Research and Puzzles

PuzzleRecently I purchased a 1,000 piece puzzle and began working on it at home.  It has clearly been some time since I worked on a puzzle because I found myself feeling quite inadequate and frustrated at getting it started.  After a few nights of working on it and getting into the groove of puzzle piecing I realized that putting together a puzzle is similar to the research process.  It seems so obvious.  Librarians have been working to create games that are designed to help students understand the research process… but maybe we should just give them a puzzle?  Below are the similarities I observed in my puzzle piecing process.

1. The research process can be frustrating. Don’t fight it.  I often tell students to step away from their research when this happens, and revisit it the next day.  I cannot tell you how many times I have searched with certain keywords/phrases on one day with no success, only to try it again the next day and start to find what I need.  It is magic.  Same thing with puzzles. My first night of working on the puzzle, the pieces just were not fitting… and forcing myself to keep at it was not helping.  When I came back to it the next night with fresh eyes, I somehow saw the pieces differently, and was able to make connections.  As we always remind students, research is a process, it takes time, and that is why we encourage them to give themselves enough time to go through the process.

2. Separate out the edges.  Organization of research materials and ideas will help when you need to bring everything together while also minimizing your frustrations.  After my first night at the puzzle I realized that it would be less overwhelming if I started pulling out the edge pieces and grouped like-colored pieces together.  This allowed me to begin to create the framework for the puzzle.  When I began to hit a wall with one group, I would move on to another group of pieces.  Managing the research pieces will help you feel more in control of the process (even when you are not) and will give you smaller problems to work on when you feel overwhelmed by the whole.


3. Don’t give up!  Too often I meet with students who have abandoned several perfectly good topics because they were not able to find any resources on their own.  It is easy for me to tell students to not give up on puzzles, because the stakes are low.  Research topics are tied to papers, classes, and ultimately grades.  In life and work, we cannot always choose our struggles, so we should learn how to manage them.  I would rather see students working on topics that interest them than simply choosing something that is easy but I know that this is not always an option.  Librarians are a great resource for students that have determined that nothing exists on a given research topic.

4. Remember your goals and track your progress.  When I’m feeling frustrated with the puzzle, I pick up the puzzle box containing the image I am trying to create.  When students are feeling lost or confused, they should review their assignment, assignment expectations, and the topic/research question/hypothesis they set out to explore.  If they have created an outline, they should revisit it to remind themselves where they are in the process.


Solving a puzzle is not the same as researching and writing a paper but it certainly can teach us how to better and more efficiently manage the process.  Working on a puzzle teaches patience and requires you to balance focusing on small pieces while also stepping back to think about the big picture.

What if we assigned students to work on massive puzzles throughout the semester, as they are also working on research projects?  Would it have an impact on students?  Would they see the correlations?  Would seeing the correlations help them through the research process?  Are there other academic activities (such as group work) that the puzzle metaphor could relate to?



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