(#134) Marshmallows, Teaching and Learning

This exercise allowed them to collaborate, actively search for,
and apply (critically think about) concepts and principles
in an engaging and memorable manner. 

About a year ago I learned of the “Marshmallow Challenge.”  The video at the end of this blog post will give you a quick visual overview of the project.  Here is the short story—and how I help my students to relate and apply the challenge to the major concepts of their semester’s work.

On the last day of the semester as my students enter the room, I randomly direct them into groups (the goal being four per group).  Each group receives the following:

  • 20 sticks of uncooked spaghetti
  • 1 yard of string
  • 1 yard of masking tape
  • 1 scissors
  • 1 regular-sized marshmallow

2012-12-13 11.12.25

Their task is to build the tallest free-standing structure they can using only the materials I provide. They can cut the string and tape; they can break the spaghetti; they can use the tabletop; and the whole unaltered marshmallow has to be on the top of their structure.  They have 18 minutes to complete the task.  To keep time, I use an online stopwatch and project it on the screen (http://www.online-stopwatch.com/).

2012-05-03 09.08.30

You can create an 18-minute music soundtrack if you would like.  (I have done the activity with and without music.)  Music or not, the noise level will increase rapidly as the groups get into this activity quickly and passionately. Last summer I did the challenge with 85 college faculty members in a training session I facilitated.  They were every bit as passionate as the students!

When teams complete their structure I measure and record the height.  This semester the tallest came in at 23.00 inches.

2012-12-11 09.27.26

Invariably, structures collapse and are rebuilt. Laughter and camaraderie always ensue.

My twist on the challenge is to ask the students to reflect on the course concepts the exercise reinforced.  Their insights always impress me.  With this simple 18-minute exercise they apply some of the major concepts from their semester’s worth of learning.  Pretty cool.

My student success classes connected the exercise to the significance of:

Pre-planning Communication Collaboration Creativity
Reflection Leadership Collective monologues Assumptions
Compromise Kinesthetic style Priorities Unequal resources
Quick doesn’t equal  quality Group dynamics Energy vampires Excuses
Failure can lead to progress Focusing on your base Balance Civility

And I do this in my United States History classes as well as in my student success classes.  My history students made these metaphorical connections:

Our nation needs a strong foundation Our nation collapsed during the Civil War
Our nation rebuilt after the Civil War Settlers had limited resources to survive
Diversity of skills and ideas = success Leaders accept input
Listening is important Assumptions can lead to problems/divisions
A nation must pay attention to the basics Build a nation one piece/step at a time
Government can become top heavy Capitalism is about competition
Marshmallow = government that holds people together Spaghetti = the people who support the government
All parts require interdependence Collaboration needed to build a nation

I could have conducted a review lecture about the main concepts. I could have handed them a piece of paper with the concepts listed.  I could have even made them take a paper and pencil test.  This activity allowed them to collaborate, actively search for, and apply (critically think about) concepts and principles in an engaging and memorable manner.  Practical. Engaging. Reflective.  Consolidating. Validating.

Video recommendation for the week:

Enjoy your week—and H.T.R.B.as needed!

My 2013 webinar series will be announced in the very near future.  The theme for the coming year is THE YEAR OF THE DREAM! Check my website for the most up-to-date information.  Thank you for your support.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post. Please pass it (and any of the archived posts on this site) along to friends and colleagues. You can also follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. If you get a chance, visit my Facebook page and join in–or start–a conversation (www.facebook.com/stevepiscitelli). Also, if you have suggestions for future posts, leave a comment. Have a wonderful week!

©2012. Steve Piscitelli.

About stevepiscitelli

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This entry was posted in collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking, effective teaching, Student success, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to (#134) Marshmallows, Teaching and Learning

  1. Pingback: (#136) A Blogger’s Retrospective: 2012 in Review « Steve Piscitelli's Blog

  2. Marsha Fralick says:

    Great exercise. Thanks!


  3. Pingback: (#210) Keeping the Hands Raised | Steve Piscitelli's Blog

  4. Pingback: (#210) Keeping the Hands Raised | Steve Piscitelli

  5. Pingback: (Issue #605) A Blogger’s Retrospective for 2021 | The Growth and Resilience Network®

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