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  Classroom Compass Volume 3, Number 2
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Learning a Maze: An Activity for Upper Level Students

How do we learn? A simple path through a maze provides a way to measure one kind of learning using the sense of touch.

maze players

This activity guides middle school or secondary students in exploring one part of the complex process of learning. Some schools have had success in teaching students about how the brain and mind work so they can actively and consciously take part in their own learning.

Our senses play an important part in learning. The brain's work begins with the messages it receives through the senses from the outside world. Neural connections form as experience and data provide the building blocks for understanding. Sight is usually the primary sense for navigation—how can we tell where to go if we can't see the path? In this activity, however, students measure the trial-and-error learning that occurs when sight is restricted and they must rely primarily on touch. The first attempt to complete the maze is reinforced by two more trials, letting the navigator accumulate experience and learn the path.

Constructing a Maze

What is a maze? Let the students discuss their ideas about mazes, perhaps supported with photographs or drawings of mazes. Students then take about 10 minutes to create a maze from 12 stick-on mailing label strips and two stickers. The start and end points of the path are marked by the stickers—use stickers that are distinct from the strips so they will provide a different tactile sensation. Protect each student's maze construction from others' eyes by standing a manila folder (or a tall book) around each work area.

You will need:
Stick-on mailing labels, 30 labels a page. To conserve your materials budget, cut the mailing labels into three thin strips.
Use labels with rounded corners for easy removal

Each student will need:

  • 12 mailing label strips
  • 2 stickers
  • 1 manila folder
  • 1 sheet construction paper
Each student pair needs:
  • 1 blindfold
  • 1 minute/second timer

Running the Maze

Student pairs learn each other's mazes using only their fingertips to find their way. First, one person will attempt the other person's maze, blindfolded, while the partner times the run. Each student gets three timed trials on each maze; completion rates are recorded on a record sheet (see above, right). After one has completed the three attempts, the students switch roles.

Talking About It

At the completion of the timed trials the students can reflect on their experience. Possible questions include

  • What evidence did you have that you were learning?

  • Were you able to shorten your completion time? Were there portions of the maze you learned well and others that were still difficult?

  • Was timing the trials a good way to measure learning? Could you learn more about the maze but not improve your completion time?

  • What is learning?

  • What are some other skills you have learned through trial and error?



Save the mazes and data sheets for future trials. Have the students predict how the passage of time will affect their learning. Test their long-term memory by retracing the same mazes at a later time (one week, one month, etc.). How accurate were their predictions?

This excerpt is from Chapter 6, "The Human Organism: Learning" in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993), reprinted with permission from the Oxford University Press.

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