Plasticine definitions

Dr Jessica Clare Hancock

Plasticine flowers

What is the idea?

This activity asks small groups of students to define a term by creating a plasticine model–translating their ideas into metaphor and a material object makes them really consider what the term means (James et al., 2014). There are many terms that are frequently used in universities that become jargon and overdetermined, describing concepts that students might be able to parrot a verbal definition of, but do not truly understand: such as criticality, plagiarism or more subject-specific phrases; see, for example, Gordon (2000). Creating a shared definition of these important ideas is beneficial to students. After making the model, groups swap tables, and guess the term that another group’s model represents. This leads to a whole group discussion and the creation of new, shared and accessible definitions.

Why this idea?

If students are asked to provide a verbal definition of a particular concept, they may be able to recite one that they have learnt by rote, but this does not mean that they are able to fully understand the implications of this theory or notion. For example, when I discuss plagiarism with students, many are able to confidently respond that it’s about ‘using someone else’s work as your own’; but when asked to expand on this, or give particular examples, or decide on whether a particular scenario constitutes plagiarism or not, they find it much more troubling, suggesting that they do not really appreciate the implications of the definition they have given.

By using plasticine, and asking students to create a model, students have to move from a pat, or pre-determined and prepared, response into the realms of metaphor, which requires a deeper discussion of the meanings of a concept (Gallagher & Lindgren, 2015; Hancock, 2019). Using a material which may be familiar to students from childhood introduces a playful element which has benefits in enabling a different kind of approach to the discussion, and making learning fun (Whitton & Langan, 2019). Playful approaches can move students away from fearing giving the ‘wrong’ answer, and into a space where open exploration is possible (Nørgård et al., 2017).

Doing the activity in a group means that students can build on each others’ knowledge through collaborative peer learning (Boud et al., 2013), and develop a shared understanding of each concept. Working out the meaning of another group’s model again facilitates a deeper discussion using metaphor. Students then become clearer about the elements of a particular term or idea. Comparing each group’s model enables students to appreciate alternative perspectives to and definitions of a term that they might have initially seen as being straightforward. This kind of creative response to notions and theories takes students out of their comfort zone of verbal articulation to examine what is really behind the ideas they are discussing (James et al., 2014).

How could others implement this idea?

Of course, activities such as this are often undertaken using Lego (Hayes, 2016) or similar kinds of building bricks. Plasticine has two clear benefits in comparison: 1) it enables complete freedom in creation as students are not limited by the amount or type of bricks they have been given, or drawn to put bricks together in predictable ways and 2) it is much cheaper than Lego (a factor that led to my original choice of this material). Plasticine has been used in higher education to explore identity (Jayadeva et al., 2022) as well as creating models in healthcare or manufacturing-related contexts.

This idea could be implemented using bought plasticine, or homemade play dough that can be created just using oil, flour and food colouring (possibly with the addition of salt). In the case of neither of these being suitable, a student with a specific allergy might complete the activity by drawing or creating a paper model, or taking a role within the group of directing a creation without personally touching the plasticine.

Although this kind of material has the benefits of freedom in creation, some students are intimidated by a perceived skill level in making something recognisable. If this is identified as a particular issue, this activity could be supported by a brief demonstration of how to make some simple object/figures etc, or by handing out cards with some examples of some components that could form part of the groups’ models, and by allowing some additional warm-up activities. These warm-up activities could develop confidence by asking students, either individually or within their group, to produce some simple forms (e.g. ‘you have five minutes to make an animal’) before embarking on the main activity around creating a model to represent a concept.


Boud, D., Sampson, J., & Cohen, R. (2013). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from & with each other. Routledge.

Hancock, J. C. (2019). Engaging with liminalities and combating toxicity: A compassionate approach to developing professional identities for PhD students who teach. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 6(3), 66–74.

Gallagher, & Lindgren, R. (2015). Enactive metaphors: Learning through full-body engagement. Educational Psychology Review, 27(3), 391–404.

Gordon, J. M. (2000). Congruency in defining critical thinking by nurse educators and non-nurse scholars. The Journal of Nursing Education, 39(8), 340–351.

Hayes, C. (2016). Building care and compassion – introducing Lego Serious Play to HCA education. British Journal of Healthcare Assistants, 10(3), 127–133.

James, A., Brookfield, S., & Cook, M. (2014). Engaging imagination : helping students become creative and reflective thinkers (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Jayadeva, S., Brooks, R., & Abrahams, J. (2022). The (stereo)typical student: how European higher education students feel they are viewed by relevant others. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 43(1), 1–21.

Nørgård, R. T., Toft-Nielsen, C., & Whitton, N. (2017). Playful learning in higher education: developing a signature pedagogy. International Journal of Play, 6(3), 272–282.

Whitton, N., & Langan, M. (2019). Fun and games in higher education: an analysis of UK student perspectives. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(8), 1000–1013.

Image Attribution

Plasticine Flowers by Jessica Clare Hancock is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence

About the Author

Dr Jessica Hancock is Head of Learning and Teaching at the University of Winchester, where she is programme lead for the MA in Learning and Teaching in HE, and CASTLE (Celebration and Recognition Scheme for Teaching and Learning Expertise – supporting HEA fellowship applications). She has published on academic writing, and compassionate and identity-focused approaches to developing teaching in HE.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr Jessica Clare Hancock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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