The Higher Education Puzzle

Updated article originally published March 6, 2018.

Understanding a complex field of study is often like assembling a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. At first, students may be able to identify the foundational corners and build a border of theoretical knowledge. However, comprehending the minutiae of the subject may feel like staring into a jumble of jigsaw pieces (e.g., lectures, readings, and practicums) that will not fit together.

In these instances, it may be useful to think about the nature of academic knowledge-building processes. In higher education, graduate-level expertise and beyond is established through both a general foundation of the field as a whole, and a much more nuanced comprehensiveness towards a small sub-field or topic. In contrast, undergraduate courses typically cover a much greater topical scope.

But how does this approach translate into the classroom?

Starting with the Corners: Strategizing Learning

The answer to building towards expertise may be with the jigsaw learning strategy, which is a cooperative teaching method premised on supporting students in effectively learning a concept. This method helps a student become an expert on a single sub-category and then transfer knowledge to their peers, who are experts on other aspects of the topic. More specifically, the jigsaw learning strategy works in this way:

  1. Identify and group students into a concept area with 4-6 subtopics. In a course such as sensory processing, some concepts to group students in may include auditory, visual, olfactory, vestibular, and touch sensations.
  2. Assign each group member a subtopic. In this example, students within the visual processing group will become experts on subcategories such as stimulation, transduction, transmission, and perception. Unlike traditional group work, students will initially develop expertise on their subcategory through independent research and study. Each student may also be required to complete topic-specific assignments and keep a learning blog.
  3. Have students participate in a content consultation with experts from other groups. Subcategory content experts, such as those focusing on transduction stages, will consult with peers from other groups focusing on the same topic. This allows students to learn about how their process works in other categories, while discussing strategies on how to best teach the information to their respective teams.
  4. Encourage internal group presentation. With each member now an expert in their respective subcategories, teams will put the whole puzzle together by presenting their research to each other.
  5. Assign class presentations. Now that each team understands each aspect of their topic, they will present their findings to the entire class for reflection and discussion.

While jigsaw strategies require considerable planning and effort, they are useful strategies for students who are learning complex topics. In theory, the students are provided all the pieces, and by focusing on their corner, they can put together the whole picture. This approach works for both in person and remote learning.

Assessing the Jigsaw Strategy

Understanding the effectiveness of a jigsaw approach requires the consideration of two aspects: (1) its application as a collaborative learning instructional strategy and (2) how students feel about this practice. An article published in the Journal of Educational and Social Research directly engages with these two questions through a research project on achievement of second-year undergraduate students using the framework.

The results from this study were overwhelmingly in favor of the jigsaw strategy. Students in the experiential group showed greater success on the tests, and importantly, they felt positively about the cooperative approach to their own learning. The researchers found that all types of students (even those shy about sharing their opinions), benefitted from the environment that stems from jigsaw. Given this finding, the jigsaw approach may be considered as a way to motivate disengaged students. The researchers suggest that the approach be used mid- to late semester, and that instructors participate in training programs to properly facilitate the method.

Consider the Researcher

As a final note, it is useful to think of the ways the jigsaw approach would be beneficial for instructors who are also researchers. Having students deeply probe sub-fields may be a learning process for instructors, as it could be an area instructors, as generalists, do not have a high familiarity with. Thus, the jigsaw is not only student preferred, but helpful in case the instructor’s knowledge has a few missing pieces.

Read more on creativity and innovation in the classroom

  • Student standing outside with books

    Do Open Book Tests Deserve a Comeback?

  • Student and instructor reviewing educational materials

    Collaboration in Curriculum Design

  • Person in front of chalkboard, books in one hand, mobile device in the other

    Balancing Technology and Tradition in the Classroom