Monday, February 23, 2015

Logic puzzle activity for summarizing and clarifying

I regularly remind my learners to continuously summarize and ask clarification questions in L2.  During my observations of meetings, I often see cases of miscommunication which could have been avoided by a simple timeout to summarize and check that everyone has the same understanding.  In fact, if there is one communication skill needed to work effectively in L2, this is it.

But sadly, I have always had some trouble designing activities which forced the participants to use checking, clarifying and summarizing.  Luckily, I found one in the The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games by Mary Scannell.

Basic procedure

Find a logic puzzle with 15-20 clues.  Cut up the clues and deal them to the participants.  They have to solve the puzzle without showing the others their clues.  Time: approx. 40 min for a group of four.

If you aren't sure what a logic puzzle is, it is a paper game in which you have to find certain combinations using clues.  For example, 5 friends went to a restaurant, each person ate a different dish, drank a different drink and paid a different amount.  One clue might be, "Janet did not have the cheeseburger and paid more than Frank."

What happens

The group will probably first try to collect all the variables (the names, the dishes, etc.).  Then they start reading the clues.  In some groups each person reads all their clues in sequences, while in others (the more effective ones) they take turns reading clues that are relevant to the current discussion.  They are continually asking to repeat, checking and summarizing.  The trainer can collect and add phrases throughout the activity.  Additionally, they use great language to keep the others on track in the discussion.

Training aids

I don't allow my groups to use any visual aids... no shared notes, no whiteboard, no cards with the variables, nothing.  Each person can use their notebook to make personal notes, but cannot share it with others.  I find that this makes it more challenging and forces the participants to use verbal communication.  I suspect that visual aids would make the puzzle easier to solve, but would require less language.  Second, my engineers discuss complicated, interlocking problems all the time and I find that it more or less recreates this complexity.

The larger question of feedback...

This brings me to the larger question of feedback and how to train it.  After all, summarizing and checking are the purest forms of feedback, but depend on the listener.  Surprisingly, while I find that summarizing and checking are the linguistic functions most often missing from discussions, the lack of feedback is the most common observation my participants make about their own discussions.

Here's why... asking for feedback is delicate and often ineffective.

I think we all know about open and closed questions.  And I think we can all agree that closed questions for checking understanding are not as effective.  In my experience, "Did you understand?" is pretty much worthless.  Second, I think we can agree that while a backbrief ("Please tell me what I said.") is highly effective, it is only realistic in highly direct discourse communities.  In the workplace, there is too much chance for a loss of face.

So, I prefer to help my participants draft a series of open checking questions for them to use in discussions.  In essence, it is teaching them the same skill we use as trainers for comprehension questions.  These are higher order questions which demonstrate understanding.


  • What have we forgotten to consider with this plan?
  • How do you think this will affect ______?
  • How does this compare to ________?
  • What kind of experience do you have with this?
  • What do you think are the next steps?
  • What problems do you think we might have?

For more structured practice, creating these types of questions for a presentation works nicely... then try to add them into spontaneous discussion.

So, I am happy with the results from the logic puzzle activity to generate a true need for clarification, checking and summarizing but it doesn't solve everything.  The more difficult step is to train effective methods for requesting feedback.  Once the participants have it though, they notice a clear difference in their discussions and meetings.

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