Good teachers know that the best educational tools are supported by trusted research. It is the best way to know if the tool in question helps students, and in what ways. Although crossword puzzles have been around for decades, researchers still study their use in the classroom. While the nature of the research differs for each study, most come to the same conclusion: educational crossword puzzles offer a strong learning tool to all kinds of students when applied with a clear and tailored educational purpose.
What does this look like in practice then? Previously, educational crossword puzzles only came in mass-produced student workbooks, which meant teachers were unable to adapt them for the needs of their classroom. With new technology and online crossword puzzle makers though, teachers can create crossword puzzles to fit their unique lesson plans. Using this review of the literature, teachers can see how they might make a crossword puzzle to better suit the needs of their students.
What the Research Shows
Recent research draws similar conclusions: crossword puzzles can be used to help students in a number of significant ways. This study outlined the following potential uses for educational crossword puzzles in the classroom:
(i) revision and reinforcement of concepts…
(ii) identifying important topics and gaps in learning…
(iii) as feedback devices…
(iv) student engagement in the learning process…
(v) collaborative work and development of teamwork skills…
(vi) critical thinking and association of topics
(vii) provide alternative… assessment options…
(viii) ease the anxiety associated with… assessments and boost student confidence
We’ll review these concepts through research, which may give you ideas for using educational crossword puzzles in your classroom. Because the ideas behind these concepts overlap a great deal, we will discuss them in the following manner:
- Introducing and Reinforcing Concepts
- Identifying Gaps in Learning
- As a Motivational Tool
- Reviewing and Testing Knowledge
- Developing Teamwork Skills
- Making Puzzles or Solving Puzzles
If you believe one method would work better for your class than another, feel free to scroll to that particular section.
Introducing and Reinforcing Concepts
Although the research for teaching with educational crossword puzzles covers all sorts of subjects from chemistry to ESL to nursing, they find that crossword puzzles can help introduce and reinforce concepts for any subject.
This 2016 study from Indonesia studied the potential benefits of using a crossword puzzle to teach English. They concluded that crossword puzzles do benefit ESL learners for a number of reasons. First, they motivate students to remember and understand a word’s meaning. Second, students needed to understand the words given in each clue in addition to the word in the grid, resulting in increased vocabulary. Third, crossword puzzles required students to consult helpful resources, like a dictionary.
In the abstract of this study, the researchers state that crossword puzzles “improve the ability of students to solve problems and, when used systematically, contribute to increases in learning.” The study goes on to explain that this works because students do not attempt to simply memorize definitions and repeat them. “Instead they reconstruct the definitions of terms and concepts, thus triggering the recall and embedding the correct meanings into their knowledge structure without rote memorisation.” In other words, educational crossword puzzles allow for greater reinforcement of a concept because they have to process the meaning of it rather than just memorizing the terms behind it.
Identifying Gaps in Learning
The same study from the end of the last section also found that crosswords go a step above memorization by helping students to identify their weak spots. Their methodology involved using clues that required students to consider “different aspects of the same concept.” This occurred when two clues were similar to each other in meaning, but the actual answers differed.
Another 2012 study, done by a group of researchers from a variety of institutions, also found that students were “able to cite their weak areas” and felt that the crossword was a “fun opportunity to evaluate their own level of learning by identifying concepts that were previously unknown or unclear.”
As a Motivational Tool
A highly cited study done in 2006 by Robert S. Weisskirch found that students enjoyed doing crossword puzzles as a way to review the material. He states that when students identify the answers of a crossword puzzle correctly, they may experience an increase in self-confidence. This can have a ripple effect. First, entertaining study materials can increase self-motivation in students to learn and study more. Plus, educational crossword puzzles can ease the anxiety produced by other assessments. Success breeds success by convincing students of their ability.
In the 2012 study mentioned earlier, researchers similarly found that students perceive themselves to be better equipped to handle concepts as a result of the crossword puzzle exercise. A 2013 study came to a similar conclusion, finding that crossword puzzles can help students improve their knowledge of vocabulary, while also increasing their motivation to learn.
The learner’s choice to learn meaningfully has a strong impact on the effect of learning as well. If students are allowed to solve an educational crossword puzzle in their own time, it gives them the opportunity to process the information in their own way. As we’ll see later, educational crossword puzzles can develop teamwork skills, too.
Reviewing and Testing Knowledge
A study from Indiana University concluded that educational crossword puzzles were a good self-assessment for students to see what they’ve learned. As stated in the results, the researchers “have evidence that the use of games, in this case crossword puzzles… is associated with positive performance on exam questions that are directly related to the material covered in the games.” They also concluded that making puzzles designed specifically for the material at hand was vital to their effectiveness.
One study from the University of Wisconsin came to a similar conclusion. The researchers studied two classes. In one class, a crossword puzzle as review for an exam helped, but it didn’t seem to have the same effect for the other class. The researchers hypothesized that this may be due to a lack of mixed method for review. Most researchers agree that educational crossword puzzles work best as a formative assessment or as an additional tool rather than as the summative assessment.
And although anecdotal evidence does not provide a strong case for any subject matter on its own, the responses to this Quora question provide good insight into the mixed reactions on using educational crossword puzzles as a testing tool. For some, using crossword puzzles as an actual test or as review for a test works great; for others, it does not.
Developing Teamwork Skills
The abstract of this 2016 study regarding the use of crossword puzzles with ESL students states that students “made substantial progress when working collaboratively.” The students in their study were frustrated with the “cultural components” and what seemed to be a “context-less nature” of the crossword puzzle, but only when working alone. When working collaboratively, they felt much more positive and made greater progress.
Weisskirch’s highly cited study from earlier also mentioned that students “described learning more and finding the exercise more helpful for learning concepts and preparing for the exam when completing the crossword puzzle collaboratively in class rather than individually outside of class.” The effectiveness of collaboratively solving educational crossword puzzles may differ according to the subject matter of the class and the demographic of the students.
Making Puzzles or Solving Puzzles
Most of the research agrees: a multi-faceted approach to learning, no matter what tools are used, is more effective than any single approach. Therefore it seems logical that having students solve and make crossword puzzles would be more effective than simply making or simply solving crosswords.
The researchers have drawn similar conclusions. In the previously discussed study for crossword puzzles in chemistry education, they believe that tasking students with making crossword puzzles instead of or in addition solving them, “would require students to deconstruct and thus analyse the definitions for all the important factors.”
The research is limited in this realm, but some anecdotal evidence suggests the theory deserves consideration. While this teacher does not love the idea of students merely solving crossword puzzles in the classroom, she does believe making crossword puzzles offers a benefit to students.
Most researchers agree that each student and each classroom are unique. You as the teacher will know best if an educational tool does or does not work for your students. If this research gave you some ideas, test them out by making your own puzzles today. Our own research has found that teachers use crossword puzzles in a number of wonderful ways, as seen here.
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Once you try any of these methods, let us know how educational crossword puzzles have helped your class.
Kristen Seikaly used her artistic background, research skills, and love for the internet to launch her first blog, Operaversity. Now she uses the skills to connect teachers, parents, and game enthusiasts with Crossword Hobbyist and My Word Search. She studied music at the University of Michigan, and now lives in Philadelphia.