Spotlight on Teaching & Learning: Jigsaw

July 28, 2020

Are you considering ways to promote student interaction and engagement in your fall courses? There are numerous evidence-based teaching strategies that support student learning and facilitate connections to course content and among peers. One strategy, the “Jigsaw," is a collaborative learning technique that was recently discussed by Berkeley faculty colleagues attending one of this month's Remote Teaching Circles.

What is it?

In small groups, students discuss a specific topic and develop an approach for teaching the topic to their peers. The groups then mix: the original student groups break up and form new groups, where each student is an expert in a different topic. Jigsaws are particularly useful for engaging students with course material and with their peers.

How might it support student learning?

This collaborative learning technique helps to engage all students in their learning by motivating students to learn a topic or skill well enough to demonstrate it and teach it to their peers. Jigsaw is “also an efficient strategy for extending the breadth, depth, and scope of learning because students learn and teach multiple topics simultaneously during the same class session” (Barkeley, Cross and Major, 2014). By structuring small group discussions and assignment deliverables, Jigsaw as a collaborative learning tool also helps to foster a welcoming and equitable learning experience for students (Theobald et al. 2017).

What might a Jigsaw look like in your course? Consider the vignettes below for some examples.

Vignette 1: Students summarize international relations theories 

In a Political Science course, students are tasked with forming small groups and reading a brief summary of one of the following international relations theories - realism, liberalism, or constructivism. Students have about 15 minutes to read their assigned summary, identify key takeaways and assumptions related to their specific theory, and discuss how they plan to communicate this information to a small group of their peers in 5 minutes.

Students are then tasked with forming a new Jigsaw group and are given about 5 minutes per person to give an overview of their assigned theory. After each student has shared their expertise, student groups are encouraged to ask their peers clarifying questions and identify emerging patterns and themes across the three theories.

Vignette 2: Students explore and compare soils 

A Professor teaching an introductory course in Soil Science is trying to think of a way to help students synthesize the different information of key traits pertaining to specific kinds of soil in a synchronous environment. When teaching this course in person, the Professor would hand out different kinds of soil for students to feel with their hands and for students to discuss and observe differences across soils in small groups. Inspired by their “usual” approach to teaching, the Professor decides to leverage a structured Jigsaw activity to focus students’ learning on a specific kind of soil, and then ask them to compare soil samples readily available to them.

Prior to the Zoom session, the Professor organizes two types of student groups in a spreadsheet: student expert groups organized by soil topic, and then Jigsaw groups that mix up student experts and topics. The Professor begins class by giving an overview of what was covered in the unit up until now, and then tasks students with the following:

  • Students will be put into breakout rooms and assigned a specific type of soil. Students will review the key characteristics of their assigned soil and ask each other clarification questions.

  • While in breakout rooms, students will find and collect a soil sample nearest to them (in or outside of the current physical space) (Note: remember that soil includes sand, clay, silt, chalk, and other variations). Students will upload a picture of their soil samples to bCourse and discuss differences between their samples and their assigned soil type with their group.

  • Student groups will collaborate to develop a bCourse page (under Module #2) dedicated to their assigned soil type. Each page should include a brief overview of the assigned soil type, pictures of available soil samples, and a brief discussion of how these soil samples differ from the assigned soil type.

  • Students will be put into new Jigsaw groups via Zoom breakout rooms and asked to present their bCourse page to their peers.

Vignette 3: Students gain expertise in three key areas for community development

A Professor of Arts Management wants students to have a deep understanding of the reciprocal nature between developing community-based projects and the social, economic, and political standing of a community. To be successful in the field, the Professor thinks it’s crucial for young scholars to inform their project designs with knowledge of these three key areas as they pertain to a community, and then to predict and mitigate the ways in which a resulting project might negatively impact the community.

To accomplish this learning objective, the Professor assigns student groups to different neighborhoods in the same city and tasks student groups with researching the social, economic, or political (historical and contemporary) standing of their assigned neighborhood community. Student groups work independently, outside of class time, over several weeks to put together a neighborhood portfolio that focuses on their assigned key area (i.e., social, economic, or political). The professor checks in with each student group before asking students to  present components of their portfolios to the class throughout the semester as the Professor covers topics related to a key area. At the end of the course, students form new small groups to present their fully developed neighborhood portfolios to their peers. The Professor adds questions on the final exam related to students’ portfolios, including short answer questions that require students to draw connections across the social, economic, and political standing of their assigned neighborhood communities.

Resources for further reading

Aronson, Elliot.(2000) The jigsaw classroom. Retrieved from

Barkley, Elizabeth F., K. Patricia Cross, and Clair H. Major. (2014) Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass. (available online and downloadable through the UC Berkeley Library; includes adaptations for synchronous and asynchronous instruction).

Theobald, Elli J., Sarah L. Eddy, Daniel Z. Grunspan, Benjamin L. Wiggins, and Alison J. Crowe. (2017) “Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter.” PLoS one, 12(7): e0181336.