Why Use Jigsaws

Initial Publication Date: March 24, 2009
jigsaw puzzle pieces 2
The jigsaw technique was developed and named in 1971 at the University of Texas, Austin by Elliot Aronson (more info) as a way for students in recently desegregated schools in Austin to interact in the classroom in a way that would reduce suspicion and distrust. Aronson has since written widely on the jigsaw technique, focusing on the benefits of jigsaw for reducing hateful behavior and increasing cooperation in the classroom. Since the 1970s, other educators have adopted and adapted jigsaw for use in a wide variety of classroom, lab, and field situations at all levels from grade school to graduate education. The benefits of the technique clearly extend beyond more positive student interactions.

Research results

Effectiveness of cooperative learning techniques in general

In cooperative learning, students work with their peers to accomplish a shared or common goal, and jigsaw is one type of cooperative learning structure. Research over the past several decades shows overwhelmingly that well-structured cooperative learning is beneficial for students in terms of engagement, achievement (especially with respect to reasoning skills), and enjoyment. The Pedagogy in Action Module on Cooperative Learning has an excellent summary of research results on the value of cooperative learning in general.

Effectiveness of jigsaw in particular

Cooperative learning works well when 1) students are interdependent in a positive way, 2) individuals are accountable, 3) students interact to promote student learning, 4) groups use good teamwork skills, and 5) students have an opportunity for analyzing how well their groups are functioning (Johnson and Johnson, 1999; Johnson et al., 1998; Slavin, 1991, 1996).

The first three components are inherent in the way that a well-constructed jigsaw functions.

  • Each student must not only be involved in peer teaching in a mixed group but also must help others in the group learn in order for the group to be able to carry out the group synthesis/analysis task (1 and 3 above).
  • Success in the group task requires individuals to be accountable, to interact to promote peer learning, and to depend upon each other in positive ways (2 above).

The fourth and fifth components of successful cooperative learning are not inherent in the jigsaw structure but can be addressed by the instructor in a variety of ways, including starting with lower stakes interactions early in the semester and setting aside time for students to reflect on what is working and what isn't.

A number of studies have documented effective use of jigsaw in a variety of types of classes: undergraduate statistics (Perkins and Saris, 2001), undergraduate biology lab (Colosi and Zales, 1998), undergraduate psychology (Carroll, 1986), prospective elementary school teachers (Wedman, 1996; Artut and Tarim, 2007), undergraduate geology (Tewksbury, 1995), and project-based computational science and engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy (Burkhardt and Turner, 2001).

Two critical ideas emerge from research on jigsaw:
  • The jigsaw structure produces long-term learning gains when the group engages in a culminating analytical group task that requires actively using all team members' contributions for a group analysis or problem-solving task (Michaelson et al., 1997).
  • If group members only have to interact to learn what individual students know, rewarding the group for the successful performance of individuals in the group seems to be necessary to produce more than marginal increases in student achievement (Slavin, 1996).
For these reasons, the jigsaws described in this Pedagogy in Action module emphasize the importance of a culminating group problem-solving task.

Overall benefits of the jigsaw technique

  • Students are directly engaged with the material, instead of having material presented to them, which fosters depth of understanding.
  • Students gain practice in self-teaching, which is one of the most valuable skills we can help them learn.
  • Students gain practice in peer teaching, which requires them to understand the material at a deeper level than students typically do when simply asked to produce on an exam.
  • During a jigsaw, students speak the language of the discipline and become more fluent in the use of discipline-based terminology.
  • Each student develops an expertise and has something important to contribute to the group.
  • Each student also has a chance to contribute meaningfully to a discussion, something that is more difficult to achieve in large-group discussion.
  • The group task that follows individual peer teaching promotes discussion, problem-solving, and learning.
  • Jigsaw encourages cooperation and active learning and promotes valuing all students' contributions.
  • Jigsaw can be an efficient cooperative learning strategy. Although the jigsaw assignment takes time in class, the instructor does not need to spend as much time lecturing about the topic. If planned well, the overall time commitment to using the jigsaw technique during class can be comparable to lecturing about a topic.