Linguistics puzzles in the university curriculum

September 14, 2022

2022 Annual Conference of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain. Ulster University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

 download handout

The file is open to annotations via Comments are always welcome!

Categories:  Teaching linguistics

(with Graeme Trousdale, Robert Truswell)

 Share on Twitter

Self-contained linguistics puzzles (Zaliznyak 1963) are extremely well-established as a means of introducing school-age young people to linguistics, primarily via the Linguistics Olympiad movement. They are carefully curated data sets that allow the solver to discover regular patters in the structure of unfamiliar languages. Crucially, solving such puzzles generally requires no prior exposure to technical concepts, and they can be tackled only with general reasoning skills. As such, they are very well suited as a ‘gateway’ towards the field for pupils who may not otherwise have engaged with it.

In this paper, we report the preliminary results from several years of introducing puzzles into the university curriculum. We demonstrate that they are a viable way of introducing and reinforcing key technical concepts and developing general analytical skills from a very early stage. Furthermore, we show how this effect is boosted when puzzles are tightly integrated into the curriculum and overall pedagogical approach, facilitating not only the achievement of learning outcomes at the level of the individual course/module but also the development of independent enquiry skills.

Linguistics puzzles of the kind we are using show some overlap with activities aligned to two general pedagogical approaches, namely problem-based learning and self-directed learning. For instance, like problem-based learning, they focus on developing generic skills needed to solve problems, and on creating a knowledge base of key concepts in linguistics. However, unlike standard problem-based learning, the puzzles we use are not open-ended\dash they do have a unique solution. On the other hand, as is the case in self-directed learning, they do provide an appropriate scaffold for further instruction on the topic. Our activities align further with problem-based learning in terms of problem design, in that our aim is to create a puzzle which is appropriately difficult, but also engaging to a range of learners.

First, we report on the introduction of a ‘puzzle component’ into a first-year ab initio linguistics course that is taken both by students pursuing linguistics degrees and by ‘outside’ students who choose it as an option. In this context, the puzzle component runs ‘alongside’ the core curriculum, with students having the opportunity to work on one or more new puzzles every week, without the expectation that the problems they solve relate to any specific part of the curriculum. Based on a student survey offered to five cohorts of students who have taken this course after the introduction of the component, we report both quantitative and qualitative data suggesting very high levels of satisfaction and effectiveness: importantly, students do not just find the puzzles enjoyable, but also report that, in retrospect, they found them to be useful as a means to both reinforce linguistic concepts and build more generally applicable reasoning and problem-solving skills. However, we also identify some pedagogical challenges that we have faced, in particular the difficulty of managing student expectation around the appropriate levels of support for these activities.

A second challenge uncovered by this project concerns the relationship between puzzles and the specific curricular context of the course. We consider this in more detail by reporting a second project in which we rebuilt the pedagogy of a large ($\approx$140 students) upper beginner/lower intermediate course around puzzle solving, as a key element of adapting course delivery during the Covid-19 crisis. The course in question involves primarily technical analysis of linguistic structure. As part of this effort, we were able to maintain the technical content of the course effectively unchanged whilst re-centring our pedagogy around student-led enquiry and problem-based learning, leading to good academic outcomes coupled with high levels of satisfaction. We suggest that this success speaks to the issue of curricular integration, and argue that problem-based learning is an effective avenue to better achievement and more authentic pedagogy in linguistics.

About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I’m a Senior Lecturer in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.



Subscribe to the  RSS feed, or follow me on Twitter at  @anghyflawn.