Evidence-Based Learning at School

Tile-based games (Manipulatives)

Tile-based games or manipulatives (Petty 2009) prompt students to think and make carefully considered decisions.

This mainly involves sorting cards according to specific criteria. In fact, it is similar to graphic organizers.  Pairs or groups of students place their cards in different arrangements depending on the task. In the process, students are supposed to arrive jointly at a solution by asking questions and explaining their solution approaches to each other.

According to Geoff Petty1, the cards may contain texts, charts, formulas, computer code, photographs, drawings, or a combination of these.

Tile-based games are typically used in these tasks:

  • LABELING – E.g. students label a map by putting text cards in correct places.
  • MATCHING – Cards can be matched (in pairs) with other cards.
  • GROUPING – A set of cards is grouped according to given criteria.
  • RANKING – The cards are arranged according to a certain specification from a maximum to a minimum (or vice versa).
  • ORDERING – Sorting is done according to a given order (e.g. time).
  • COMPLETING – A specific pattern or text is completed using the cards.

High learning effectiveness is attributed to activities where objects have to be physically manipulated with keywords or symbols. Robert J. Marzano2 has summarized these results in many individual studies and calculated the effect size to be 0.89, which corresponds to a learning increase of about 30 percent. That can make a difference of up to 2 grade levels. Tile-based games can achieve this because students

  • are forced to use higher thought processes,
  • have to deal with key concepts and significant facts,
  • are not hindered by possible spelling problems,
  • continue to gradually develop their ways of thinking by repeatedly moving the cards,
  • can make their thinking visible with every card that has been matched,
  • enjoy the playful approach.

One can also say that tile-based games promote the development of mental models.


The very act of generating a concrete representation establishes an image of the knowledge in the students’ minds.
R. J. Marzano3

With a bit of deliberation, tile-based games can be adapted to a wide variety of curricular requirements in each subject. Even fairly complex issues, like modeling relational databases, can be worked on effectively using tile-based games. Time invested in preparation can be quite significant, but it is justified by high reusability (hint: laminate!) as well as by documented learning effectiveness.

[1] Petty, G., Evidence-Based Teaching (2009), 2. Auflage Nelson-Thornes
[2] Marzano, R. (1998) A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on Instruction, McREL Aurora, Colorado
[3] Marzano, R. et al. (2001), Classroom Instruction that Works, ASCD, USA

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