The Jigsaw Technique

Barbara Tewksbury, Hamilton College

Overview of the technique

This technique can be used equally well for assignments involving data analysis or field work and in assignments involving reading.

jigsaw diagram
  • Prepare several different, related assignments for the class. In the pictorial example at right, the instructor devised four assignments, one for each of four teams. Each team then prepares one of the assignments.
  • Once each team is prepared, the class in the pictorial example at right is divided into four new groups. Each group will have one team member from each of the teams. Each member of the group is responsible for teaching the rest of the group what he/she has learned from his/her team assignment.
  • The group then puts all of the pieces together and completes a group task that can only be answered once all of the team pieces are together (hence the name "jigsaw"). This latter part is crucial to the technique.

Download detailed steps for using the jigsaw technique (Microsoft Word 30kB Jun15 05) The jigsaw technique was originally developed in the early 1970s at the University of Texas by Elliott Aronson, and his website (more info) has additional information on the technique.

A very simple jigsaw assignment

The following example provides a simple illustration of a jigsaw assignment that requires no student preparation and that can be used in a large class. Jeff Niemitz (Dickinson College) uses this in a class of 120 to introduce the topic of igneous rock classification.

  • As students enter the auditorium, they each pick up one rock from a box of samples by the classroom door. The box contains samples of gabbro, granite, and basalt.
  • The instructor asks students to study their rock samples and write down all the observations they can make about them.
  • After giving students several minutes to study their rocks, the instructor asks the students to make groups of three so that each group has three different rock types.
  • Each group then compares rocks, noting similarities and differences. The instructor then asks groups what they have noted in their rocks and writes down responses on an overhead transparency.
  • Students make all of the observations that one might expect them to make about color, grain size, and texture, providing an engaging base for the instructor to then introduce igneous rock classification.

An analysis of the assignment shows the hallmarks of the jigsaw technique:

  • The assignments are related. When it comes time for each student to teach the others about his/her rock, the listeners will immediately see similarities and differences with their own samples.
  • Students can complete the individual team assignment successfully to prepare for teaching. The peer-teaching aspect of this technique requires that students are successfully prepared, and the rock description task is simple enough to use in a large class without having to check on each student's preparation.
  • The group tackles an assignment that ties the individual contributions together to make a complete picture. Without the comparison assignment, the individual contributions remain unrelated presentations. With the comparison assignment, students in the group derive the principles of igneous rock classification.
  • Students are actively engaged and must explain what they have learned to their peers. Making the observations and explaining it to other group members enhances learning.
  • Individuals know their own assignments better than any of the ones presented by their peers. This is true partly because students must know their own assignments well enough to explain them and partly because their peers are typically not skilled presenters. This is an unavoidable aspect of the jigsaw technique. If you are considering using the jigsaw technique for a topic, and you realize that each student must know all aspects of the topic equally well, choose a teaching strategy other than jigsaw.
  • The amount of time devoted to the topic is comparable to coverage in a traditional lecture format. Although the jigsaw assignment takes time in class, the instructor does not need to spend as much time lecturing about igneous rock classification. If planned well, the overall time commitment to using the jigsaw technique during class is comparable to lecturing about a topic.

Other examples of jigsaw assignments

While on a field trip, students are divided into teams of 3-4. At each outcrop, each team is assigned a portion of an outcrop to examine closely and given an assignment pertinent to the character of the field trip (e.g., based on what you can see in your section of the outcrop, what is the structural history of these rocks? the depositional environment? the intrusive relationships? the rock types?). After each team has examined its section, mixed groups rotate through the sections of the outcrops, with each team member sharing what he/she discovered and discussing what the group can determine overall from the outcrop. This technique encourages students to look closely at an outcrop, rather than wandering around and looking only casually, and also drives home the point that what you conclude depends upon the outcrop exposure.
Students are divided into teams of 3-4 and look at a particular group of thin sections or samples. Once each team is done with its study, mixed groups form, and team members share what they have learned about their samples/sections. Groups then consider the implications of similarities and/or differences. The advantages of this strategy are two-fold: 1) few of us have enough multiple thin sections for all students to easily look at identical thin sections and 2) looking in detail at a few thin sections/samples and in general at a number of others gives students both the practice in detailed analysis and the experience of seeing the variability between thin sections/samples without requiring them to see all of in excruciating detail.
On many occasions, we'd like students not only to analyze a given data set but also to work with several other examples to see how they relate to one another, vary from one another, or can be combined to make a complete picture. Commonly, however, there's not enough time for students to do a complete analysis of several data sets, or it would be repetitive to have them do more than one. The jigsaw technique is a great technique to allow students to spend time analyzing one data set in depth and learn about others in less depth from a peer. The in-class activity that can be downloaded below is a good template for providing students with different data sets (in this case stratigraphic columns) for analysis during class. This particular jigsaw does not require students to prepare outside of class. The download also includes an analysis of the assignment so that it can be used as a template for designing other assignments. Download the assignment (Microsoft Word 5.7MB Jun15 05)
After having learned several techniques for measuring strain in real rocks in a structural geology course, the instructor assigns a different research article from the published literature to each of four teams. Before class, each student reads his/her article and prepares written answers to a set of questions, which the instructor collects in class. The instructor meets briefly with each team to make sure that no important points have been missed. In mixed groups, each person teaches the rest of the group about his/her article, and the group has a discussion on which articles show the best examples of 1) establishing volume loss during deformation, 2) establishing whether deformation involved pure shear, simple shear, or compound strain, 3) establishing the orientation of foliation with respect to the principal directions of the strain ellipsoid, and 4) establishing what variables appear to govern foliation development in rocks. Each person is responsible for learning enough from the other group members to then write an individual summary explaining two examples for each of the four points.
These jigsaws require students to prepare outside of class by answering specific questions in order to insure adequate student preparation. Simply asking students to read and "come prepared" rarely results in adequate preparation. The second assignment also has a specific task that asks students to plan how they will teach what they have learned. Both have interesting group assignments that tie the individual presentations together. Both take about the same amount of class time as lecturing on the topic would (even including time to check to make sure that teams do, in fact, understand what they were supposed to prepare). In both, the students draw the conclusions themselves, as opposed to being lectured to. The downloads also includes analyses of the assignments so that they can be used as templates for designing other assignments. Download assignment #1 (Microsoft Word 29kB Jun15 05) :: Download assignment #2 (Microsoft Word 41kB Jun15 05)

Benefits of the technique

  • Students have the opportunity to teach themselves, instead of having material presented to them. The technique fosters depth of understanding.
  • Each student has practice in self-teaching, which is the most valuable of all the skills we can help them learn.
  • Students have practice in peer teaching, which requires that they understand the material at a deeper level than students typically do when simply asked to produce on an exam.
  • Students "talk geology" and become more fluent in use of geological terminology.
  • Each student has a chance to contribute meaningfully to a discussion, something that is difficult to achieve in large-group discussion. Each student develops an expertise and has something important to contribute.
  • Asking each group to discuss a follow-up question after individual presentations fosters real discussion.
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