Paper Planes and The Game-ification of Technical Writing

I’m starting a reflection on a series of activities I just did with my English 313: Technical Writing students over the last two weeks. I will be adding to this as time goes by, and I will likely present it soon in a venue near you (ATTW, computers and writing).  It illustrates one of the premises of my current research, one of my assertions: we have to utilize game-like activities in educational spaces to harness the power of fun and to encourage the understanding that we learn best when we fail and try again.

So the dilemma: writing instructions, while critical, is not generally fun. I’ve seen people make good attempts at it, most notably one of my mentors, Bill Hart-Davidson, teaching his students to write directions for sitting in a chair then comically acting them out, illustrating the sheer difficulty of describing the motions involved in moving into a seated position. But short of copying that idea, I haven’t seen a great deal of joy inducing instruction activities. It’s just such a standard and spartan sort of writing.

Over the summer, with my online 313 class, I started the activity chain here (the part that is now the middle). I used a papercraft Iron-Man designed by a quasi-famous internet artist  that comes with no directions, just as a flat sheet, as an activity for the students.  First, following from my own pedagogical desire to make students make things– a material rhetorics staple– they had to assemble Ironman without directions. Then, having completed him, they had to write a set of directions for assembly.

This worked well for the summer students. So as I was considering my fall class, I thought about that activity and also about an activity by Jane McGonigal, from Miami’s convovation. Jane’s activity wasn’t particularly tech-writing-y, but it was impressive. She had the 4000 first-year students at convocation write advice on paper airplanes then toss the planes, tossing again and again until they got advice they wanted to take to heart. It looked like this, from my vantage point over on Faculty Row:

I admired McGonigal’s moxy having that many kids fold airplanes and throw them. I almost had my students do this as an icebreaker (write their names, throw their plane, then go find the person who had it and have a little chat), but I decided that was too elaborate.

But this plan came to me– what if we make our initial experience with writing directions into a game?

So I came to class with 40 sheets of paper: 20 blue, 20 green. I handed each student a sheet of each color. I told them to put their initials on the blue sheet, then to write, from their memory, directions for folding a paper airplane. Once they finished, I told them to fold the blue sheet into a plane; I stressed that they didn’t have to follow their own directions but told them to think about what it meant if they didn’t.

Then I had them hurl their planes around the lab. It looked a little like this (forgive my Blair Witch style camera work).

Once everyone had a new plane, I directed them to unfold the planes. I had them put the initials on their blue sheet onto their green sheet (so the directions were coded to the new sheets) and to follow the directions to the letter, making no logic jumps that weren’t there. Once they finished, we again flew the planes. A large number of them, as one might guess, did not fly.

I then had the students retrieve a plane and go around the room matching the plane to a set of initials (sneaky “icebreaker” trick one– I got them to meet someone potentially new during only their fifth meeting together), then once everyone had a matched set, I sent them to find the original owner (ha ha! They met TWO new people!). With each person now holding her directions and the plane her classmate had crafted, I asked them to reflect on how their directions worked.

End class.

The next class, I wanted to follow up on the theme but twist it just a bit. So I found five sets of directions for folding rather intricate paper planes online (I will add the links later), and I had the team break into groups of five. This time we have five different colors of paper, one packet of about 15 sheets for each team. Their goal was to take a number, then from that number take a set of directions. Each member of the team– while talking and working together– was to make their plane, based on the directions they were given. Once they finished, they were to write the directions on colored sheets matching their plane, then to pass the best of their planes and their directions to the team directly to their left.


This activity went really well, but because the students were focusing on the intricate nature of their directions, we ran out of class time. Not a problem– I build a little cardboard hanger out of an ink toner box and let them dock their planes until the next week.

The next class I gave them a plane break and had them do the Ironman activity described above. I added an extra step, and with this class I had them take a second printed Ironman and their directions to someone– a roommate, a family member, a sworn enemy– to observe that person try to complete the activity using their directions. I didn’t say “usability test,” but that’s what I wanted them to experience, and that, also, went surprisingly well. I was afraid it might be too simple of a task, but it was actually spot on.

The next meeting, we did the second half of the other airplane activity, with the students now able to scrutinize the directions they were given with the eyes of someone who had watched as someone else tried to do papercraft based on directions they’d written up. I asked them to try to use the directions they were given to complete the plane, but told them they could also consult the original directions online and talk to the group if they needed to. Their goals were to: 1) make the plane and 2) revise the directions the first group made. It took some time, and a in a few cases it took a lot of research, but the resulting planes were all five better than the planes the original group completed, and the directions were far, far better.

Based on this alone, I’d call the activity a success, but I’m not one to just do that. I have student feedback that I will allow to speak for the activity. Here are a few quotes:

“Not only was this fun, and I learned to make a number of kickass airplanes, but I never really had thought about how difficult it is to explain how to [fold a plane]. We used the words “fold” and “crease,” and I didn’t realize until I read someone else using them that I couldn’t figure out the difference. We really needed to be exact.”

” I think it helped me better understand how to write instructions, but I think the part that helped most was following another group’s instructions. Because we didn’t have a model of what the plane was supposed to look like in front of us, it was hard to just follow the directions and the pictures accompanying them. When we encountered something that wasn’t clear, it was easy to see how the group who wrote the instructions may have thought they were being clear, but really weren’t. This is definitely something I will keep in mind—taking the perspective of the instruction-follower— as I complete my instructions assignment.”

“One specific thing I learned from this activity was the importance of uniformity. In order to keep the reader from becoming confused, it was important to provide a sense of similarity between each step. For example, the use of key words was crucial in order to prevent against any ambiguities in the steps. If you had previously defined one side of the paper as an “edge,” it was important that you continued to reference as such — not as a “side,” or “border,” or “outside limit.” Although these words have the same meaning, using them will leave your instructions vague. This sense of concrete uniformity isn’t just reserved for keywords, either. It was also important to have consistency between certain steps, too. If you are including seven steps, all using the same fold, it is important to word each of those steps the same — the repetition will give the reader a sense of assurance.”

“I laughed when we started this. It’s so easy to make a paper airplane. Only then I tried to explain it. Our last set of instructions is five hand-written pages.”

 “I enjoyed these activities because they were not only fun but they also helped me learn how to write instructions that are useful. It caused me to think about how my reader would perceive each step and where I thought they would mess up and why. I was then able to tailor the directions in a way that i thought would have an end result of a completed plane. I realized that after watching someone else fold my plane that i didn’t think of everything and there were places that i could have improved things. “

Based on these results, I am comfortable claiming that the following four game-like things happened, making the activity a success:

1) The activity was fun (I want to stress each time I say it that “fun” here doesn’t exclude “educational;” I would argue that it is in fact the opposite. We might not generally think of fun moments as learning moments, but if we turn a critical eye to it, we generally learn things while having fun. The “fun” is actually an energy level, I believe, a mix of motivation and positive sharing.

2) The activity chain was iterative, and it called for failed attempts leading to learning and improvement, leading to better attempts. This ran the gauntlet from research to more careful critical thinking, to collaboration, to flat-out try-and-fail-and-try-again. This is how learning should happen, I’d argue, but in previous courses I haven’t been able to get students to actually actively desire to re-write the same set of directions so many times. Something about the multiple iterations and the progression made them want to keep going.

3) The activity leveraged team-work and competition. By starting off solo, trying and essentially failing, then moving to working in teams (then back to solo for a bit for the Ironman portion, then back to teams), the groups had both a sense of competition and collaboration. Both are key elements of gaming, and both are key elements of a good game-like pedagogy. That is not to say that students feeling they must compete with each other is really a positive thing, IMHO, but the reality is most college students already feel they are in competition with each other. Allowing them to embrace that spirit in a playful way instead of feeling it in a passive aggressive way strikes me as a productive answer.

4) The activity allowed for the goal– the end product, a good set of directions AND a clearer understanding of how to write directions in general– to emerge organically from a series of scaffolded activities that didn’t look, on the surface, like they were really all the same thing. This is one of the frustrations I’ve encountered with other technical writing assignments when not using this sort of method: some of the tasks we learn by repeating can feel heavy handed and sometimes I’ve watched students mentally “check out.” For example, I’ve had students do multiple memos (or emails) to learn the genre. They start to think of all of the ones we do in class as “practice.” That’s correct. But they think of it the way Allen Iverson thought of basketball practice; they don’t want to practice because they’re ready for the big game. This activity hid the practice steps. When my students began working on their actual instruction assignment drafts, many of them commented on how the process was “like” the airplane stuff. But they were engaged the entire time. The same way a player is engaged with a good video game, even for the parts that aren’t fighting bosses or solving the big puzzle.


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