• Aaron Daffern


The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.

When learning a new skill, such as multi-digit addition or how to identify simple subjects in a sentence, worksheets are often used in a drill-and-kill fashion. The same skill or thought process is used again and again and again until the algorithm or technique is theoretically seared into the memory of students. Though effective for short-term gains, massed practice does little for long-term memory retention.

Some students and parents have long wondered why they must complete 30 practice problems if they can show mastery in just five. Tic-tac-toe gives students the option of simply making a three-in-a-row to complete the task rather than finishing every last problem. How the game board is setup depends on the teacher. It can range from wide open (i.e., students fill it in with problems they choose) to teacher-controlled (i.e., teacher makes the board with specific problem placement). Either way, students will love having the ability to choose.

Why It Works

Having options is highly motivational to students. Even if the options are somewhat superficial, as in the case of tic-tac-toe, the choice is still meaningful. When some teachers think of autonomy, they mistakenly think of giving students the option to decline work. Giving choices doesn’t mean that students can opt out. Instead, it allows them to give input on how the task is completed.

Looking at the example above, students will still have to show mastery of the skill but can do so in a way they choose. Rather than completing all 15 questions on a review sheet, they can make three-in-a-row using a simple tic-tac-toe board. If the teacher wants all students to complete one particular problem, she can place that item in the center square and require students to make a three-in-a-row through the center. Thus, the teacher has every child working on the most important problem (i.e., center square) and can use that as a standard demonstration of learning for all students.

What teachers will often find when presenting students with options like tic-tac-toe is that a glut of brain power is used to decide which problems to complete. While students frantically search for the easiest problems to work, they are expending an enormous amount of cognition on higher-order thinking. They are analyzing problems, comparing them with others, and recalling their level of understanding of the problem requirements. Students can be maneuvered into thinking critically about content or skills simply by letting them choose the easiest problems to complete.


Assigning a tic-tac-toe to students is a great way to break up the monotony of tedious worksheets and provide a jolt of interest to students. Here are a few things to contemplate.

1. Evaluate your planned worksheet to see how well it fits with the tic-tac-toe format. Math and grammar worksheets work especially well as they repeat the same skill multiple times. If there are various levels of question complexity, consider carefully where the items are placed on the board.

2. If you don’t have a worksheet but still want to use tic-tac-toe, you can easily generate your own. Decide on the different skills/problems that need to be addressed and strategically place them on the board.

3. The most important square on a tic-tac-toe board is the center. Decide what will be placed there and whether or not students will be required to make a three-in-a-row using that square.

4. Once the middle square is set, think about where other tasks need to be placed. For example, if there are two similar problems and you only want students to complete one of them, place them in locations that do not allow for both to be used to make a three-in-a-row.

5. Set grading parameters for the task. Will it be an all-or-nothing grade (e.g., pass/fail) or can students earn partial credit if portions of the board are filled out correctly? With the potentially small sample size, consider the impact on the grade if even one of the three squares is incomplete or incorrect.

6. To boost discussion and the cognitive demand of the task, allow time for students to brainstorm together and share why they plan on choosing certain squares to fill. Encourage them to use content vocabulary as they actively seek the easiest or most enjoyable way to make a tic-tac-toe.

7. Decide how students will share their work. Will the work be done on a separate piece of paper? If so, how will students signify which three-in-a-row they chose? If possible, allow the problems they choose to be completed on the tic-tac-toe board to both save space and provide a simple visual confirmation of meeting the task requirements.

8. Plan for opportunities to provide feedback to students. If their work is incorrect or ample evidence was not provided to support their thinking, students will need to hear that from a peer or the teacher.


As the students finished their fourth day of adding fractions with unlike denominators, Ms. Clone looked over the problem set for the lesson. Once again, they were supposed to apply the skill with 30 practice problems. Most students by this point had a pretty good understanding of how to add fractions with unlike denominators. Though she wanted them to practice, she didn’t feel up to grading another complete set of math papers.

“For tonight’s homework on lesson 5.4, I have some great news! You don’t have to do all 30 questions.” As the cheers and catcalls died down, Ms. Clone continued. “You’ve worked hard at learning how to add fractions over the last few days. Take a look at the table I’ve drawn on the board. Think of it like a tic-tac-toe board. Your assignment tonight is to simply get a three-in-a-row. Rather than 30 problems, you only have to complete three.

“You can choose to complete a three-in-a-row any way you choose. The only catch is, you have to make your three-in-a-row using the center square. I want everyone to complete problem 30. Other than that, the rest is up to you. You’ll notice that in five of the boxes, I’ve placed a range of problems. If you choose that box, you only have to choose one problem from within that range. I strategically placed problems 26-29, the dreaded problem-solving questions, all around the board so you can’t avoid them. I’d rather you focus most of your time on those than the computational ones (problems 1-24).

“If you make a tic-tac-toe with three problems, each problem is worth 33 points. That means that if you get one problem incorrect, the highest score you can get is a 67. If you don’t want to risk that, you can do up to two additional problems from the board after your tic-tac-toe. If you do four problems, each one is worth 25 points so missing one gets you a 75. If you do five problems, each is worth 20 points and missing one gets you an 80. The choice is up to you – enjoy!”


This worksheet alternative naturally provides many levels of support for students. The primary methods used to vary tic-tac-toe have to do with the board creation, problem placement, and grading expectations. By adapting these specifications to meet student needs, teachers can ensure that all students are highly motivated and successful.

While a traditional tic-tac-toe board has three columns and three rows, that restriction is not set in stone. For smaller tasks, teachers might prefer a two-by-two board. While this does not allow for a central square in which the most important problem can be placed, it does open up this strategy to assignments with just a few problems. If two different types or levels of problems exist, students can still be required to do one of each. Simply place similar problems diagonal to each other and require students to complete the two-in-a-row vertically or horizontally.

Similarly, tic-tac-toe boards can be expanded to 4x4 or even 5x5. If a larger board is used, students would enjoy creating their own board and then completing it. Using dice or cards with each of the problems, students would randomly select a problem and begin filling in their board from the top-left cell and moving to the right. Using this systematic approach, students’ boards would each be different without fear of gerrymandering. They could then complete their task as they best see fit.

Additionally, this task could be altered simply by focusing on how it would be graded. Using a traditional 3x3 board, students can choose between one of three levels of completion for the grade they desire. For example, a simple three-in-a-row might earn a maximum of an 80. Completing two three-in-a-rows would be worth slightly more, up to a 90. If students want the opportunity to earn a 100, they would have to blackout the board, completing every square. This gives them an opportunity to get a decent score by completing a three-in-a-row but asks for more if a higher grade is desired.

Another variation changes the tic-tac-toe board to focus on various ways to complete a problem. Using the example below, the boxes on the board all show a different way to solve and represent the problem above the board. While all students would solve the same multiplication problem, they could choose three different ways to show their work to make a tic-tac-toe.

Modifying This For Virtual Learning

Tic-tac-toe boards can be easily accessed using Google Slides, Google Docs, or even Padlets. The beauty of using this digitally is that each square could be hyperlinked to a different task, activity, or even website. Students simply click on each square to select the task they want to complete.

Additionally, the squares could each contain a YouTube video if a tic-tac-toe board is designed to support a lesson or content. Students could choose three videos to watch and then reflect on which one they liked the best, submitting their comparative analysis as their assignment.

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© 2020 by Aaron Daffern Consulting