Keeping up with the conversation: The jigsaw

The first strategy of a five-part post about discussion strategies.

These five strategies will help students to improve small-group communication while also allowing them to synthesize important course content in large-group discussions.

It is appropriate and fair to see setting up discussions as one of the most difficult instructional strategies in our lessons. The easiest way to do it is to just pose questions to students. The downfall, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, is that we tend to have frequent high-flyers in the discussion, which lets many others fly under the radar. This post offers the first of four different discussion strategies that can be used to (1) hold students accountable for their learning, (2) improve small group communication and culture, (3) integrate different types of learning styles, and (4) promote student ownership of their learning. This series’s fifth and final post will be about keeping track of the discussion and appropriately evaluating discussions.

The four different types of discussions I will share include: (1) Jigsaw, (2) Fishbowl, (3) Speed Dating, and (4) Affinity Mapping. Beyond explaining each type of discussion, I offer (a) what you (and sometimes students) need to do to prepare, (b) what students need to do as part of the discussion – their engagement with the lesson, and (c) what type of reflection could be used to conclude the discussion.

Jigsaw Discussions

What is it?

A jigsaw discussion utilizes multiple variations of small groups to help students discuss topics, teach one another, and synthesize information. As the name implies, the goal of a jigsaw is to help students collectively put pieces together to find a solution/answer.


A jigsaw discussion requires work on our part. We have to very intricately think about timing, purpose, form, and function when we plan out the use of a jigsaw. You will need to do the following questions:

  • What do you want students to know?
  • What do you want students to connect?
  • What do you want students to take away?

Answering those three questions will help guide your step-by-step preparation.

  • STEP 1: Divide your class up as evenly as you can. Ideally, you have a manageable number, like 25, with five groups of five students. You want to have an equal number of students to the number of groups.
  • STEP 2: Based on the number of groups you have, divide up parts of what you want students to know. For example, maybe you want students to learn certain words. Hence, you give each group a word. Or possibly there are different perspectives from which you want them to interrogate the information, such as a politician, a community member, a journalist, a teacher, and more. This initial stage will help students lay the groundwork. You also need to keep time in mind as you develop this lesson. I will note why in the next step.
  • STEP 3: Be prepared that this step will get messy. Regarding the activity, students will end up reorganizing themselves into groups with ONE person from each original group. They go from sharing one knowledge base to connecting and synthesizing it. Preparing for this step requires you to consider how you will guide students to share the information from their first groups with this group. And this is where timing is essential.
    • The goal is to get students to teach one another the content they just developed in the first group. Students will need to have prompts and questions to guide them in their discussion. Here are some possibilities:
      • What did you learn?
      • How does what you learned in your small group contribute to our topic?
      • How did your group arrive at that learning?
      • What did you exclude to arrive at your conclusions?
      • Why did you find certain elements essential to share?
    • They will also need time limits.
      • Depending on what students will be sharing with one another, you will want to be conscientious of time. Some sharing may only be two minutes a student, but others may be four or five minutes per student.
      • When you decide how much time you give each student, you need to mathematically map out how much that will take.
      • If you allow the first groups to take the bulk of your class time, you won’t have enough time for this activity. You may have to consider extending it to two class sessions.
  • STEP 4: Plan for synthesis. How can the students then connect all this information to find practical takeaways? I plan out this step in two parts: (a) small group and (b) whole group. What connections can they make in their small group, and what can they bring back to the whole group?

Students, on the other hand, will only need to come to class having read/watched/listened to whatever you assigned them to do. The bulk of their energy will be dedicated to the actual engagement activity.


The day of the jigsaw discussion, depending if you’ve done one previously, will be an exciting one. Students will be able to work diligently with many of their peers while also getting a quick break in the middle of the lesson to move (got to love that kinesthetic approach!). Here is how a jigsaw lesson would be structured:

  1. TO START: Introduce the jigsaw activity as a whole by letting students know (1) what the goals of the lesson are, (2) how the jigsaw will be structured, and (3) how students will move through the lesson. Explain that you will go through the activity in small steps but want them to know how the overarching activity will go.
  2. FIRST GROUPS: Either break students up into the first groups yourself (prepare this in advance) or allow students to break into groups based on a number you’ve decided. If I do a jigsaw early in the semester, I’ll often let students pick their groups so they are initially with people they are comfortable with. The later in the term I hold a jigsaw, the more likely I am to make the groups mix up ability levels, friendships, and other forms of representation.
  3. DISCUSS: Give the groups their individual tasks. I give students five minutes to work through their tasks independently, and then I have them discuss the task with their group mates. However, you can skip that and go directly to the small group discussion. Make sure you give students a time limit as well. It may help to put a timer on the projector screen (if you can) to help them hold their discussion time accountable.
  4. SECOND GROUPS: I have students count off in their small groups. I then use those numbers to make the second set of groups. Have students move into these groups.
  5. DISCUSS: Explain the task to students once they’ve settled into these groups. It will help to keep the instructions visible to them the entire time, so they can reference them. This should have more time dedicated to it. I have managed this in different ways. Sometimes I will put a timer up for the whole discussion, or I will put a short timer up so that individual students can stay on track. Making this decision should be based on your class culture and how students operate with time management.


Now bring students together as a whole class and provide them with two or three questions (preferably one at a time) that help them to (1) draw connections, (2) identify key takeaways, and (3) metacognitively think about what they did in class.

Depending on the time I have left, I may only get through the first part: draw connections. If that is the case, I ask students to either provide an exit ticket for the other two or those two become a reflection assignment they electronically submit later that evening.

2 responses to “Keeping up with the conversation: The jigsaw”

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