Our New Set Game Routine

For years I’ve used the Set Game to grab students’ attention at the start of class—in a playful, mind-sharpening way. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered whether I should have some sort of bell-work-problem-set-something-or-other, but I’ve never moved even an inch on that wondering… at least not thus far.)

A while back I wrote about how this lovely game ventured from my childhood and into my classroom. My approach has shifted quite a bit (and for the better, I think) so I thought I’d share how we do things in class now.

Super Previously

When I first introduced this to my students, iOS didn’t exist. So each day we played, I simply pointed my web-browser (pre-Google Chrome, if you’ll believe it) to http://www.setgame.com and we played the free daily puzzle. Find the six sets in the set of 12 cards as fast as you can.

setgame website

Students would raise their hands, I’d call on them as fast as my mouth could manage, they would shout three numbers quick as can be, and I’d click the corresponding cards on the screen. If all was well, we repeat that process five more times and cross our fingers in the hopes that we had the fastest time of the day/week/month/year/ever.


Several years later I got an iPad. And an Apple TV. And I forked over the 5 bucks for the iOS version of the Set Game. Instead of working through the free daily puzzle, I would offer my students a 60-second challenge. The beauty of this approach is that I could control the amount of time we spent playing Set on a given day (super previously, we would sometimes play for several minutes if the students had trouble finding the last couple of sets). Now it was 60 seconds, period. No more, no less. Aside from that, our style remained the same: Find a set, raise your hand, shout numbers. Repeat.


One of the drawbacks of these original approaches is that they played to the strengths of the fastest students and ignored those who need more time to process. The start of class was a flurry of pattern-finding and number-shouting (quite impressive to watch as a visitor unfamiliar with the game), but it really depended on a select few; the majority of my students barely participated at all.

With that in mind, here’s how we play now:

  1. I display a random, annotated image (hooray for screenshots on the iPad) from a ready-and-waiting Keynote file:

set app

  1. I give students “30 silent seconds to search” during which (as the description implies) they are to search, um, silently, for as many sets as they can find. (By the way, I’m taking attendance while they do this.)
  2. Next, I announce that “you may now collaborate.” I wrap up attendance and get ready to call on groups.
  3. I call on one group at a time, asking each group to announce the numbers of a single set.
  4. I record the results on the board (regardless of any mistakes students might make), and proceed to the next group.
  5. Once I get to the last group, I then open it up to “anyone in the class.”
  6. Students continue sharing.
  7. Once no more students are willing to share (and by this time we usually have 6-9 sets), I ask “Does anyone see any imposters?” (our name for mis-identified sets).
  8. Imposters are identified, with brief explanations as to why the proposed trio of numbers is not actually a set. (Ex: “1, 2, 11, because two of them are singles.”)
  9. Then we move on to whatever is next.

Advantages to this approach? I see a few:

  • All students are given an opportunity to play
  • Students are also given an opportunity to collaborate
  • No one student or group is allowed to dominate when sharing proposed answers
  • Students have a regular, bite-sized, built-in opportunity to “critique the reasoning of others” (SMP 3) when they identify imposters
  • One last thing… Students love those black numbers on yellow squares, as it shifts the entire focus to visual pattern recognition (though I’m a bit sad that they benefit so greatly from this little trick, as I would prefer that they recognize the structure build into the 3×4 array)

In the Future

Recently, I’ve wondered about challenging students with the task of creating a set of 12 cards with exactly six sets. I anticipate this would be quite challenging, and there might be some interesting patterns and discussions that would arise along the way. I’ll keep you posted on this front. Or, if you beat me to the punch, let me know how you and your students fare.

Beyond Set

For me, this post is about much more than detailing the evolution of our Set Game exploits. The most important thread of this development is one that I hope will run through most of the lessons in my classroom. The challenge: While creating opportunities for engaging experiences, carve out space where every student has an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. As I turn my attention from the Set Game to student activities, rich math tasks, and class discussions, I’ll pay closer to attention to whether my teaching decisions help or harm students in this regard. I challenge you to do the same.

Comments 2

  1. Thanks, Michael for reminding me of SET and its possibilities for the classroom.

    I downloaded the app and tried it with my class today – they caught on to the concept really quickly and with the “find and shout” technique we found all six sets in five minutes. “Can we do it again?” … “Yes, but not today,” Ha!

    Next week I’ll use your “quiet think, collaborate, then share” system. I agree that this is far more likely to get everyone having a go, and also more motivated to participate in the future because every pair should have at least found a few of the more obvious sets, even if they don’t get them all.

    My students were comfortable enough with mentally numbering the cards 1-12, and in fact they kept correcting themselves when they made a location error. Another spatial skill to practise!

    Thanks for the awesome ideas sharing!

  2. Thanks for several great ideas for using my set cards. I’m working on improving my student’s reasoning and justification skills, and I think this along with WODB.ca and a few other interesting visual games might be a great start.

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