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Jigsaw classroom: using student differences to bolster student learning

Reeteka Sud

Jigsaw teaching takes into account students who don’t speak up in class for whatever reason—poor prior knowledge of content or language difficulties or are shy. Whether it is completing assigned syllabus, teaching undergraduates to read original scientific literature or the process of writing scientific manuscripts, jigsaw technique can be implemented for any number of objectives in large classes.

Jigsaw classroom encourages cooperative learning among students
Jigsaw classroom encourages cooperative learning among students  

Consider a typical undergraduate classroom — students from different economic sections, who have had different types of schooling, who differ widely in their grasp of English language as well as of subject matter — are thrown in the mix together, in the same class in college. In the face of this immense diversity, not to mention the large class sizes and tight teaching schedule, the teacher is forced to assume a “middle path” — a level they think is “middle of the curve” for their students. This method leaves behind more students than it includes; the weaker students flounder their way through the academic year with next to no chances for the teacher to address their concerns or give them extra time. The brighter students get bored as the class cannot be challenging enough for them. As a teacher, how do you use this diverse spectrum of student abilities to benefit them? Is there a way to add up the differences? With jigsaw classroom, there is.

Elliot Aronson (currently Professor Emeritus at the University of California in Santa Cruz) developed the jigsaw classroom over four decades ago. This method takes into account students who don’t speak up in class for whatever reason—poor prior knowledge of content or language difficulties or are shy.

Here, the class is divided into groups of equal size. Experts recommend the more heterogenous the group, in terms of student background, abilities, and gender (if applicable), the higher the chances of success. Number of groups in the class should equal the number of topics that need to be covered. For instance, if the topic to be covered is ‘Cytoplasmic streaming’, the class could be divided in four groups, each for the four types of streaming movements of the cytoplasm. Or if the topic is ‘chromosomal aberrations’ in a Genetics course, the number of groups would be the same as the number of aberrations that the teacher plans to cover in that class.

To begin with, each student is assigned a sub-topic. So, in our example of Genetics class, some students will be assigned aneuploidy, some would have polyploidy, etc. Students are given time for each individual to familiarise themselves with their topic, using the reading material assigned by the teacher. After sufficient time (predetermined by the instructor), all students with the same assigned topic are brought together. Here, students hone their understanding by quizzing each other, learning from each other. They discuss the main points of their segment and to rehearse their presentations. These are called “expert groups”, for it is here students are to develop expertise in their respective topics.

Next, students proceed to the groups they were originally assigned to; but now each student is an expert in one distinct sub-topic. Each such group is now “jigsaw group”. Just like each piece of jigsaw is essential to complete a puzzle, expertise of each student is essential for the class to complete their knowledge of the topic. Each of the students now present their topic to other members in their jigsaw group. During this time, the teacher does the rounds of groups, making sure presentations are proceeding smoothly. Towards the end, the teacher gives a quiz to the entire class. The only way for students to do well in the quiz is to learn from each other.

This page offers more advice for instructors specifically on how to organise student groups; the logistics of which are just as important as preparing students for what to expect. The activity can be spread over multiple classes or confined to one, depending on topic at hand. If there isn’t enough class time, the final jigsaw activity could also be a collaborative homework exercise.

Barbara Lom, faculty at Davidson College in the US state of North Carolina wrote an article on simple classroom strategies to develop student-centric activities in undergraduate classroom. Here, she outlined how jigsaw method can be used to introduce students to reading original scientific literature: “Initial groups may first focus on specific sections (or figures) in a paper, then reconfigure so that each group has at least one member with expertise on each portion of the article.” Aaron M. Broege, Visiting Faculty at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (US), has written a post about his experience of carrying this out in his classroom. In his article, he says,  “my greatest concern was that after organizing this system, the students would come to class the Friday they were supposed to discuss, and just sit there….Initially, I wanted to have a more formal “wrap-up” in which I go figure-by-figure in lecture format and pull together all of the main points; however, students engage over the paper so much, that I often am unable to complete summary in that course period.” Clearly, the method was effective in getting students to openly engage with peers.

Writing practicals in their practical files can be a platform to introduce students to the process of writing scientific manuscripts; and with jigsaw technique, it takes the form of cooperative learning. The initial groups would discuss individual sections (introduction/background, methods, results, discussion), and subsequently collaborate in writing of the complete practical exercise.  An example of this, with details on organisation of student groups, was published in an article by Joseph Colosi and Charlotte Zales, educators from the American state of Pennsylvania. In their experience, using jigsaw replaced the pre-lab lecture with focused student discussions. In their words, “most important, students are more involved with their lab exercises, they rely on one another to solve problems, and they take responsibility for their own learning”.

Does this sound tempting enough for you to try jigsaw teaching? Interested in trying this out for yourself? In the ‘Discussion’ section below, post your questions on implementing this technique, and your experience after trying it.


Further readings:

  1. Founding teacher Eliot Aronson’s page:
  2. Lom B. Classroom Activities: Simple Strategies to Incorporate Student-Centered Activities within Undergraduate Science Lectures. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2012. 11: A64–A71.
  3. Blog post by Aaron M. Broege:
  4. Joseph C. Colosi and Charlotte Rappe Zales. Jigsaw Cooperative Learning Improves Biology Lab Courses. BioScience, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Feb., 1998), pp. 118-124.  

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