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Tarsia Puzzles: Why haven't I used them for so long?!

The last time I used a tarsia puzzle was... well, years ago. Which is a shame because, with the coming UK Year 4 MTCs (Multiplication Tables Check), I've had to go out of my way to find ways of helping students to revise their times tables without it looking like they're revising their times tables; a bit like Clark Kent becoming Superman by changing into a pair of red pants, really. But I've definitely rediscovered how tarsias can add that little bit extra to almost any area of the curriculum in need of a boost.

What is a tarsia puzzle?

For those unfamiliar with tarsia puzzles, they are essentially like jigsaw puzzles but are instead made up from geometric shapes which, when put together, make up a larger geometric shape - here I've shown the triangular versions, but you can find them as squares or even more complex shapes. You can readily find them online both free and commercially at various sites, although it is easy enough to create your own.

Their beauty is that they can be used in such a wide variety of situations, from the multiplication practise I mentioned above or, as another example, more complicated linear equations in mathematics, right the way through to vocabulary practise using synonyms or antonyms for English. If large enough (perhaps A3 size upwards) they could even be arranged to have questions next to answers (pick your subject - history or biology anyone?), quotations next to characters (GCSE or A Level English)..

What are the benefits of using tarsia puzzles?

Too many to list here, but I'll have a try.

As mentioned earlier, they can be adapted to almost any learning situation, from the home educators and learners looking for something that can quickly and easily be printed off, to tutors and teachers like me (and my trusted colleagues) wanting to add another method to an arsenal of methods to help with students' concept internalisation... or maybe just for times tables practise. Other benefits include:

  • Turning learning into a game has always been a win-win situation, helping students to learn and time to fly by.

  • If complex enough, it can easily become a way to help with mindfulness and to help a student to slow down and calm down. Note that this depends heavily on the student's needs - what one student flies through in 10-15 minutes may take an hour or more for another who CAN do it but wants to take things more slowly.

  • They can promote perseverance and resilience when engaging a reluctant learner just long enough to get the puzzle completed.

  • Tarsias can engage logic and promote critical thinking through pairing questions/problems with solutions.

  • They can be used with groups or with individual students.

  • Once the concept has been mastered, students can begin creating their own puzzles and utilising higher order thinking skills. Learning can be further strengthened by doing this activity with the real purpose of sharing these student-created tarsias with other students (or playing 'Beat the Teacher')

  • Teamwork and co-operation is strengthened when completing a tarsia as part of a group.

  • For the younger student, they can incorporate fine motor skill development if they cut out the puzzle pieces themselves with a pair of scissors. Visual/spatial areas of the brain are also engaged when attempting to stick the individual pieces of the puzzle into the correct shape.

But aren't tarsias just a one-trick pony?

Whole-heartedly, no. They are as versatile and as limitless as your imagination. Some ideas for differentiation could include:

  • Students creating their own (as mentioned above).

  • Including deliberate mistakes for students to find.

  • Setting one as a timed activity.

  • Setting problems where there are multiple solutions - or more than one possible 'problem' to the solution given.

  • Using pictures or symbols for very young learners.

  • Leaving small parts blank for students to fill in partial answers themselves.

And so, after realising that tarsias are so very useful through my own use with students, I would most certainly urge you to give them a go yourself and see how beneficial they can be. I'll leave you with one word of warning though - make sure you have the original puzzle printed out (or have the pieces discreetly numbered) because, otherwise, checking them can be a nightmare!

Mrs BC, May 2022

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