Group crosswords as formative assessment tasks

Dr Melanie Stockton-Brown

Screenshot of Padlet task
Figure 1. Screenshot of Padlet task

What is the idea?

The Covid pandemic has seen an en masse shifting of learning to move online, which has created barriers and unexpected challenges, as well as some unforeseen positive aspects (such as recording of teaching sessions which enables closed captioning to be added to recordings).

Group learning in a larger cohort has been further complicated by online learning. Delivering formative assessment through a live online group crossword task was developed, with considerable success. A crossword was created with the clues linking to key unit terms and knowledge, with a mixture of basic and high-level content. Students were able to add their comments/ answers online as a group in Padlet, together completing the crossword. This changes the student’s learning from passive to active; and leads to increased engagement and participation, as well as noticeably higher application of the content in later unit assessments.

Why this idea?

Meaningful formative assessment is crucial to enhancing students’ active learning, and to their student experience. However, it can be difficult to engage students with formative assessment, either due to ongoing assessment/ grade anxiety, or due to feelings that the task is lesser, if not contributing to an overall grade. For this reason, I designed a task that was formative, in that the students (and me as the lecturer) could gauge their individual understanding of a topic, in a more informal and active way.

In doing so, I was drawing upon Lee’s idea of enculturing assessment (Lee, 2012), through creating a task that assessed knowledge that was engaging, interesting, and did not add to assessment anxiety. It has been found that VLEs often enable more successful sharing of information and ideas between students, as well as between the lecturer and the students (Gannon-Leary & Fontainha, 2007). This virtual ‘community’ of learners was evident during this task, as the students worked together to solve the crossword. When a student posted the incorrect answer to one of the questions, I observed that other students would comment on this with an encouraging statement, such as ‘I thought that too, but I think that the answer is X, as I remember in our lectures that….’ . This demonstrates the active learning community that was being supported, which had not been present before.

The focus on learning through puzzle-based tasks such as crosswords has been found by Nirmal et al. (2020) to be very effective pedagogic tools for reviewing and reinforcing the concepts taught in previous sessions or in lectures. See Rustamov (2020) for a reflection of using crossword puzzles with mathematics teaching.

This session therefore worked well to facilitate active learning, as it combined a variety of different types of learning stimuli. Students feedback that they enjoyed ‘doing something, not just listening’. This led to a noticeable difference in their final summative assessment on the topic, as many of them had retained high levels of comprehension and contextual understanding of the topic.

How could others implement this idea?

I chose 10 key items of content that we had previously covered together in class and were important for the students to understand. I chose to include some more simple questions, and some that are more challenging. I wrote short questions for each of these, framed in a way that had one specific answer – so these are not designed to be cryptic or open-ended questions.

Once I had these 10 written answers, I then wrote them in Excel and starting looking for letters that overlapped in the answers. I chose the longest answer to be written vertically, to create a ‘backbone’ on which to place the other answers. Finding vowels that words have in common was the easiest and quickest way I found to achieve this.

Once I had this order arranged, I then typed the words into a blank Excel page. Once completed, colour the cells with no letters in (which I did in black); and then remove the words, leaving blank/ white squares. I screenshotted the page and saved it as image. The process of making the word search took about an hour to plan. Alternatively, online crossword generators can be easily found too.

I then used a Padlet board to share the crossword image with the students, as background on the Padlet board. A Padlet board can be set up for free. It is a great resource for granting access to students, as sharing the URL link will allow them to access the board and interact with it. The board allows students to upload content (such as images, music, text, hyperlinks, etc.), as well as to comment on the posts of others. You can choose to allow students to post anonymously, or you can disable that. I disabled the name function in the session, to increase their confidence in posting comments, which seemed to work well

I put the students into groups in Zoom Breakout rooms, and asked them to work together to work out the answers to these 10 questions. Students were able to share their thoughts and answers on the Padlet board. Once they had the 10 answers, they could then begin placing them onto the word search outline to see if they were correct. Although this session was carried out live online, through Zoom, it could be done through another channel such as Microsoft Teams; and indeed, it could be completed asynchronously.

We came together as a class to share the answers and complete the word search.

Transferability to different contexts

This session could be utilised in any subject area, with both larger and smaller groups of students. It could enhance the pedagogical tools of law lecturers but is adaptable to any content. The task can be adapted to be individual or group-work and can also be easily led as a face-to-face task, or online.

Links to tools and resources



Gannon-Leary, P., & Fontainha, E. (2007). Communities of practice and virtual learning communities : benefits, barriers and success factors. eLearning Papers 5.

Lee, A. (2012). Successful research supervision: Advising students doing research. Taylor & Francis.

Nirmal, L., Muthu, M. S., & Prasad, M. (2020). Use of puzzles as an effective teaching-learning method for dental undergraduates. International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry, 13(6), 606–610.

Rustamov, K. (2020) The use of didactic-software crosswords in mathematics lessons. European Journal of Research and Reflection in Educational Sciences, 8(3), 87-92.

Image Attributions

Figure 1. Screenshot of Padlet task by Melanie Stockton-Brown is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence

About the author

Dr Melanie Stockton-Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Bournemouth University. Her research specialises in copyright and intellectual property law, and human rights.

She combines traditional research and teaching practices with creative approaches, including film-making and zine making. She has FHEA status.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr Melanie Stockton-Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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