What Tetris Taught Me About Flexible Teaching

A Tetris block containing a graduation cap falls onto a Tetris board
Course DesignOnline Learning

Article Summary

  • Flexible teaching is like Tetris because the "blocks" that create a successful course can "pile up" and cause chaos if not properly placed.|Instructors should re-think how they implement attendance, content and assessments in their classes.|By aligning attendance, content and assessments, instructors can create a "line clear," or a perfect balance of the three.
  • field_5cf83622ba22e
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Adam Barragato is Assistant Director of Partnerships at Purdue University and former Teaching and Learning Consultant


The game of Tetris has more in common with flexible teaching than you might think. You quickly move obtuse pieces around, hoping to create the perfect block wall — all the while you’re relying on randomized blocks that never stop coming, or slow down. At some point, you inevitably succumb to the gradual but epic pile-up when one block you weren’t prepared for sends you into a frenzy.

This description sums up many of my teaching and learning experiences. Thankfully, flexible teaching and learning don’t have to feel this way. By understanding Tetris, we can overcome these common aggravations. In this blog, I not only share the commonalities, but also apply the lessons I learned from this game to flexible teaching to help improve teacher and student engagement.

Tetris Terms

Before we dive in, I’d like to define a few quick terms for Tetris newcomers.

“Blocks” are the pieces in Tetris that the player must move around to create a perfect wall. In higher education, “blocks” are course elements used to create environments where students can learn. They include attendance policies, assessments and techniques used to share content.

A “line clear” occurs when you stack four lines of blocks without any gaps. In academic terms, I would define a “line clear” as perfect alignment between all course elements essential to learning. It’s the moment in higher education where your assessments, objectives and content are clearly aligned for your students. It’s also when students see the connections between the content and purpose of your course and demonstrate learning clearly and coherently.

The inverse of this, known as a “pile up,” occurs when blocks build up with no place to go. In academic terms, this is when students don’t know what to do with the blocks they’re given.

Using these terms, a traditional “line clear” in higher ed would be requiring attendance, sharing content and assessing students entirely in person. With this model, we saw massive pile-ups during COVID when educators got hit with unexpected and difficult circumstances.

COVID has revealed that using traditional blocks leads to inevitable pile-ups. It’s time we build new courses with new blocks. And it all starts with the attendance block.

The Attendance Block

The attendance block has plagued me as an instructor and instructional designer. I am still learning how to build courses that ask students to be attentive without demanding their physical attendance.

When COVID hit, many people (myself included) got offended by students who would show up to Zoom meetings without turning their camera on. I’ve been in Zoom classes where I had no idea if my students were actually there. It felt like talking to a brick wall, and it’s as painful virtually as it is in person. I’ve been in lecture halls filled with students who would rather be sleeping, or classrooms where less than 10% of the class shows up. I’ve found that while you can make people show up, you can’t make them be present, which results in a pile-up.

To create a line clear with this block, I believe that we must rethink what it means to “attend” a class. Instead of building courses that demand attendance (i.e., pop quizzes, points, mandatory cameras), flexible teaching should ask students to give us their presence in ways that make sense for them.

Instead of demanding that they meet us at odd times and places throughout the week, we could tell our students that we will be going over questions and concepts during regularly scheduled class time. They would be welcome to join if they get value out of it. But if not, they could continue engaging in the course content and let us know how they’re faring separately.

The way our students let us know their progress is a potential substitute block for “attendance.” However, it’s up to you to decide how you want to implement. Would this block look like providing virtual office hours? Having students complete weekly activities that help them apply the material? Offering opportunities for discussions with classmates? Whatever you decide, help students see value in their “attendance” and allow them to do it outside of traditional course hours, even if your course is in-person.

It’s not to say we don’t hold our students accountable for learning. We simply hold them accountable by having them show us what they know when they are at their best—not strictly at a time or place that the registrar’s office deems appropriate. If students are only coming to class for attendance, you’ll never get their full presence. Instead, we need to find blocks to engage them in the content so they can apply it to their world and at a time and a place that works for them.

Now you’re probably wondering, “How do I engage my students if they don’t ‘come’ to class?” Great question! That’s the content block.

The Content Block

I love a good lecture. But I haven’t sat through a single church service in the last 10 years without getting bored, making shopping lists or folding paper airplanes. However, I watch Netflix religiously. Why? Because I can watch Netflix when it’s convenient.

I believe that academic content should be offered in a similar “carry out” fashion. Students should be able to choose when and how they consume their academic content to some extent. Not everyone can sit in a lecture hall for an hour and be attentive. Therefore, students should have the opportunity to engage with their coursework at a time that makes sense to them, and in a format they are comfortable with.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to only create videos. Instead, consider providing information to students in multiple modalities (when appropriate and possible) and let them choose when and what option they prefer. Think of this as creating a new “block” to replace traditional content.

Some students learn best by showing up for class. By all means, lecture for them, but record it as well. When you record it, add closed captioning. That way students have a transcript to read, and students who may have difficulty hearing can follow along. If you have time, take the audio and make that available, too. Finally, have them utilize the textbook if applicable. If not, see what other content is freely available. You could even ask them to help curate content as part of their weekly assignments.

The big takeaway here is this: Why make students show up to your class when they can consume your content in other ways that may help them learn more effectively? You should create blocks that are easy to adjust to students’ needs and schedules to create the perfect line clear.

Whatever blocks you use to deliver content, it’s imperative that you help students by testing their knowledge gaps. That leads us to the final and most important block: Assessment.

The Assessment Block

When COVID shut just about every university down, many faculty members had a hard time trying to figure out how they could assess students fairly, effectively and conveniently. This is a tough block to create a line clear with: How do we handle assessments when we aren’t expecting people to come to class? The answer depends on what you deem as a line clear in your course.

I used to administer exams in my course, until I realized they didn’t align with what I wanted students to learn. In other words, they were blocks that didn’t fit quite right. Exams were efficient and easy to administer, but I wanted to see if my students knew how to apply the information, not whether they could recognize terms on paper. I needed to find a different block for a line clear.

It’s not that exams are bad. They work, especially for classes with many students. But you need to consider what you’re testing for. To help identify the right assessment, I like to ask instructors the following questions:

  • What does an assessment in the field look like for a professional?
  • Do they get asked lots of questions at once in a proctored environment?
  • Can they use their notes?
  • Where would they look to find the answers?
  • Could they collaborate with others?

These are the blocks you should build towards a line clear with.

Above all, you should be asking yourself if your exam aligns with what you want your students to get out of your class. If you’re not sure, go back to your outcomes and objectives.

In my course, for example, I wanted to measure whether my students could engage a captive audience. Could they get a group of tired students excited about recycling? They would need excellent PowerPoint skills, conversational delivery, top-notch organization and interesting information backed by unique sources to do so. If a student could do that, then I would have delivered the perfect block to them. They would pass my course with flying colors, no exams needed.

Additionally, keep in mind that not every student is good at test-taking. In lieu of a test, you can offer group projects, peer-reviews or take-home exams as alternative blocks. The options to create a line clear are endless.

Closing Thoughts on Flexible Teaching

I’ve worked hard over the last years, particularly throughout the pandemic, to implement these blocks while creating courses and avoiding pile-ups. While flexible teaching always comes with its own pile-ups, we have a choice in the way we stage our blocks for success.

I firmly believe that flexible teaching and learning is an honor and a privilege, and I want everyone to enjoy doing so. I hope that by changing the blocks we use, we can create plenty of line clears for our students. Good luck in the upcoming school year—I wish you nothing but perfect games of Tetris!

More Flexible Teaching Tips

Want to learn more about flexible teaching and course planning for better learning outcomes? Download the 5 Steps to Course Planning Success eBook.