The Marshmallow Challenge

My colleague Caroline and I recently ran a training course for student tutors and we started it out with the Marshmallow Challenge, that Siska had suggested, both as an ice breaker, team building task and to have participants gain experiences together that we could refer to later on during the workshop.

So, Marshmallow Challenge. Except that we modified it and used a kind of pasta that was a lot more bendy than typical spaghetti — we are working with future engineers, after all!

So this is what we started out from: Every group got

  • 20 “spaghetti”
  • 1m of tape
  • 1m of string
  • 1 marshmallow

They were then asked to build the highest possible, free-standing tower with a marshmallow on top in 18 minutes.


Some groups started sketching out solutions, others started experimenting. Lots to talk about later on: How did the design process go? How did you assign roles to different participants? Was there conflict? How did you solve it?

IMG_3127Everybody was busy and 18 minutes flew past! When looking at the schedule for the workshop, it seemed like a lot of time out of the half day to spend on, basically, a game. But there was so much going on!

In some of the constructions looked very sophisticated, and all of them looked very different from all the others. And the design and prototyping and construction process went very differently from team to team, too.

This is at the very end of the 18 minutes, when all the hands had to be off the towers. As you see, some had difficulties staying upright.


The Marshmellow Challenge definitely worked well for our purposes, and it was fun!

After the Marshmallow Challenge, we went on for the more conventional part of the workshop, and this is when we talked for example about group development.


I like giving workshops! :-)

Preparing my workshop on how learning works

As you know, I’m preparing a workshop for teaching assistants in mechanical engineering at Dresden University of Technology. And even though I’ve given similar workshops successfully more than once before, it somehow happened that I changed my plan a bit here, and then changed a bit there, and am now constructing the whole workshop from scratch. Oh well…

Anyway, this is my current plan (which is going to change again more likely than not).

First: Start out with how people learn. It doesn’t work like this:

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This is not how learning works!

To talk about constructivism, I am using the examples presented in this blog post. I will talk about the consequences for teaching, for example that no matter how well we explain and describe, it would be really surprising if people understood exactly what we meant.

A nice game, by the way, that illustrates this nicely, was played at my friend Zhenya’s wedding: the couple is sitting, back to back, and each of them gets an identical set of Lego stones. Only that one person gets them assembled and the other person loose, and the person who got the assembled set has now to describe the assembled construction well enough that the other person can recreate it from their pieces! Quite fun, especially if — in contrast to how it worked at Zhenya’s wedding — they don’t define a common frame of reference first…

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“…and there are three branches on either side of the tree, and there is an apple hanging from the lowest branch on the right side”

Next, I want to talk about active learning. There are many papers on that that I have presented here on this blog, too, for example Freeman et al. (2014), Smith et al. (2009), or Crouch et al (2004). All those certainly deserve to be mentioned.

Then, I want to go into motivation, and you’ve seen a couple of blog posts on this recently (for example on why do students actually engage in learning activities or how do boundary conditions influence learning).

Obviously, the way those three topics are presented will not be a lecture, but I will be using various active learning methods (currently, there are a dozen on my list!). And while we are talking about those three topics and using those 12 different methods, we will always link back the current method to the theory of learning or motivation we are talking about at that moment.

Quite a tall order, you say? Well, yes. But all the parts have worked really well individually, so I am pretty confident that they will work even better when combined this way. I’ll let you know! And if you want to pre-book me to do a workshop where you are at, just get in touch! :-)