Jigsaw activity

Jigsaw activity diagram from https://itali.uq.edu.au/files/3077/Resources-teaching-methods-jigsawtechnique.pdf

What is it?

Each student within a ‘home group’ focuses on a separate segment of a given concept or unit of learning. They convene into temporary ‘expert groups’ to develop their ideas before returning to teach that segment reciprocally to the other members of their home group. There is a final knowledge test of the combined segments in which individual students may receive an average group mark as well as an individual mark.

The main difference between Jigsaw and conventional teaching is that responsibility for teaching a concept is divided among individual students instead of the educator – students teach themselves and teach others. The main difference from conventional group work is that students are members of two groups.

Jigsaw has its origins in addressing hostilities in desegregated US schools. In 1971 psychologist Elliot Aronson observed that academic competition was exacerbating longstanding suspicion, fear and distrust; in response he and his graduate students designed a learning activity with cooperative incentives.

Why do it?

Jigsaw is designed to bring out individual effort, responsibility and accountability as students learn the course material well enough to teach it to others. Because each student’s area of responsibility is well-defined, they can more clearly understand their own individual impact as group members. The more each student contributes to the activity, the more likely they are to achieve their collective goals within the group.

It can be an effective way of learning foundational knowledge in circumstances where students tend not to do the preparatory tasks in advance of the session.

In her action research study Sarah Honeychurch (2012) found that Philosophy students who had undertaken her jigsaw activity ‘consistently outperformed’ other students, according to her external assessor. One of her students fed back that the technique helped with “… covering
a lot of ground in the very limited time span that is available for tutorials. Due to the fact that everyone was encouraged to contribute at some point, the discussion usually involved more people than in other tutorials that didn’t use this format”.

It has particular benefits for students from under-represented backgrounds (American Psychological Association, 2003).

How to set it up

Before the session:

  1. Decide how to allocate students into equal groups, ideally of five or six. Let’s call these ‘home groups’. Allocate purposefully, aiming for as much diversity as possible within the groups.
  2. Select the task which and divide it into the same number of segments as there are students in each group. The task could be a long reading divided into sections (e.g. introduction, methods, results and discussion), or a phenomenon with different facets (e.g. main attributes of democracy in different states’ governments).
  3. Decide whether to allocate students a particular segment or give them a little time to decide amongst themselves.
  4. Prepare a test which addresses every facet.
  5. Set up the environment so that groups can break out into groups together.

During the session:

  1. Introduce students to the activity including the benefits.
  2. Allocate students into their home groups.
  3. Appoint one student as chair of this home group – their role will be to keep time and manage questions and answers.
  4. Allocate a different segment of the task to each student in the home group, and let them know that they will be expected to teach that segment to their fellow group members.
  5. Each student learns their segment, working individually at this stage. Give students some time to familiarise themselves with their allocated material – this may take 10-15 minutes.
  6. Next divide students into ‘expert groups’ comprising all students who have prepared the same segment. In other words, each expert group has at least one student from each of the home groups.
  7. Ask all members of the expert group to discuss their segment (which everyone in the expert group has in common), preparing to return to their home group and teach that material. Prompt them to compare ideas, address gaps, resolve misconceptions, surface differences of opinion and organise their thoughts into a clear, coherent presentation. This may take 15-20 minutes.
  8. Students then disperse from their expert groups back to their home groups and each present their segment to their home group members, teaching each other and discussing their questions until they have learned the whole topic. Prompt students to examine relationships between the different segments.
  9. Finally students complete an individual test. As well as an individual mark, the quality of the group work could be recognised in the form of a group mark averaged from the individual marks.

The steps above are illustrated by this video by Jennifer Gonzalez:


The role of the educator is to prepare the segments and the test and to check learning by listening in at the group stage. In your introduction, address skepticism about students’ ability to successfully teach each other, and talk about the work that you as educator have done to prepare the activity.

Brief the chair. You may want to give an order of presentations, and let them know that the activity will be more effective if all students present before the question and answer stage.

Ideally all groups will have an equal number of students – large enough to absorb absences but not so large that the teaching stage is hurried. But if there are absences on the day, you can allocate students from the depleted groups to other groups, and double up on a segment which you think may be difficult or challenging for one student alone.

The expert groups are an important opportunity to deepen each student’s understanding. Ask the expert group to ensure that each member is prepared to teach their group and give extra support to any member who is struggling.

The final test can take the form of a Moodle Quiz incorporating feedback. Students can be asked to complete this at the end of the session or the beginning of the next one, to consolidate learning.

Giving a group mark for the test helps to emphasise the interdependence of group members.

In Jigsaw, students individually learn their segment during the session, which is one way to ensure that they do the learning but which is costly in terms of time. If you reach a stage where you can rely on your students to do preparatory work before a session, you could experiment with asking them to learn their segment in advance. This would allow you to begin the Jigsaw at the ‘expert groups’ stage. Students who have not done that preparation could be grouped separately and allocated segments to learn during the session, or asked to study the entire concept, before then discussing it with each other without the expert group stage. However, you would need to monitor this carefully since it may be received by students as licence to not do the preparatory work.

Examples and resources

  • A video of Chris Browne and his students at the Australian National University discussing a Jigsaw for systems engineering.
  • As a Philosophy GTA at the University of Glasgow, Sarah Honeychurch (2012)


  • American Psychological Association, 2003. How to Build a Better Educational System: Jigsaw Classrooms. https://www.apa.org/research/action/jigsaw .
  • Honeychurch, S., 2012. Taking forward the jigsaw classroom: the development and implementation of a method of collaborative learning for first year philosophy tutorials. Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophical and Religious Studies, 11 (2).
  • Science Education Resource Centre, Carleton College, undated. Why use cooperative learning? https://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/cooperative/whyuse.html .
  • Social Psychology Network, 2000-2019. The Jigsaw Classroom. https://www.jigsaw.org/ .

Image source: Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland.


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