Using LEGO as a teaching aid for academic essay writing in Higher Education

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 later is particularly an issue for international students from countries with different approaches to higher education assessment, often focusing on examinations above course work 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.

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 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 into 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 phrase, grouping/sorting and through to 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, grouping 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.

 


N.B. The main part of this post is also stored on its own page to allow me to continue tweaking it in future. I realise there may be some other aspects of writing that I need to include moving forward.

The bitesized EdD: Finding slots of time for a professional doctorate

Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to find more time for EdD writing (and reading). This hasn’t been large chunks of time, but just making better use of the small pieces of time I would usually waste.

It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling a doctorate needs whole days and afternoons of time. Yes. This helps. But actually, small bits of time really add up. Finding a couple of fifteen or twenty minute windows per day easily leads to a few hours over the week. This is where I’m finding my time.

I’ve been able to get a good twenty minutes on a fair few mornings to squeeze in some work. Instead of waiting for weekends or a whole free evening, I’ve found additional EdD time by squeezing in an extra hour or two on a few week nights. This hasn’t really impacted my personal life as I’ve fit this in after my fiancé goes to bed.

Being able to pick up work in small chunks like this requires a lot of discipline. It’s hard to put the work down after a few minutes. But when you have only twenty minutes – that is what you have to do! It also means you need to jump into productivity quickly and get yourself used to picking up where you left off quickly. This also requires discipline and practice.

I find technology really helps with this. Microsoft Word handily tells me where I left off. One Drive allows me to pick up work on any Mac, computer or iPad tablet. OneNote keeps my notes available everywhere. EndNote lets me take my library with me. All of these tools together allow me to quickly pick up bits of work. Quite often, I find OneNote is the largest enabler. I can quickly pick up some reading and make some notes or record some thoughts.

Track changes and Microsoft Word comments are also a great way to keep up with where I left off. One thing I’ve yet to try is a recommendation for @JaxBartram, she recommended always ending mid sentence. The idea being it is always easier to pick up work mid-sentence than it is to start afresh.

One one way to see if that works!

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