Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Building confidence in maths class with SET!

A few months ago, a friend asked me to look after her 9 year old daughter for an afternoon. I was scrambling for things to do - and rummaging through my cupboards found a deck of cards for the pattern matching game SET!  At the time the young girl was struggling with mathematics, so I wasn't sure how she would take to it, but to my surprise, we ended up playing the game for hours. I knew I was on a winner - I rushed out to the games store and bought three more decks with the intention of seeing what would happen if I tried SET! with a class of teenagers who really disliked being in math class.

SET! is a pattern matching game which initially really hurts your head. Find sets of three cards where for each attribute (shape, colour, quantity and fill),  that attribute is either all the same or all different. Try it online at the New York Times SET! puzzle page.
At first they didn't want to try the game. I didn't force it, but eventually one group of students decided it might be more fun than regular class work and were willing to give it a go.  Working out how to play SET! does take a little time and I wondered how patient they would be with it.  For a while it looked like it might not work, and then suddenly one of my least engaged students - who repeatedly told me she can't do maths - started finding all the patterns. Suddenly the competitive nature of the students kicked in.  Other students started asking to be taught the game.  Over the next few weeks, most of the class was lured into the game.  For higher achieving mathematics classes, you won't need any subtlety to introduce SET! - they will take to it like ducks to water - marvelling at the elegant simplicity of the game that manages to hide so much variation and complexity.

A key feature that makes SET! so engaging is there are many different types of sets (patterns) to find in the deck. Some are fairly easy to spot, others are quite complicated. This means that students at different skills levels of the game can play together - there is something for everyone. Once the weaker students start having success finding the easier patterns, they get more involved and before long most are finding the harder patterns.

Bringing SET! into the classroom gave some students for the first time (I think) a  tangible demonstration they could succeed at challenging mathematical tasks.  They knew it was a game that required skill, patience and some strategy to master, and some of them were absolutely fantastic at playing the game. As a teacher, I was amazed to see students who usually had an almost non-existant attention span, starting intently and silently at a set of cards for minutes at time.  Highly recommended - give it a try!

Teaching Ideas

  • Start off by reducing the deck to cards of only one colour. This reduces the complexity of the game by one dimension. Warn the students it will get "much much" harder when you put in the rest of the deck (and it will) - but they will soon be begging for the harder version. When they do get the full deck it will hit them hard - but by now they are hooked :-).  And when they do master the full game - the pay off is sweet.
  • Ask the students to describe and name the card attributes. Let them tell you. Ask the students to choose names for the shapes. Once they name the shapes with their names, it becomes their game - use their terminology as you play the game. I like to share the names my 9-year old friend gave them: diamonds, peanuts and airplane windows. And I find using slightly childish names for the counts ("onesies, twosies, threesies") adds to the fun and reduces any stress students may feel about a maths game.
  • Have a 15 second time out rule : If one student in the group is finding all the sets, put them on a 15 second timeout to give others a chance to learn the game.
  • Go gently. Don't over-emphasise the logic elements - allow students to develop the idea over time that logic and strategy will help them locate patterns more efficiently.  Some lower achieving mathematics students will be intimidated by the game - I found a gentle approach, and allowing them to watch others play worked well. Their friends will encourage them to play - you don't need to. It's wonderful to hear students who initially told you the game looked stupid now encouraging other students to learn it with them.
  • Choose your time wisely to discuss pattern finding strategies. Don't rush it - wait until they are really hooked. It doesn't matter it they don't find all the patterns - deal out some more cards. When students are ready for it, I like to rearrange the face up cards into number groups while discuss pattern finding strategies.
  • SET! makes a great activity to use a 'group rotation' style activity session where you have different activities at each table and students move around the classroom. You may find SET! takes longer than your other activity and counts for 2 time slots in the rotation (so make two tables).
  • Put an interactive SET! game up on your Interactive Whiteboard. Once students have mastered the (physical) card game, try the online version. The New York Times offers 4 SET! puzzles each day, 2 basic and 2 advanced. Invite groups of students to come up to the board and solve them. Could also make a good reward for students who complete work early.
  • The SET! website has some interesting mathematics teacher resources about SET!  There are many high quality investigations students of all levels could be encouraged to try out.
Purchasing SET!

  • Amazon sells SET! at good prices - around US$12. Unfortunately they will not deliver this product to Australia. In Sydney, Games Paradise (Pitt St) sells them for around AUD$20 - and good to support this friendly and helpful specialist shop.
  • One pack will keep around four students occupied. 3-4 packs for a classroom is enough as not all your students will be playing SET! at once.


  1. My classes love the online version - as you said, high achieving students get it very quickly! class record for my year 9 students is 1 minute 33 seconds to solve; but even mixed ability year 7 get it. Works well on an IWB.

  2. OMG I did not need to know this existed!

  3. Great post--I shared it with my math department. Thanks for including the links to the online versions--great for class starters!

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