The Anatomy Of A Puzzle-Based Learning Tool

Posted on December 6, 2012


Here is a quick breakdown of the strategies and methods I’m exploring with Light It Up, a fractions puzzle game derived from the game Refraction.

Some people have asked me about the differences between Light It Up and Refraction. They are almost exactly the same, but there are some differences. Those differences are described here: Light It Up – The Puzzle School.

Also this is just one approach to Puzzle-Based Learning. There are many other valid approaches. The primary key is “appropriate challenges” – neither too easy or too hard – with feedback loops to enable the learning through the testing of hypotheses.

The Simulator - Light It Up

The Simulator
The simulator is similar to a board game environment with built in feedback loops and rules that are exposed to the player as they try to solve the challenge.

The Option Set
The option set is one technique for limiting the amount of new information a student has to grapple with in order to solve the challenge. In this example the student has eight pieces that can be dragged into the simulator to try and direct the correct amount of laser in to each of the light bulbs to light them up. It is implied that the challenge can be solved with just these pieces, allowing the student to quickly gauge how challenging the goal will be to achieve.

The Goal
All puzzle-based learning environments have a goal. In this example directing the correct amount of laser into the light bulbs achieves the goal.

Goal Achieved - Light It Up

Feedback Loops
Tight feedback loops are essential to puzzle-based learning. They allow for the student to quickly test hypotheses and iterate using the learning they derive from the feedback loop.
In this example applying a piece from the option set to the simulator immediately affects the laser (e.g. changing its direction, splitting it, etc.) and immediately labels the resulting lasers with the appropriate fractions. This allows students to quickly understand how each piece interacts with the simulator and can be used to solve the challenge.

Explicit Content
Another component of this project will be a library that makes it easy to include explicit content in to the puzzles. Clicking on items in the simulator or option set will display content explaining the item, how it functions and interacts within the simulator, as well as related content. These “tips” can also provide links to related material that is available on the web.

A Tip - Light It Up

Appropriate Challenges
A primary goal of puzzle-based learning is to present the student with appropriate challenges, that gradually get harder and harder as the student progresses. The framework developed in this project will make it easy to implement the “Escape Valve” and “Level Selector” strategies described below in order to accomplish the goal of offering appropriate challenges.

The Escape Valve
The Escape Valve is simply a mechanism that makes it possible for a student to declare that a challenge is too hard and get additional help with it. This project will build out libraries that will make it easy to include a hint system that gives students one piece of the puzzle, allowing them to work their way closer to a solution. This technique only works if there are enough puzzles of similar difficulty so that a student can get hints on one and still be able to assess their proficiency by taking on another level of similar difficulty.

A Hint - Light It Up

Level Selector
The Level Selector is another mechanism that will be easy to leverage with the components and libraries that will be developed by this project. It allows a student to choose from a limited range of puzzle levels so that they can attempt to take on more challenging puzzles without jumping too far ahead and becoming overwhelmed.

Level Editor
The Level Editor serves multiple purposes. Primarily it allows content experts who lack programming skills to create puzzle levels that can teach concept for a wide range of knowledge levels, thus providing more personalized learning.

It is important to be able to offer a wide range of novel challenges so that students can test their knowledge against numerous puzzles as they progress with their learning.

The Level Editor also allows students to create their own levels and challenge their peers. This takes advantage of the protégé effect, where students make greater effort to learn for their peers than they do for themselves.

The Level Editor - Light It Up

You can play around with all of these components in the Light It Up game.

As always you can follow our progress on Twitter