Puzzling Over the Jigsaw

Last fall, I was asked to lead a workshop at our law school on fostering student engagement in the classroom. Every legal educator is familiar with the “Socratic method” in which an instructor selects a student and asks them a series of questions about a case or the day’s reading. Most law faculty who use the Socratic method either go deep by running the Q&A with a single student for five, ten, or fifteen minutes, or they go wide by rapid-fire quizzing a lot of students with just a question or two each. Going deep has the advantage of engaging that one student in some pretty heavy critical thinking, but there’s a chance the rest of the students in the class zone out. Going wide keeps all students on their toes, but can make it hard to explore hard things through discussion.

For my workshop, I was asked to suggest other approaches to class discussion and student engagements, ones used in other disciplines that might be adapted for the law classroom. I talked about think-pair-share, peer instruction, and structured reading groups, as well as aspects of student engagement that are less about logistics, like classroom climate and microagressions. There was one logistical approach, however, that I wanted to be sure to mention, since it’s one that a lot of instructors find very useful: the jigsaw approach. Like think-pair-share, this collaborative learning technique has a simple structure that can be adapted in a variety of ways to engage students during class. I’m always a little surprised when I run into faculty who haven’t heard of jigsaw (or think-pair-share) given that I consider it one of the fundamental tools of teaching, but that happens all the time. (This is one reason we have teaching centers at colleges and universities: there are lots of faculty who haven’t been trained in teaching.)

Explaining the jigsaw always takes some doing, however. It’s not a complicated structure, but it’s one that benefits from a good visual when explaining the practice. I did a little Googling for such a visual, but didn’t find anything I really liked. There were lots of graphics that involved clip art of puzzle pieces, but nothing that really showed the structure of the activity itself. The closest I found was a graphic developed by my colleague Cynthia Brame for the teaching guide on group work she wrote a couple of years ago. I took that, added some color and some explanatory text, resulting in this:

I should probably explain the jigsaw approach at this point, now that we have a visual. Jigsaw has two rounds. In the first round, students are put into groups, with each group taking time to explore a different resource, typically a handout covering some aspect of the day’s topic or perhaps providing a particular perspective on an argument. The students in each of the Round 1 groups work together to make sense of their assigned resource, knowing that in Round 2 they’ll be tasked with explaining that resource to new, mixed groups. This provides some useful motivation for the Round 1 groups to get to work and help each other out.

When Round 2 happens, the groups are mixed so that each new group has a representative for each of the resources explored in Round 1. In the classic jigsaw approach, students teach each other what they learned in Round 1, giving each student a role and a voice in the Round 2 group discussion. I like to give students a bit more to do in Round 2, usually presenting them with some task that requires knowledge of all the Round 1 resources. This creates what’s known in the literature as interdependence, since the Round 2 groups can’t meet the task or solve their problem without everyone contributing.

Jigsaw is a “socio-emotional powerhouse,” as Jennifer Gonzales describes it on her Cult of Pedagogy blog, because of this interdependence, and it’s been shown to reduce prejudice among students. In fact, that’s why the activity was developed by Eliot Aronson and colleagues back in the 70s, in a school that was working through tensions created by desegregation. Plus, there’s all that active learning, which has been shown to improve student learning over traditional lecture. It’s such a powerful technique, and one that college and university instructors should have in their teaching toolbox.

That said, it took me two solid paragraphs to explain the basic technique, and that’s not including ways to handle variations of class size and task objectives. When I talk about this technique with faculty, it’s easy to scare them into thinking it’s a complicated teaching structure. The graphic above, I found with my law school colleagues, went a long way to making this actually-simple structure seem simple. But I thought the graphic was lacking a bit. I wanted something that could stand more on its own, in the line of the Bloom’s taxonomy graphic we developed a few years ago. (That one has been viewed over 150,000 times on Flickr!) Plus, I was asked to lead another workshop on student engagement structures for the School of Medicine earlier this month, so I knew I could use a revised graphic!

I made a few changes to the above graphic and shared the new version on Twitter, asking for feedback. Here’s what I shared:

Twitter gets a bad rap, for some very good reasons, but sometimes it really comes through. Within an hour or two, I received lots of useful feedback about this version of the graphic. Byron Philhour pointed out that the letters used (A, B, C, D) might give the impression that some groups have more expertise than others (A students versus C students). Joe Hills followed that by suggesting that I use symbols rather than letters for the Round 1 groups. Peter Newbury caught the typo in my “teaching groups” text and suggested a variety of approaches for labeling the Round 1 groups. Paul Hanstedt asked about other kinds of tasks for the Round 2 groups, besides students teaching each other, and Matt Salomone suggested some alternate titles for the Round 2 groups to reflect a wider range of tasks.

All that led to another version of the graphic, this time with playing card suits instead of letters labeling the Round 1 groups. As Kylie Korsnack pointed out, a teacher can actually use playing cards to sort students into groups, first by suit, then by card value. The text on this version of the graphic is the same, since I was still thinking about names for the two types of groups at this time.

I’m not crazy about playing card suits, however. Hearts and spades look too much alike, and why are clubs named “clubs”? These are things I think about when playing card games, which is why I usually lose card games. And, as Peter Newbury pointed out, card suits are not culturally universal. I tried another version with some elemental icons I found on Game-icons.net:

I like the look of this version, and I can see calling the groups “Team Fire” and “Team Earth” and so on. But, as much as I’m into board games, the feedback from Twitter was that something more straightforward was called for.

Meanwhile, Bonni Stachowiak noted that “expert groups” is perhaps not the best term for the Round 1 groups. Are the students assumed to be experts? Do the different groups represent different levels of expertise? Matt Salomone chimed in again with useful naming suggestions, one of which I incorporated in the final version of the graphic. And Matthew Winslow provided me some citations for the origin of the jigsaw approach, and shared his personal connection: Eliot Aronson was an adviser of his years ago.

All this input led to the final version of my jigsaw graphic, now available on the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching’s Flickr account under a Creative Commons Attribution license:

In labeling the groups, I chose perhaps the simplest and clearest option: just numbers. While one might implement jigsaw groups with playing cards, explaining the teaching activity seems easier with numbered groups. For the names of the two rounds, I went with “focus groups” (Matt Salomone’s suggestion) and “task groups.” These names and the text that goes with them is inclusive of the original “teaching groups” approach for jigsaws, but opens the door for the kind of Round 2 problems that Paul Hanstedt mentioned, while avoiding the potentially problematic term “expert.” And I included a citation at the bottom, with the full reference in the notes on the Flickr page.

I’m happy with the result. It does as much in a single image as I think one can do toward explaining the jigsaw. It doesn’t handle variations of the approach, including different class sizes, but those are easier to explain once the “perfect” case of sixteen students makes sense. A short video could handle more of this explanation, and, indeed, Jennifer “Cult of Pedagogy” Gonzalez has a great six-minute video about jigsaw that does more than this graphic can do.

I don’t know if this jigsaw graphic will hit 150,000 views on Flickr anytime soon, but I know I’ll use it as my go-to in workshops. And it’s inspired Cynthia Brame to update the other graphics in her teaching guide on group work, so we now have similar graphics for think-pair-share and peer instruction. Thanks to all those who chimed in on Twitter, those mentioned above as well as those not, for helping me improve this graphic! Feel free to use it in your own educational development work, and let me know if it comes in handy.


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