Using LEGO as a teaching aid for academic writing at university

This post will introduce my approach to using LEGO to teach academic writing. I conduct a lot of personal appointments with foundation and undergraduate students. For some students, ordering their ideas and structuring them is a real challenge. This problem tends to stem from:

  • not knowing where to start,
  • a sense of being overwhelmed,
  • the volume of information they consult,
  • the volume of information they feel *needs* including in their assignment.

Further, it is not just a case of ordering ideas, but structuring them that can be problematic. I feel that a lot of the poorly structured essays that I see are failing at the paragraph level. This is a real issue for a lot of students, especially those with less writing experience, those who have taken a break from education, or those who have no experience of essay-style examination. The latter is particularly an issue for international students from countries with different approaches to higher education assessment, often focusing on examinations above coursework essays.

This post will detail how I’ve used LEGO to discuss some of these issues with students, and use it to help them outline their approach to academic writing. This starts with a student I saw a couple of weeks ago. I was struggling to communicate the structural elements of an essay to them. The student had lots of ideas, but simply did not know where to start and all the approaches in study skill books were simply not working for them. Instead of just rephrasing, I tried a different approach, running downstairs to grab my tub of LEGO. I think LEGO bricks are an excellent way to visualise some elements of academic writing and decided this was the perfect time to give it a go. I think this metaphor for academic writing structure can really help students struggling to structure their ideas – or more appropriately, to help students who are overwhelmed with their own ideas and sorting them out.

Let me know what you think by commenting below, or getting in touch via @LeeFallin. You can also find out which LEGO sets I’ve used to build my teaching and research kit.

Using LEGO as a metaphor for academic writing

When planning your essay, it can be really daunting. You end up with ideas all over the place:

LEGO bricks spread all over a table in no order

You need to order these ideas into groups. The act of doing this enables you to identify the major aspects of your essay. As expected, some ideas will be discarded at this phrase too (see the pile to the right side). It is still worth keeping a record of these as they may be useful at a later stage (who would EVER throw a LEGO brick in a bin!?!?!):

LEGO bricks grouped into piles of the same colour. Some to the right are discarded.

Once you have grouped all of your ideas like this, they form the basis of your overall argument. Each brick group is an aspect of this, forming one of the micro-arguments that lead your reader to the conclusion in your overall argument. These micro-arguments (brick groups) may by represented in an individual paragraph, or across a group of paragraphs. This process is not easy. At this idea stage, some of your groups will end up too large and you will need to break them up across two or more paragraphs. When this is the case, it is hard to distinguish which paragraph an idea belongs in. In reality, you are more likely to come across this problem later in writing when you have an oversized paragraph that you need to break up:

A pile of yellow LEGO bricks of subtlety different shades

When all the elements of your points, arguments or ideas are grouped into their individual paragraphs, they need further structuring:

A pile of brown bricks come together into a block

A solid paragraph should have a good structure. I recommend TEAL as a good starting point:

  • Topic – A brief introduction to what the paragraph is about. What is your point?
  • Evidence – Academic evidence, reflections, your own research/data
  • Analysis – The ‘so what’? Persuade the reader that your conclusion is the correct one
  • Link – Link this paragraph to the next – or to your overall argument.

(Indeed – this stage may be the *best* starting point for some students, but the route described so far is excellent for those who struggle to structure all their ideas in the planning phase)

TEAL is a good way to structure all those ideas into a coherent paragraph:

An assembled block of brown bricks

LEGO bricks are an excellent metaphor for how you need to link all these elements together. The bumps and they way they interlock with bricks above makes this point clear. Everything with a paragraph must coherently link together and make sense:

Photo of lego blocks - demonstrates the

Once you have your individual paragraphs, they need to be assembled in the right order. This is often done as you go along, but as you being to edit, you may realise they need re-ordering. It isn’t just the structure that may change, and as you edit, some smaller points may need removing as you further refine your ideas (and try to get under your word count):

A long block of assembled bricks. Colours are striped in groups to represent paragraphs.

All of these elements together can help you rule your own writing:

LEGO monarch with crown

Taking this into practice

To put this into practice, I often recommend students grab a stack of post-it notes or use a mindmap to get all of their ideas on the table. The principles above serve as a great framework from which to interpret all these ideas. Working from the ideation phase, grouping/sorting and refining the order and breaking it into paragraphs. If all else fails, literally using the LEGO bricks works well too. Small post-it notes can be used to adhere ideas to the bricks in a way that doesn’t require cleaning them afterwards. This works perfectly with Duplo too.

The model above is designed to help students identify their main points, group their ideas under these main points, and then divide those points into interlinked paragraphs. As the bricks represent, these all need ‘clicking together’ to form a stable essay (or stable LEGO model!). This may seem a little obvious for advanced writers, but it is certainly worth trying with those new to academic essay writing. As above, please let me know what you think! I should also note a quick thank you to my colleague Sue Watling. She indicated this approach was interesting when I mentioned it in conversation, so I figured it was worth expanding on my blog.


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The development of university teachers vs. the learning developer

Today I had the pleasure of starting my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PCAP). As a learning developer, my journey is atypical to the peers on my course. This article serves as my first reflection about this. Our first reading was Kugel’s (2006) How professors develop as teachers. Kugel discusses a typical development pathway for lecturers — moving from an understanding of how to teach students towards an understanding of how to support their learning. In this, there are six stages, each characterised by the changing focus as lecturers develop their practice:

The transition from teaching to learning

This model was interesting. Kugel discussed how new teachers tend to focus on themselves as they begin to teach. They move towards solidifying their own discipline knowledge before starting to take into account students. These initial changes focus on teaching. The understanding of students develops, acknowledging them as receptive, then active learners. These later stages begin to focus on learning above teaching. Finally there is an understanding of learners as independent — with the core role of the teaching being to support students to teach themselves.

While I can see much in this model, it’s an interesting reflection for me as a learning developer.

The primary role of a learning developer is to help learners achieve that end goal — independence. While there are many nuances to this, ultimately learning developers are aim to work with students to help them develop their own autonomy and self-sufficiency. So… do learning developers really jump to the final stage of Kugel’s model?

Perhaps. At least at first. As a new practitioner starting in the learning development field 9 years ago, I feel I started from day 1 as a practitioner supporting this goal. Perhaps somewhat light in the tools I had at my disposal – but a focus on independent learning all the same. What I didn’t realise was that learning development itself had an underlying literature I needed to understand. As such, I perhaps worked backwards through some of Kugel’s model. I had to back-step and develop myself and my disciplinary knowledge to ultimately make me better at supporting that learning.

That backwards learning was important. It made me appreciate the diverse ways in which most academic tasks can be achieved. Without this understanding, there can be a focus on promoting your practices — or at least a narrow range. Inclusive higher education practices should never aim to reproduce yourself. More importantly, it required me to understand what teaching means, and how in reality, it wasn’t really that important in most learning development encounters. Indeed, it wasn’t even something I did that much. That brings me to my last reflection on this paper.

This final reflection relates to ‘teaching’ itself. The paper focused on teaching alone. However, as educations, we have more tools than teaching alone. As learning developers we are coaches. We are mentors. We are cheerleaders – and yes! Sometimes teachers. Yet, teaching isn’t everything. It is just part of the story.