Clue Them In: Crossword and Word Search Puzzle Posters as Information Literacy Informal Learning Opportunities

How do you get students to learn about information literacy, have fun and work together, for little cost and even less staff involvement? Try making posters of word searches and crosswords with various library themes.

Michigan State University Libraries, with a collection of nearly six million volumes, five library buildings, and more than seventy-five librarians, serves a population of more than 48,000 students. In spring 2011, when I became the institution’s first outreach librarian, a growing trend in academic libraries involved planning fun, relaxing activities for students during finals week. “I should create a finals week activity,” I thought to myself. “Something big. Something flashy. Maybe something with zombies.” A colleague and I turned an instruction room into a “stress free zone.” Because that room was locked when not in use, we had to staff it for four hours a day all week. We played classical music, offered homemade cookies, and laid out puzzles and board games. We even had a bean bag toss, hula hoops, and jump ropes. Three students came in that week. When planning the stress-free zone, I failed to realize the implications of having a very crowded library: students would have to leave their seat to come to our room, and risk not being able to find another seat when they finished de-stressing.

The following semester, I opted to try some finals week activities that students could do in passing as they entered the library.

Library administration authorized me to pay a professional crossword puzzle creator to make a custom crossword for our students. After testing the puzzle with several colleagues, I plotted it to poster size (36" x 32"), laminated it, and posted it on a wall near the reference desk. I also hung a dry erase marker next to it on a string. Throughout the week, it got filled in at least three times, usually during the overnight hours. It became normal to see groups of two or three students standing around in front of it, puzzling it out together.

In addition to the crossword poster, we also tried a few other activities that did not involve a great deal of time or effort. A jar of candy was placed in the library’s café (which is open whenever the library is open) along with entry forms for a candy counting contest; 375 people entered the contest. Near the entrance of the library, I left a table full of scrap paper and directions for making a paper wallet. That was a surprisingly popular activity.

Due to the success of the crossword puzzle project, we decided to extend it throughout the rest of the semester. Free crossword and word search puzzle creators are available online (for instance, I used Discovery Education’s Puzzlemaker ). I created a crossword or word search puzzle once per week, based on a library resource that would benefit or interest students at that time of the semester. A selection of the schedule included:

  • March 18: SportDISCus (March Madness)
  • March 25: Gale Virtual Reference Library (encyclopedias)
  • April 15: Library services (National Library Week)
  • April 29: Where are You Going This Summer (PDF) (finals week; highlighted our map library and travel collection)

To begin with, I created a crossword puzzle based on the online resource “LION: Literature Online.” I found that it was extremely time consuming to create fifty witty clues, and the puzzle only got partially filled in that week; mostly, I suspected, by library staff.

The following week, I created a word search for March Madness that included information found in the online resource “SportDISCus”. Around the puzzle, I posted information about the topic: relevant research guides, special collections within the library, etc. Whether the topic was of more interest or the puzzle form was easier, the word search got filled in completely. After that, I only created word searches. The posters were completed each week, and students wrote messages around the poster (“John Smith, class of 2013”, etc.).

In general, the response to this project was quite favorable. However, we did hit upon a couple of stumbling blocks along the way. First, a major construction project commenced and meant that I could not hang the puzzle poster in the prominent area near the reference desk. I posted it in the lobby after that, which worked out fine, but the lack of consistency may have led to some confusion. Also, one student apparently stood in front of one puzzle for two hours one evening, trying to find the last two clues. Stress relief was not achieved in that instance. In addition, at first I felt like I had to be on “bad word patrol,” making sure students were not writing anything profane on the poster. However, that only happened once during the entire semester.

This project took little staff time or capitol. Students worked together to fill in the puzzles each week. This informal learning activity gave them the opportunity to learn more about the library in a fun way.