Learning Problem Solving Through a Card Game

Erin Frazier, Kanda University of International Studies

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Problem solving, games, critical thinking, cooperation, directions
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Handouts (Appendices A and B), playing cards, poster paper/colored pens 

This activity elicits learners’ autonomy by challenging them to use critical thinking to complete a task. It does this by introducing the card game “Mao”. In this game the only rule that can be verbally shared is that the person who knows how to play cannot explicitly tell the other players the rules. By dividing the class into groups of players and leaders, learners will gain strategies to implicitly instruct others and learn to analyze a situation to obtain necessary information. Through student-led discussions and presentations, this lesson highlights the importance of cooperation, along with understanding why it is essential to follow directions. 


Step 1: Print copies of the handouts Appendix A (one per student) and Appendix B (one per group).


Step 1: First, warm up with the ‘trick’ quiz (Appendix A). Tell students that they have five minutes to complete the quiz and to read the questions carefully. At the end of the five minutes, check to see how many followed the directions. 

Step 2: After the quiz, in small groups have the students answer two questions: (1) “What did you learn about following directions?” (2) “Why didn’t or did you follow the directions?” Have the students share their ideas with the class. 

Step 3: Inform the students that they will play a card game called Mao. This game has many rules; however, these rules cannot be verbally shared. Have groups elect a team leader. The team leader will be taught how to play Mao by the instructor while the other members of the groups brainstorm the question: If the rules to a game are not explained to you, what strategies can you use to figure out the rules? Give Appendix B to the team leaders. Have them read through the rules and instructions. The instructor should check the leaders’ understanding of the game and their nonverbal strategies for explaining the rules by playing a round with them. Answer any questions and send them back to the groups as “Mao Master.”

Step 4: Have leaders play four to five rounds with their groups, so the other students can grasp the rules. Walk around and help groups where needed. Take notes of the communication strategies or problem-solving techniques the students are utilizing.

Step 5: After playing the rounds, groups will separate again to work on presentations. The team leaders will present on the questions at the bottom of Appendix B. The player groups will first write out the rules they understood. Next, they will answer two questions: (1) “Did your strategies help you to understand the rules? Why or why not?” (2) “What helped you figure out the rules?” Each group presentation should include its pre-game strategies, rules, and answers to the questions.

Step 6: Group presentation.

Step 7: To end, the instructor should highlight anything shared between players and leaders. Also, discuss any strategies that students overlooked in presentations. 


Through playing Mao, learners will understand not only the importance of following and understanding instructions (rules), they will also devise strategies to use when instructions are unclear. This will add to the development of learner autonomy and cooperation within the classroom. Strategies that students formulate during this activity can be applied widely throughout the learners’ educational careers.


The appendices are below.