How can a nail in a board help students think about thinking, writing, and responsibility?


One of the courses I teach is an undergraduate, general education course titled: Inquiry & the Craft of Argument. It is one section of a six section cohort teaching the Thought Vectors track. The course is designed as an introduction into scholarly thinking and writing.  Recently, I challenged students to solve a puzzle (solution above). Why? The puzzle is a metaphor for problem solving and collaboration as well as a metaphor for a few fundamental parts of a quality research paper.  It was a very successful activity.

My goal was to create an anchor for thinking about thinking (metacognition) and writing. I find that if I establish a few strong anchors that align with key ideas/methods/topics/problems in the course, then students are better able to make substantive connections between course concepts, their thinking, and other courses. It’s not a silver bullet, but it is a sound pedagogical practice.


  1. Groups of 3 students.
  2. Balance eight nails on the head of one nail that is partially nailed into a board.
  3. Cannot use extra materials (e.g. gum, glue, tape, or supports)
  4. Before you begin, discuss your understanding of the problem and possible solutions with your group. Write out ideas.
  5. Try it.

It’s a tough exercise kinesthetically and intellectually. Moreover, it’s difficult to collectively problem solve – from communicating clearly to executing action. Students were failing. I gave them approximately 8 minutes to work on the problem. During this time, I probed their assumptions, challenged their approaches, and gave hints. Eventually, I instructed the class to search for the solution on the Internet and try again. Much more successful.


Thinking about our Thinking

– What can our experience with this puzzle teach us about how we approach problems in general? What obstacles emerged? For example, any intellectual rigidity at play? How effectively did we work as a group? Are there any axioms or guidelines we can generate to help us with future problems or challenges?

Thinking about our Writing

– How is this puzzle a metaphor for writing a quality research paper?


Thinking about our Thinking

I don’t want to pretend that this was an easy activity or that insights emerged in such transformative ways that students walked away more amazing than when they entered. There was a lot of Socratic questioning to surface any insights. What did they say?

  • We learn best by doing. Action is an amazing, albeit frustrating, teacher.
  • It’s good to plan before jumping in. In other words, planning can help surface the assumptions that frame our preconceptions about how we think the world (its problems and people) function.
  • It’s important to stop and regroup when we are stuck rather than continuing down the same ineffective path. Exploring and systematically implementing alternative approaches to solving problems is a necessary condition for success. In other words, be cautious of intellectual rigidity!
  • Let every voice be heard and seriously considered. Don’t assume my point of view is the most accurate or the most effective.
  • Critically listening requires that we are able to accurately restate and elaborate on what our peers have said. Such acknowledgement is an important form of respect.
  • Identify and use your resources: peers, instructor, books, the web.
  • Persevere! It goes a long way.

Thinking about our Writing

I’ll summarize one of my student’s explanations because it was excellent.

  • The base is the topic. It must be significant and interesting to be solid enough to be seriously considered and capture the reader’s attention.
  • The nail is your thesis. It must be firmly grounded; based on a sound showing that you have something important to say about the topic [literature review].
  • The remaining nails represent a balanced perspective. They show the reader that you have considered all relevant perspectives fairly.
  • The entire picture is quite eloquent; beautiful in a way.

I was very impressed with this explanation. It actually moved me emotionally because it was beyond the lesson I intended to impart. That was a teaching moment; it was  firm anchor.

THE QUIZ (a.k.a. – commit to the responsibilities we have to our learning and our peers)

Two weeks later I gave a pop-quiz. My first question was:

“One of your peers (insert name) gave an explanation of the nail puzzle as a metaphor for writing a quality research paper. What was her explanation?”

This was an eye opening experience for students. We need to think of all our class sessions as connected, rather than disjointed and independent. I wanted them to see the course as having a logic and, therefore, structure. I also wanted to remind them that they are responsible critically examining (and remembering) what their peers contribute to each class. Know your Thought Vectors.

The whole learning experience was a very rewarding for me, and for many of my students.

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