Quick Takes: Reviewing with Tarsia puzzles

If you haven’t heard of Tarsia puzzles, they are kind of like jigsaw puzzles and kind of like a matching game. They remind me a lot of Triominoes – that game with triangular pieces with numbers on each side, and you have to match numbers to create a big triangle.

Tarsia is the brainchild of Hermitech Laboratory, and is software that will create customized card sort activities. I think it was originally created for math teachers, but it can easily be adapted (with some workarounds) for any content area. (One caveat: there is no Mac option for the program – I’m lucky to have access to both Mac and Windows computers, so if I want to make a Tarsia, I make it on my home computer and save it as a PDF to print at work.)

The Tarsia software has a variety of geometric shapes to use – triangles, hexagons, rectangles, etc. – and make a puzzle with between 17 and 30 paired expressions. There’s a standard version, where the outside edges are left blank so students can easily find the borders, and an extended version, where there are unpaired phrases on the outside edges so it’s more challenging to figure out the borders.

To make a Tarsia puzzle, you create a list of paired words or expressions. (The software also allows you to insert images, but I haven’t tried that yet.) The major limitation for the paired words is space – since the software was originally created for math, there’s only room for a few characters. Once you get more than about 20 characters, the print size and spacing between words gets so small it’s difficult to read. Not as much of a problem if you are creating tabletop-sized pieces for students to use. However, if you want to use them for student notebook activities, you’re reducing the size of the puzzle by a decent amount, making it very hard for students to read the text. I’ve used a blank template and handwritten the paired phrases if I’m worried about legibility (or if I’m at work and want to make the puzzle).

Handwritten phrases in a blank template

Once you created your paired phrases, the software creates pages with scrambled puzzle pieces. There are usually 2 or 3 pages of shapes, so what I do is print them out and reduce the size of the images until I can fit all of the pieces onto one sheet of copy paper.

A one-page Tarsia handout for student notebooks. (See what I mean about legibility?)

When I give students this one-page handout, they cut apart the pieces and then have to create the completed puzzle, matching words and phrases. A word of caution: it takes students a loooooong time to complete the puzzle. I usually have them work in pairs, with the understanding that each student needs to have a completed puzzle in their notebook. I have a completed puzzle in my notebook to use as an answer key, so I can easily check student work. I also have a photo of a completed puzzle that I can project on the board so everyone can check their own puzzle.

The answer key – a completed puzzle!

This activity is great for reviewing vocabulary and basic factual information. Obviously with the size limitation, it isn’t great for more in-depth information. I plan to experiment with using images in a puzzle – I think that would be great for a beginning-of-the-year practice for lab tools, especially the different kinds of glassware.

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