategy utilized by mature scholars employing narrative analysis to diagram a theory’s structure (Mahoney 1999). One of Mahoney’s assignments in his graduate course asks students to diagram an argument on their own. When I was a graduate student in Jim’s class, I was dazzled by the experience, amazed that something so fun had also helped me master a complex theoretical argument. Now as a professor, I often include an exercise in my graduate courses where students diagram an article’s theoretical argument (see two examples of my grad students diagramming Slater’s (2009) work). But instead of teaching comparative historical narrative analysis per se, I use it as a practice that forces a deeper engagement with theory building, laying bare the structure and sequence of argumentation, and thereby opening up informed moments of critical engagement, in which students can identify steps in the sequence for further interrogation.
Undergraduates typically struggle to produce a diagram themselves, but can reassemble the argument if the teacher provides the basic building blocks and guidance. In the eight years since I first ran the “assemble the puzzle” exercise with the French Revolution, I have run this exercise dozens of times with a variety of different theories—including Eric Helleiner (1998) on how money causes nationalism, Peter A. Hall (2012) on how varieties of capitalism help explain the Euro crisis, and James Scott (1998) on how imposition of nonlocal authority imposed Euclidean abstract rationality on cities. So I can confidently state that the underlying form of the exercise is easily transposable to a variety of different theoretical content.
Tips on “Puzzling” in Your Classroom
If I’ve successfully sold you on the technique and you’d like to think about puzzling through theory in your own course, then read on for specific tips about what works (and what doesn’t).
Constructing the Puzzle
- Prep Time. Depending on your comfort with diagramming the narrative structure of an argument, there can be some sunk costs in setting up this exercise the first time. However, after you construct your master key completed diagram and print out cards with the pieces, this initial investment pays itself off several times over because whenever you need to re-run the exercise it takes no more than the time you glance at your key and you are ready to teach!
- Structure of the Argument. The exercise is less frustrating to students when the article has a clear linear sequential argument, as in Skocpol (1979). A number of different features can make identifying the structure more challenging to students, including: recursivity, contingency (multiple if/then pathways), node-and-spoke arguments in which a variety of distinct sequences emerge as a result of a central change etc. If these are features of the theory you diagram for them, consider alerting them in advance to that general structure so they are on the lookout for it, for example with a sketch of the structure on the board.
- One Right Way. The exercise works best when there is only one right way to assemble the pieces, and the groups are able to reach that outcome sometime within 10 minutes of the end of class so there is a feeling of accomplishment and some time for summary discussion. Uncovering multiple “right answers” undermines their feeling of accomplishment, so if there are multiple groups assembling the same argument separately try to design the exercise such that they will all ultimately arrive at the same structure.
- Pilot Test. There can be some trial and error in getting the right amount of summary and specificity into each of the steps of your diagram to facilitate students’ successful completion. Before you run it in class with undergraduates you may want to see how long it takes yourself or a TA to reassemble the steps, and if some are a struggle to place. Revise as needed.
Running the Exercise
- Individual Specialists. Individual students should receive a manageable number of pieces of the argument, and given time before the exercise to become familiar with and understand “their” pieces. By first specializing in a few parts, the exercise becomes less overwhelming. Mastery over a few steps also facilitates completion, because it allows a student to organically identify a connection between one of “her” pieces and others. Conversely, if you hand pieces out and then students are immediately put into groups, groups inevitably pool all the pieces into a big pile, but no one really knows any of the content in there. They spend time silently staring at the pool, too overwhelmed by the volume to begin.
- Group Size. Ideal group size is a factor of how well the students work together and the total number of steps involved. Generally, the exercise works great in groups of three to six. It can be done with a group up to 10-12 if they are already familiar with one other, although it is often harder to keep everyone actively involved. But because you want individual students to have ownership over a manageable number of puzzle pieces, you likewise wouldn’t want to run an exercise with 64 steps in groups of three.
- Manage Group Dynamics. You may want to be cognizant of dominant personalities or gender dynamics in the small group structure to ensure that students are cooperating with each other considerately and that everyone’s voice is heard. A handful of times over the years I have had small groups who had so much difficulty agreeing on a strategy for working together that they were not able to complete the task before the end of the class period, which is pretty demoralizing for all involved. Keep an eye on groups’ progress and intervene with help and guidance to try to assure they are all able to complete the task in the time available.
- Save It! Encourage them to snap a picture of their completed argument as a study guide.
By employing the metaphorical frame of a jigsaw puzzle, instructors put the alien process of “thinking theoretically” into a schema that is accessible to any student who has ever assembled a jigsaw puzzle. By employing the physical form of fitting together puzzle pieces, students engage experiential and visual learning styles that are often under-represented in classrooms, but which can be effective ways of building mastery over complex questions. By giving each student responsibility over a few pieces of the big picture, norms of small group social obligation naturally reinforce engagement.
Ultimately, teaching theory as a puzzle affords undergraduate learners a microcosm of “doing theory” professionally, as they journey through frustrations, challenges, and missteps, ultimately culminating in an answer – and the thrill of discovery that comes with it. Groups feel an incredible sense of accomplishment when they complete a puzzle, and because of the experience of the journey they have a demonstrably stronger grasp of the argument. Though many are nervous or uncomfortable because the activity is unfamiliar when they start, many classes enjoy the exercise so much by the end that they request to do it again with another reading later in the semester.
Hall, Peter A. 2012. "The economics and politics of the Euro crisis." German Politics 21(4):355-71.
Helleiner, Eric. 1998. "National Currencies and National Identities." American Behavioral Scientist 41(10):1409-36.
Kolb, David A. 2014. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development: Pearson Education.
Mahoney, James. 1999. "Nominal, ordinal, and narrative appraisal in macrocausal analysis 1." American Journal of Sociology 104(4):1154-96.
Nelson, Barbara, Rita Dunn, Shirley A Griggs, and Louis Primavera. 1993. "Effects of learning style intervention on college students retention and achievement." Journal of College Student Development.
Reid, Joy M. 1995. Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom: ERIC.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Slater, Dan. 2009. "Revolutions, Crackdowns, and Quiescence: Communal Elites and Democratic Mobilization in Southeast Asia." American Journal of Sociology 115(1):203-54.